Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Transition to sustainable building - does government policy help or hinder?

Following up on our previous blog posts (here) about green and sustainable building, this post describes a paper we’ve recently had published in Geoforum and which can be downloaded for *free* until the end of February 2015 (here).

Our paper explores recent changes which the UK government has made to how new buildings are encouraged to be ‘green’ or not.  Previously, the Code for Sustainable Homes was a voluntary set of guidelines which ‘measured’ how sustainable new homes were, based on whether they included solar panels, water recycling, bicycle storage and so on.  Now, the government has decided to abolish the Code for Sustainable Homes, and replace it with revised Building Regulations which means that instead of Code Level 6 (the highest and most sustainable) being the standard for new homes, it will now be Code Level 4, representing a significant change in how ‘green’ new homes should be.

The building sector is interesting due to its high contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and associated concerns over enhanced global warming and climate change – as a result it has been the focus of governments who want to engender a shift towards greener ways of working and building.  Building homes and buildings differently could reduce our dependence on unsustainable products and materials.  Based on our research with green building companies, materials suppliers and architects, we argue that despite attempts by government to engender a full-scale shift in mainstream building methods, the relevant legislation is framed in ways that will not engender any substantial changes.

Photo courtesy of Pure Renewables.
Policies such as the Code for Sustainable Homes and the new revised (2013) building regulations encourage a particular approach to sustainable building which relies on technologies such as ground source heat pumps and solar panels rather than trying to change how people live in their homes (for example, how many televisions people have, whether they use a tumble drier and so on).  This sort of approach fails to address the kinds of lifestyle changes advocated by early green building pioneers, leading householders to rely on ‘smart house’ solutions without necessarily having to engage in behavioural change[i].  In addition the Code for Sustainable Homes only provides an assessment at one point in time and fails to address post-occupancy behaviour[ii], which may actually increase energy use as energy savings and lower bills encourage people to purchase new appliances which they can now ‘afford’ to run.

Despite general agreement on the shortcomings of policy, respondents had conflicting views on how green buildings should be defined, and on the best ways to implement such green buildings.  Respondents were critical of current UK legislation, and argue that its narrow conceptualisation fails to adequately encourage, or recognise, what they would consider to be green building forms that will contribute to substantial reductions in carbon emissions, nor does it respect locally appropriate building methods.

For our respondents, technologies such as solar panels were seen as very low on the list of priorities for green building and were seen as the ‘‘very icing on the cake once you’ve done everything else’’ (Interview, Material supplier).  By contrast, the aim of our respondents was to minimise energy demand at the outset and then look at how to further reduce that demand. The consequence was that they saw certain technologies as undesirable – ‘‘there’s certain things that we probably wouldn’t consider, which again are a bit greenwashy, like heat pumps particularly, air-source heat pumps particularly, they’re evil!’’ (Interview, Green builder).  For example, the respondent argued that air-source heat pumps could use more electricity than they saved at times of the year where there was a substantial difference between internal and external air temperatures (such as in the UK) meaning more energy was required to heat the air.

Solar panels on balconies, Vauban, Freiburg (Photo: Lara Güth)
In our paper we attempt to show that the process of changing current established practices towards more sustainable forms is a difficult process, even where there have been attempts by government to encourage such transformations through legislative action.  At one level, it can be argued that, as with other areas of green practice, such as organic food or renewable energy, there has been a shift towards greater environmental consciousness in the building sector. Thus, as one of our respondents noted:

‘‘I think that’s what the green movement, in a wider sense, has done; it’s kind of made things that were seen as a bit fringe and not quite acceptable, they’ve made them more acceptable.  They’ve made them more ‘every day’. . .you know, it’s not a strange thing anymore to talk about heating your house via the sun’’.  [Interview, Materials grower/supplier]

Brian Waite's straw bale house taking advantage
of warming winter sun (photo courtesy of Brian Waite)
However, the shift has so far been fairly minimal and taken on specific (technology-based) forms.  Far from inducing a ‘paradigm shift’ the regulatory framework in the UK for green building has effectively encouraged the adoption of an ‘eco-technic’ approach with an emphasis on technological, rather than holistic, solutions.  This tends to result in a rather business-as-usual approach rather than radically changing how we think about our homes and buildings.  We have also seen how, despite continued interest in encouraging green building, policy has not created the kind of regulatory certainty anticipated by the previous Labour government to drive change. Instead, UK zero carbon housing policy has been plagued by disagreement and inconsistency[iii].

Given the level of expertise that exists in niche organisations such as the AECB, as well as the demonstration effects of large scale building developments to zero carbon and Passivhaus standards in countries such as Germany, Austria, Sweden and Switzerland, there is scope for a major government-funded demonstration programme and/or to mandate higher standards for carbon reduction, such as the Passivhaus standard, in order to encourage greater levels of sustainability in the mainstream building companies. 

Low energy housing, Darmstadt, Germany (Photo: Kirstie O'Neill)
We conclude that, in policy terms, we should perhaps not be thinking of trying to create one single scenario for transitioning towards more sustainable homes, but to open up ‘possibility spaces’ for experimentation with new ideas and practices of green building. It is likely that there will be no ‘one best way’ to a green building sector, but a range of scenarios, which may cohere to incorporate different ways of achieving green building (as argued by our research respondents) and which would better respond to different geographical places.  Rather than rigid legislation, the role of policy should be to create the space for experimentation through collective means involving lots of different people as well as encouraging engagement with the people who actually live in the buildings.  This would recognise that processes of transitioning involve real world contestation, complexity and chaos rather than the more linear progression envisaged in UK Government policies for the building sector[iv].

[i] Reid, L.A., Houston, D., 2013. Low carbon housing: a ‘green’ wolf in sheep’s clothing? Housing Stud. 28(1), 1–9.
[ii] Greenwood, D., 2012. The challenge of policy coordination for sustainable sociotechnical transitions: the case of the zero-carbon homes agenda in
England. Environ. Plann. C 30, 162–179.
[iii], Accessed 13.03.14.
[iv] Raven, R.P.J.M., Verbong, G.P.J., Schilpzand, W.F., Witkamp, M.J., 2011. Translation mechanisms in socio-technical niches: a case study of Dutch river management. Technol. Anal. Strategic Manage. 23 (10), 1063–1078.


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  2. Environmental issues have been pushed shoved out of the limelight as of late, with the usual politics and chaos taking charge. However, that isn't something we should miss, much less look the other way from. I guess the best way to get around it, despite its attendant issues being as heavy and grave as all of those, is to simply internalize its values and lessons and integrate them into the processes of just about all the things that people do, from office place policies to planning buildings. Thanks for sharing such a great read! All the best!

    Melba Collins @ Vermeulens