Published On: Mon, Mar 13th, 2023

Blocked from going green

Escalating energy costs and a focus on cutting emissions to achieve the Government’s net zero target both play to the advantage of those involved in the insulation of homes. Added to this is a peer-reviewed study published in The Lancet Planetary Health which found that net zero policies like home insulation, if successfully introduced, would “significantly” cut mortality in England and Wales by 2050. The study concluded that an extra two million years of life lived would be added across the population by 2050 if the balanced pathway plan of reaching net zero greenhouse emissions by the middle of the century was implemented. 

Researchers looked at six net zero strategies and concluded that retrofitting homes with insulation was the most beneficial and would result in an extra 836,000 life years for the population by 2050. Replacement windows were featured in the insulation measures, as was the need to provide adequate ventilation. Interestingly, researchers emphasised the importance of ventilation because poorly ventilated homes could expose inhabitants to pollution from particles and radon, which would have a detrimental effect on people’s health. 

It is clear that better insulating homes is one of the most important ways to create a more sustainable environment and improve the health of citizens. These are two key areas that should be at the centre of any Government strategy. The statistics that back up the need for better insulating our homes are concerning. UK homes lose heat significantly faster than our European neighbours, even when factoring in outside temperature. A study by intelligent home climate management company Tado found that a UK home with an indoor temperature of 20°C and an outside temperature of 0°C loses on average 3°C after five hours. UK homes are losing heat three times faster than houses in Germany (1°C) and Norway (0.9°C). 

The age of a house has a significant bearing on its heat loss. The big problem in the UK is that we have the largest number of houses in Europe built before 1945. In 13 EU countries 20 per cent of homes were built before 1945; in the UK that figure is 36.5 per cent. The Royal Institute of British Architects has called for mass insulation of this ageing housing stock, and released calculations that showed proper insulation such as double or triple glazing and gas boiler replacement could alone cut the UK’s carbon emissions by four per cent. The European Commission is fully engaged with improving the energy efficiency of the housing stock, and believes the most immediate savings can be delivered through better insulating high-temperature environments. These measures have extremely short payback times and for this reason the Commission is urging countries to use supportive measures such as reducing VAT rates for energy-saving measures such as insulation in buildings. 

Any layman observing this would come to the basic conclusion that the UK, having the oldest and less energy efficient housing stock, should be fast-tracking its delivery to making older homes more energy efficient. We are all very aware of the debacle the Government has created around funding, where a simple reduction in VAT for home insulation products would prove more than adequate. It doesn’t stop with Government; our local councils are increasingly part of the problem. This was highlighted recently when the case of Sylvia Hahn-Dearling attracted national newspaper coverage with headlines such as “Listed homes blocked from going green”. Sylvia had recently applied to replace the single- glazed windows in her Grade II-listed house. Her application was refused as the local council has a policy of not allowing double glazing in listed properties. Frustrated, Sylvia has started a petition calling on the Government to change national planning guidance to allow the use of slim-profile double glazing in listed buildings, at a time when “energy bills have increased dramatically, to help take steps to reduce their energy costs and carbon emissions”.  When you start unearthing the details of the local planning rules the problem escalates and the barriers to improving the energy efficiency of older houses are clear to see. In Sylvia’s local area the guidance note from the council for replacing windows in listed buildings and conservation areas states: “PVC-U or plastic windows are not a traditional or vernacular material and are unsuitable for use in historic buildings or in particularly sensitive areas. Although designs have improved, faithful replication remains deficient in many areas. Casement windows are reliant on stormproof openings (where the window closes proud of the frame) as opposed to the traditional flush framed timber casement. As with plastic windows, the appearance and detailing of aluminium windows is not usually in character with most historic buildings.” 

In an age of highly impressive PVC-U and aluminium flush sash casement windows this is obviously disappointing. However, with more and more homeowners like Sylvia airing their frustrations at their inability to improve the energy efficiency of their homes, I feel we are slowly moving in the right direction and the outdated guidance from some local councils will be overridden by progressive national planning guidance. We live in hope…. And could even live longer if our homes are properly insulated!

John Cowie – Editor