Paul Foulkes - vice-chair, KNX UK and KNX business manager for Theben UK says we don’t need more data, we need better buildings.
You may have read the news last week about Energy Saving House 2.0. A £16m temperature-controlled chamber at the University of Salford where researchers are conducting stress test green tech to help make houses energy efficient. I should be really excited about this and the role it could play in making our homes greener and cheaper to run, at a time when households are being crippled by sky-high energy bills.
But I’m not…and here’s why.
I think this data is already out there. For instance, the level of insulation etc that these houses use is nothing new. The techniques are not new, the products are not new. How do I know?
In 2009 (14 years ago) I designed and built (which I still own) a low energy build in France (3 double bedroom, open plan living space and kitchen, single storey, 105m2) . I used easily available products (all bought from a local builders merchant) and deliberately used building techniques that the local French builders were acquainted with (although I did the vast majority of the building myself). I paid attention to things like thermal bridging and air tightness. I used KNX for the control of lighting, heating and shading. I orientated the house to take advantage of passive solar gain. It was all electric. With this design philosophy, an ASHP, UFH and MVHR I have a house that withstands regular temps in the winter of minus 15˚C to summer temps of plus 40˚C. It is warm, comfortable, bright, airy and easy to maintain. Yes there are changes I'd make to the design, but nothing massively significant.
What I learnt back in 2009/2010 is that an ASHP can supply heat and hot water for 2 weeks with an outside temp of between minus 16˚C going up to a maximum of minus 12˚C. And it will do this without the additional electric element being connected. So I can say that heat pumps definitely work. I can say that MVHR is essential in a well insulated and non leaky house, new build or not. Since returning to UK in 2012 I am on my 3rd major renovation of old houses and have fitted MVHR to all of them. If you are renovating you should be insulating and treating as many leaky areas as you can, then you will benefit from an MVHR. Sadly I think recent tragic occurrences highlight how poorly we view the necessity for ventilation in UK.
(Oh, and back in 2008 when I was planning this house I considered a device which recuperated heat from the waste of the shower - so I'm not sure what the "prototype device” is doing in 2023. Happy to be enlightened though).
I achieved almost Passivhaus levels of energy efficiency but without the PH build cost. This was a deliberate choice of build technique. My aim was to encourage local builders and developers to make a small change to their way of building, which they could easily adopt, and it would lead to large efficiencies in the building delivered.
When the house was permanently occupied my total energy costs were about €300 per year.
Data is a vital element of getting things right - healthcare, road pricing, infrastructure, and yes, buildings. The KNX solution which I work with and promote generates data, lots of very useful data (although its primary function is control, the data generated is a side benefit), and I have done presentations on the usefulness of data. But do we really need more data? Especially in this sector. We are perfectly capable (and have been for many years) of building excellent quality houses - warm, comfortable, "eco", low carbon footprints etc. But for some reason there has been a conscious decision not to build them like this.
I'm sorry to say but we don't need more data - we have enough. What we need is better buildings.
We need the major UK house builders to stop using the UK Building Regulations as their "quality target". Achieving them is not an attainment - it is a minimum requirement, as dictated by law! They should see them as an absolute minimum requirement. Think about this, would you buy a car that only just attains the minimum safety requirements? Look at the NCAP ratings "The star rating goes beyond the legal requirements and not all new vehicles need to undergo Euro NCAP tests. A car that just meets the minimum legal demands would not be eligible for any stars." (https://www.euroncap.com/en/ab... ncap/how-to-read-the-stars/) Would you be happy to spend thousands of pounds on your next car if it had no NCAP stars and only just met the legal minimum requirement? This is what we do with houses.
Near me some "high end" houses have been built and one of the selling list bullet points is "Insulated to the National requirement" ! This is a house selling for just under £1million.
\Why is that considered a positive selling attribute?
We need some more serious building regulations - not influenced by ever-changing political winds. They should be de-politicised. Centrally funded, but not under Government control. Building regulations are the stick. And Building Control can visit anytime, and view any building.
The carrot can be a reduction in stamp duty for better homes? I'm open to suggestions.
A simple start could be: default install MVHR (imagine how the cost of MVHR would tumble if every new build had to have one), offer proper home automation and build to a consistent better quality.
If I were a cynical person I'd say that sometimes it feels as if there is a "race to the bottom" for price, and therefore quality. And the cynic in me might say that this need for data is either a delaying tactic or one to find the route to achieve future regulation changes at the lowest possible cost. (But that was only if I were cynical)
My final opinion is that we need to stop talking about how to build better houses and just get on and do it.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of KNX UK or its members. The designations employed in this publication and the presentation of material therein do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of KNX UK concerning the legal status of any country, area or territory or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers.