Housing stock and energy efficiency: What has changes in 11 years?

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by Simon Storer, Chief Executive

I was recently sent an article I wrote in February 2009 about boosting the energy efficiency of housing stock and the essential first step being the low-tech approach of ensuring good roof and wall insulation, how disappointing to learn that 11 years later very little has changed when it comes to ensuring our homes are climate-ready.

With the UK facing a catastrophically weakened economy post-COVID-19, the immediate priorities will not only be the NHS and sustaining jobs and livelihoods, but must also be tackling the climate change threat. The response to the coronavirus emergency has at best been slow and very patchy – very similar to the way we have addressed the climate change emergency since I first wrote this article.  However, now must be the time for us to radically rethink how we address the climate change challenge, otherwise we will be in the same situation in 2031 when an even bigger crisis grips the planet, because the government once again fails to address the problem staring it in the face.

Eleven years ago, we were constantly fed the message that global warming is the biggest threat to humankind that any of us was ever likely to experience. The government at the time had passed ground-breaking legislation through the climate change bill, setting the target of at least an 80 per cent reduction from its 1990 levels by the year 2050. The message in 2020 is the same, but the UK target was revised to carbon neutrality by 2050.  But in the intervening years very little has happened and is littered with broken promises about housing numbers and failed energy performance schemes, such as the Code for Sustainable Homes and the scrapped Zero Carbon Homes policy.

Low-tech solutions

There was no magic bullet in 2009 and there isn’t one now, but there is considerably more that could and should be done to reduce energy usage. In Europe, about 40% of the energy used is in buildings and up to 60% of that comes from heating and cooling, with much of that energy coming from the burning of fossil fuels.  Installing high performing insulants such as PIR into our buildings (which are currently amongst the least energy efficient in Europe) is one of the simplest and most cost-effective ways to reduce energy demand and cut CO2.

Unless a building is properly insulated it will never meet the energy performance standards necessary for the UK’s net zero carbon targets. Other aspects of the design and materials of a building also play a part in its overall performance and this must be recognised by the government in its latest initiative: Future Homes Standard, which will apply to all new homes from 2025.

Balancing aspiration with reality is always an enormous challenge when dealing with political initiatives and the latest government policy is no different. For instance, the Future Homes Standard plans to ban fossil fuels from domestic heating from 2025, without undue additional cost to the householder. But with just five years to achieve this, just saying ‘it is to be so’ is not enough. The government must introduce a comprehensive plan of action if they are to achieve the target.

What is more achievable and therefore more reliable in the context of energy performance, is to ensure the installation of high quality, highly thermally efficient PIR insulation. If homes and buildings are to become more energy efficient, good insulation is fundamental to off-setting increasing energy costs. With a clear emphasis on the design of a building’s envelope, the versatility and benefits of PIR and PUR insulation come into their own when professionally and correctly installed, whether that be for new buildings or refurbishment projects.

When we emerge from the current crisis, the clock will still be ticking and we must ensure that economic stimulus packages do not compound the climate problem, but instead keep us on a path to meeting our legally-binding climate change targets. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that people can change their behaviour. Hopefully some good could come of it.

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