Tuesday 28 January 2014

Save before generating

Uninsulated gable end wall, 1960s flats
at Austin Close, Frome, Somerset
It is good news that local communities will be supported to develop renewable energy generation schemes if the profits are to be used effectively to reduce energy demand. There are, however, major problems with most of our housing stock that are not being acknowledged by the construction industry, the green deal tick boxes or government, such as incomplete and badly installed insulation, including cavity wall insulation. There is also a substantial pre 1970s housing stock constructed of dense concrete blocks that the Government does not include in its 'hard to heat' homes categories (which it seems to think is confined to older solid walled properties). Much of this concrete-block housing was built as council housing and a lot of it is still occupied by social housing tenants on low incomes. There is usually an uninsulated concrete slab floor (= penetrating cold),  the walls don't "breathe", the cavities are narrow and difficult to fill, and once sealed in with double glazing these properties suffer badly from condensation and mould. Residents get blamed for the latter, when it is the construction that is the issue. A response (recently seen in one property) is to make a hole in the wall for ventilation - which means a constant blast of cold air and higher heating bills. Very few people, including those in charge of managing social housing properties, have a good understanding of what measures are needed to reduce heating bills and take people out of fuel poverty in this type of property. It isn't  solar panels that are needed, but training schemes and skilled people who will design and oversee projects to make houses warmer while using less energy.
Uninsulated sections of a property that have received
cavity wall insulation (blue). Condensation occurs
in these areas (see below), with consequent rapid growth
of mould - a serious environmental health problem.
This situation is experienced in many houses, especially
those built of impermeable dense concrete blocks, but it is also
being found in more recently-built (e.g. 1980s) houses.

My colleague Paul Buckingham and I, and many other contributors to Green Building Magazine, know that there are few builders who are competent to do the necessary work to an appropriate standard, and that green deal assessments are too superficial, just like the ridiculous Energy Performance Certificates. The one done for my house was completed by someone who didn't even visit it and who failed to record cavity wall insulation and a condensing boiler had been installed. This meant I had to complain to the issuing company, which subsequently had to redo the assessment. Similarly, I am now claiming under my Cavity Wall Insulation guarantee - as we have found installation has been incomplete - with large unfilled gaps found during our own survey of the property.

Investment into making homes warmer is far more of a priority than generating energy, and I am not convinced that profits from community renewables will be sufficient to unlock enough cash to address the mountains that have to be climbed to achieve energy-efficient housing in Britain. Another option could have been to use Quantitative Easing cash for this purpose, something my colleague Ken Neal has been pushing for. By this means money would be circulated within the local economy with multiplier effects (rather than being given to banks and effecting further increases in house prices).
Mould growing where condensation is occurring on the 'cold' bridge
which is the wall area above the soffits and under the roofline. This is a tenanted house privately owned. In this case the landlord is taking the problem seriously and engaging Paul and a local builder to do remedial work. This will involve taking two rows of tiles off the roof, removing the cavity wall closer, filling the cavity with vermiculite and placing insulation above the soffit on the outside wall. Loft insulation will also be increased and will link up with the new insulation, to effectively remove the existing cold bridge. Active mechanical ventilation will also be installed in the kitchen and bathroom to reduce the quantity of water vapour in the house. In an ideal situation the use of a heat recovery ventilation system would be better, such as the Lo Carbon Tempra kit that I have installed in my own kitchen. This will all help. However, the ideal would be a complete and comprehensive whole house audit and eco refurb but most landlords and house owners are not prepared for either the cost or the upheaval involved.

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