Craig Dalzell: Burning Money

An example from a Scottish village that could be anywhere in Europe – buildings are still being constructed as if climate change is not a thing

Cross-posted from Common Weal


Britain is heading into one of the worst winters of a generation. The rising cost of living combined with multiple crises from energy, food supplies and general government incompetence mean that we’re facing price rises, empty shelves and potentially the highest rents and mortgage burdens ever seen in this country (headline interest rates /might/ not quite reach the peaks of the early 90s but house prices are so much higher now than then and wages haven’t increased by nearly as much so a greater proportion of our wage will end up being devoured by our bank and/or landlord). Folk trying to buy a house over the winter, who are trying to renew a mortgage reaching the end of its fixed rate or who are renting from a landlord trying to do one of the above are particularly vulnerable to price shocks that could equal or exceed the energy crisis.

Meanwhile, the climate emergency is crashing down on us faster and heavier than before. COP27 is just a month away. Global emissions have increased since last year, the distance to “Net Zero” is some 200 million tonnes of CO2 per year even further away than it was pre-pandemic and both the UK and Scottish Governments are still touting the “benefits” of fossil fuels even as our partners and neighbours at the Arctic Conference this week are signing up to a legal ban on fossil fuel extraction.

Meanwhile, folk face this winter under the threat of power cuts and/or not being able to heat their homes or even potentially being able to afford to do something simple like cook food at a regular meal time. The Government’s “support” for folk leaves those relying on gas or electricity for heat facing their bills “merely” tripling compared to last year and those of us who are off-gas (like myself) are paying double what we did last year. The promised “equivalent” support for off-gas homes has not yet materialised. A promise of £100 for off-gas homes will barely touch the sides of a typical oil tank (you can tell that policy-makers in London couldn’t conceive of off-gas heating being anything other than LPG tanks for a holiday caravan), there is absolutely no hint of how this will be delivered. If it’s intended to be automatic like the £400 electricity rebate then it’s not clear if they have anything like the data to be able to deliver it given that many folk on oil heating deal with suppliers directly and ad hoc. If it’s going to be an “opt-in” voucher scheme then it’s not clear how the government will ensure that everyone eligible actually does opt-in. We don’t even know if claims can be backdated to the time of the announcement so that folk who had to by oil in the past couple of months (again, like me) will still receive support and so that folk who haven’t yet refilled their tank don’t run out of oil as they wait. In any case, it certainly doesn’t look like this support – if it comes – will meet the definition of “equivalent” to support for gas users by any reasonable definition of the word.

This is a completely unforced error in policy making. We could have spent the years after the 2008 Financial Crisis benefiting from government borrowing interest rates that were lower than at any time in the past several centuries and were in some cases even negative (yes…people are willing to pay the government to hold their money if the alternative is losing even more somewhere else). We could have used those low rates to build new houses at such a high quality that energy bills would be so low as to eliminate fuel poverty for the occupants (with solar panels, storage and/or a share in a local community energy scheme, those energy bills could even be negative with the household being a net energy generator rather than user). We could have used those low rates to kickstart a massive programme of retrofitting our existing homes to bring them up to as close to that energy standard as is feasible given their construction (with difficult to retrofit buildings perhaps benefiting from a larger share in those community energy schemes in compensation – the goal should be that no-one should have to pay for the use of a reasonable amount of heat and electricity).

Instead, both the UK and Scottish Governments squandered that moment. We couldn’t even legislate to ensure that buildings are constructed by the private sector to those high energy standards. It’s not as if they even build to “current standards +1”. The lack of proper scrutiny in the building process means that for many newbuild homeowners, they discover only too late that the private sector will build to as far below minimum standards as they think they can get away with.

I’m seeing this phenomenon even if my own local area. A new block of houses is currently being built in my village that look to me like someone looked at a list of things we need to do to climate-proof buildings and went out of their way to try to not tick any of them.

First – construction. The building makes extensive use of cement and I’d wager that the cement used is not one of the carbon negative varieties that it is now possible to make so the building will have a significant embodied carbon footprint regardless of how it sources its energy. The same goes for the industry standard concrete blocks visible in the photo. It’s obviously possible to build houses without using them at all but even if they are unavoidable, low carbon versions are now commercially available. They almost certainly aren’t being used in this building. I can tell because if they were, they would almost certainly be a major selling point on the design brochure for the house. That they are not is telling in the silence.
The large double gap you can see on the facing gable end is going to be a full-height window on the south-west facing side which would be a good feature for solar gain if not for the fact that it isn’t shaded in the summer (so there’s a risk of overheating) and the fact that the house is built in a hollow below the road level it’s likely that in winter the sun will be shaded by the houses above this development or even by the cars the owners will put in their nice new car parking spaces.

Further up, the roof is a typical light wood frame covering in plastic wrap and topped with concrete tiles (more embodied carbon in both) and finished with plastic trims and pegs. Solar panels hadn’t been installed when I last visited the site but it’s clear from the roof that they are not being integrated in but will, at best, be a retrofitted afterthought with all the additional expense that comes with that. Not that the buildings have been oriented to maximise solar gain on those panels.

I can’t easily see what kind of insulation is being used in these buildings but during the Q&A of this event I was asked about my thoughts on the industry standard plastic foam panels that are often used in modern buildings (again, more carbon emissions and other nasty by-products involved in their construction). When we recently retrofitted our loft we tried to buy Scottish sheep wool for it but couldn’t get any at any price despite stories of farmers burning their harvests because it costs them less than selling it at a loss. We ended up getting wood-fibre based insulation but even this we had to source from outwith Scotland. The Scottish Government should be enacting a guaranteed buyer system to support farmers and wood suppliers and to put high quality, ecologically sound insulation into the hands of the construction sector. We are experiencing a total market failure that is hurting our economy and our climate targets.

The brochure for the building does mention an air-source heat pump for heating but we know that while this is lower carbon than gas or oil, it’s often not the ideal solution compared to what Scotland could have been pursuing had we been doing housing policy properly. District heating would be an idle heating solution in a “compact rural” location that is my village but it requires the government to actually do some work to build them. This would also allow communities to source their heating via the cheapest local solution rather than being locked in to the price of electricity. As we’ve all experienced recently, the failure of the UK electricity market is such that even someone on a “100% renewable” electricity tariff is still essentially locked in to the global gas market and this is despite living literally right beside multiple wind turbines (a couple are visible in the photo above; far more are just out of frame).

The private sector will instead only deliver sub-optimal, individualistic solutions that will leave the owners of these homes and all other “newbuild” homes in Scotland that do not meet future climate demands with bills of possibly tens of thousands of pounds to bring these brand new, not-even complete houses up to the standards that we know must be the legal minimum within years, not decades. These houses do not fit into the Circular Economy that we know we must implement to bring our standard of living within the bounds of planetary sustainability – something that cannot be easily retrofitted after the fact. We know that the changes we need to make are purely legislative – the technology is already in use, the private construction sector merely chooses to not use it and isn’t being forced to.

The Scottish Government must act on this. A Members’ Bill is already making its way through Parliament to make passive energy standards the legal minimum for newbuilds. The Scottish Government should voice its support for this bill or, even better, adopt it as policy, and create a Scotland-specific passive energy standard that expands upon Passivhaus and the like to bring the construction sector into the Circular Economy as well. There is absolutely no excuse for allowing the construction sector to continue to build substandard homes and to condemn their occupants to years of fuel poverty, massive retrofitting bills or both just so that the developers can cream off a few thousand pounds in additional profits. Scottish house owners are needlessly burning money through the winter and we still end up left in the cold.

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