Cold is not the whole story – what the health services need to know about housing

An AECB consultation response

This document was written in response to a NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) 2014 consultation on producing guidelines for health authorities on tackling excess winter deaths and illnesses. It was written (mainly) by me, on behalf of the AECB, teaming up with Severn Wye Energy Agency and the STBA (Sustainable Traditional Buildings Alliance) – who also contributed information.

While at the time of this consultation the deleterious impact of cold living conditions on health were well known – prompting the consultation – poor indoor air quality was less discussed.

Yet of course, air quality can be very poor in cold homes: people will block out any draughts they can – including the intended fresh air supply from a ventilation fan or vent – especially if they are in fuel poverty. This only increases the risk of condensation and mould – already high in a dwelling with cold, uninsulated surfaces. And more and more evidence is piling up of just how bad mould in particular is for people’s health and wellbeing. Continue reading

Electric Heating – time to come in from the cold?

While there are well-established technologies to produce electricity without fossil fuels, decarbonisation of heat is struggling to get under way. Recommended strategies include expansion of low carbon networked heat and possibly the decarbonisation of gas – though these are still only happening at a scale (and with dubious carbon credentials, see PH+ Iss 15 – district heating). However, the commonest proposed means for decarbonising heat is via electrification.

Electrification of heat raises a number of questions about the ability of our power systems to produce enough low carbon electricity and their capacity to transmit it.  But it also represents something of a u-turn in building services design. Continue reading

District Heating – does it work with Passivhaus?

Cost effective district heating schemes need a nice dense energy demand. They also involve a lot of circulating hot water, which with the best will in the world, is going to involve continuous heat loss. Highly-insulated low energy buildings need very little heat – and in the summer, heat gains can be a positive menace.

So can the two work together? I explored the question a bit in this article for Passive House Plus – downloadable here as a pdf.

District Heating – does it work in Passivhaus?

Deep retrofit – the big prize?

Simple home energy efficiency improvements (such as new boilers, cavity wall insulation etc) can bring valuable comfort and health benefits to the occupants of inefficient homes – especially those in fuel poverty – as the last article revealed (see here). However, energy, carbon and bill savings tend to be modest, rarely topping 15% or 20% – and sometimes energy use actually increases!

If housing is to contribute its share of the 80% cuts in carbon emissions this country is committed to, in order to play is part in tackling climate change, retrofits will need to go deeper – a lot deeper. But will occupants benefit from the extra work? And is it affordable?

In the first part of this article we looked at the damage fuel poverty and cold homes do to occupants’ health, and found good evidence that when these twin evils were tackled, occupants could enjoy measurable improvements in their health. Encouragingly, some local health bodies are recognising this and investing in home retrofit to help improve people’s health.

Continue reading

Fixing fuel poverty – is there a healthier way?

Fuel poverty causes misery and ill-health – and alleviating fuel poverty by retrofitting homes could potentially offer valuable savings to the health services. However, different approaches to retrofit are likely to have different impacts on health.

The first in this two-part series, published in Green Building in December 2014, looks at how cold, damp homes can harm people’s heath, and at the evidence to date that retrofit can improve matters.  It also explores some pioneering efforts by concerned health organisations to tackle the ill health of their vulnerable patients where it starts – by fixing their cold homes.

The second part, due to be published in Spring 2015, will look a little more closely at different retrofit strategies, and the risks and benefits to occupants – and to the buildings themselves.

PDF download: Fuel poverty and health – Part 1

Continue reading

Why I think retrofit needs to move off energy bills and on to general taxation

Like many others, I am horrified that the government has scaled back aspects of the Energy Company Obligation mid-programme. You can read about some of the immediate, alarming consequences of this in a report from Inside Housing here.

However, as I’ve said before, it seems to me that long-term  it makes little sense to restrict the national retrofit programme to what can be funded via a charge on energy bills. In summary, this is why:

  • Retrofit is about more than energy bills, it’s about health, education, social welfare and common decency. And about energy security and cutting emissions.
  • Because of the state of our housing and therefore, the scale of the need, a high spend is required.
  • Because of the scale and the range of the benefits, a major retrofit programme would bring tangible revenue savings to a range of bodies such as those tasked with improving economic, health, social welfare and educational outcomes, and delivering on our carbon targets.
  • Paying for retrofit through energy bills is regressive, hitting the poorest proportionally hardest, even at current spending levels.
  • The scale of the spending needs to expand many-fold. This would ramp up the regressiveness. In effect, every household, including the poorest,  would be paying a substantial chunk of the costs for NHS, social welfare etc via their energy bills. This is not only likely to be politically untenable, it also undermines the accepted approach to progressive taxation in this country.
  • The creation of a third party obligation, ‘leaving it to the market’ to decide what to deliver on the basis of a very simplified understanding of costs and benefits, cuts informed stakeholders out of the equation. It excludes them from them any meaningful say over priorities, responsiveness to changing needs, and quality of interventions.
  • It also ignores the ‘beneficiary pays’ principle: health, education and welfare budgets would all benefit considerably, on the back of bill payers.

*The ECO recognises only two parameters of benefit, presumed carbon savings (calculated via RdSAP), and “affordability” again, calculated via RdSAP.

 

Biomass: the heat is on – column in CIBSE journal

An opinion piece I co-wrote with Sofie Pelsmakers (author of The Environmental Design Pocketbook) appears in the February 2013 issue of the CIBSE Journal.

We look at the carbon footprint from biomass burning (high, even according to DECC) and point out the unintended consequences of well-intentioned planning requirements for ‘renewables’ and ‘sustainability’ –  that lead to biomass plant eating up the budget, efficiency being sidelined, and CO2 emissions being high instead of low.

Read the article here: Biomass – the heat is on

Sofie and I also wrote a longer version for the AECB ‘Soapbox’ column – here:

Biomass heat: facing the carbon reality

Electricity Demand Reduction – response to DECC

DECC recently ran a consultation on electricity demand reduction (closed January 31st, 2013). I worked with David Olivier and other AECB members to help to compile the AECB’s response, which can be read/downloaded here -with kind permission of the AECB.

Electricity Demand Reduction – AECB response to DECC

The response drew in particular on AECB’s report Less is More, which also informed the short article on energy efficiency I posted on this site earlier.