Podcast: what policies do we need to encourage eco-renovation?

Energy use has been in the news recently, from Ofgem’s warning that Britain will come “dangerously” close to power shortages within two years, to the public outrage in response to Centrica reported that British Gas profits increased 11% after a hike in prices a few months ago.

Following on from our most recent sustainable architecture post, this week’s podcast describes current refurbishment policies in the UK, in particular the Green Deal. Tina Fawcett, Senior Researcher at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, explains why we need policy if we’re going to refurbish Britain’s buildings – and what new policies might be effective and feasible.


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Sustainable Architecture Blog: Building a solution to rising energy bills

Last week the chief executive of Ofgem warned that Britain will come “dangerously” close to power shortages within two years. Swift action is needed to protect our communities against fuel poverty and improve energy security. Sustainable buildings hold the key.

Alistair Buchanan, chief executive of Ofgem, believes that reforms to the UK’s electricity supply will not be quick enough to replace power plants that are on the way out. But what if Britain simply reduced the energy demand of our homes?

Sustainable architects and builders are best placed to do this. Cost-effective energy efficiency measures could reduce the energy demand of Britain’s buildings, therefore lowering the UK’s baseload electricity. Sustainable retrofitting and new builds are one of the quickest ways to achieve this.

Natural building materials that are affordable and sustainable such as local timber should be used in all new builds, whilst other materials can be used to eco-renovate homes.

Researchers and architecture students studying at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) have shown that hemp is a sustainable alternative to synthetic insulation. Hemp shiv render is proven to not suffer from moisture ingress so would be perfect as a natural insulator. There is no reason why this insulation could not be used on a wide scale.

Zero Carbon Britain (ZCB) is a rapid decarbonisation scenario from CAT that demonstrates how the UK can power down energy demand by retrofitting the housing stock.

We are in a transitional period. Sustainable new builds will become increasingly cheaper as energy efficient social housing becomes the standard. All we need now is widespread retrofit policies that make eco-renovation affordable, without adding debts to properties, and a universal approach to sustainability that prioritises the use of natural materials.

This all adds up to an obvious solution for rising energy bills. Why build more power plants if we can easily cut demand?

CAT has 40 years of experience in sustainable building and is recognised as a leader in research and training for low-impact construction. The MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies offers postgraduate study with an holistic approach to sustainability and energy use in design, architecture and building.


ZCBlog: Can climate change be funny?

At Zero Carbon Britain the researchers are wrapping up their research, crunching all their data to see how the ZCB scenario will change, and gearing up to write it all down (to seriously mix our metaphors). Which brings us to a big question: how do we talk about climate change? It’s a hugely complicated problem that can be hard to understand – and if you do understand it, it can be even scarier than it is complex. From the right angle, of course, this scariness can be funny.

Some people are really knowledgeable about climate change and work really hard to stop it or reduce their daily carbon footprint. Others ignore it, don’t believe in it, or wish they could do something about it – if only they had the time, or it wasn’t so difficult. And there are those who have become disillusioned because not enough is being done by government, or other people. How can one person’s actions make a difference when the problem is planet-sized? As Comedian Sean Lock said of climate change and recycling, “I feel like I’ve turned up at an earthquake with a dustpan and brush!”

So how do we convince people to take climate change seriously, and to think creatively about solutions, without being completely depressing?

This advert from the Norwegian organisation Miljøagentene, helping kids become ‘Eco Agents’ to strive for a positive future, shows one way to find the humorous side to having a sense of responsibility.

In contrast, this video, the five scariest things about climate change, shows that you can talk about these enormous problems in an upbeat way – and perhaps learn something new into the bargain!

Have you come across any funny or inspiring videos or pictures about climate change? Share them with us here!

Energy democracy through open source technology


“The beauty of open source technologies and processes is that we can all get involved in developing the idea, whether that be as a geeky developer hacking new code or as a householder testing out kit.” Jonathan Atkinson, Carbon Co-op, Manchester.

A new course at the Centre for Alternative Technology from 25th – 28th of March will be doing just that. The course will include energy monitoring theory and system design from householder to micro-grid scale. The course is taught by Carlos Alonso Gabizon, Trystan Lea, Sunil Tagore and Glyn Hudson who have developed and devised the hardware and software from the openenergymonitor.org project.

OpenEnergyMonitor is a project to develop open-source energy monitoring tools to help us relate to our use of energy, our energy systems and the challenge of sustainable energy.

The future of energy production in the UK depends a great deal on who owns and controls the means of production. There is a choice to be made, between big corporations prioritising profit making and community owned schemes. Climate change, rising energy prices, economic instability and dwindling social cohesion are some of the challenges the world faces over the coming decades. Across the UK and around the world, people are coming together with their neighbours and showing that, with a bit of dedication and community spirit, it’s possible for ordinary people to make real progress on a whole range of big issues- including taking control of their energy usage and production.

Energy democracy means making our energy solutions more open, it brings everybody together in planning, deciding and implementing local and renewable energy. For energy democracy to work open source technologies are vital. Open source takes the control away from large companies and places it in the hands of the people. It stimulates local economies and small scale manufacturing, making technologies accessible to all.

There are a wide range of open source projects, from software such as Mozilla, operating systems such as Android and Linux, hard ware such as Arduino, even some types of beer. There is also an increasing number of inspiring open source energy projects such as Onawi, an organisation that aims to make designs of wind turbines freely available and River Simple who have made their design for hydrogen cars open source.

The open source energy monitoring project is another example. Currently the Big six energy companies are supplying ‘free’ energy monitors to homes. Whilst this is a good thing as it encourages people to become more aware of their energy usage, there is a darker flip side, as Jonathan Atkinson states in his article about open source energy monitoring,

“ For now, big technology companies such as Cisco, Siemens and IBM are involved in a kind of ‘data grab’. They’re aggressively pushing their kit and software, distributing free equipment and incentives to make sure their technology sets the data standard for the smart meters. As with other sectors, the ability to control, manage and sell data is extremely lucrative. The virtual data commons we own and generate are being commodified and stolen.”

This is a complete contrast to open-source monitoring hardware and software that empowers the user to be in full control of when, how and where energy data is logged.

The Carbon Co-op , a co-operative based in Greater Manchester, aims to help members make radical reductions in household power through the installation of energy-saving measures such as external wall insulation or solar panels.

They had been grappling with how to empower members through a better understanding of energy use. Rather than collaborate with one of the big technology companies, they have entered into a partnership with Open Source Energy Monitors.

The open source energy monitor project has been set up by a group who describe themselves as an “active open research community of energy enthusiasts, engineers, programmers and makers pushing open source energy monitoring forward.” They have devised and developed an open source energy monitor that can be assembled and built at home. Using open source technology such as the Rasperry Pi micro computer and Arduino programming language the monitors are flexible, modular and robust and can collect data from a variety of sensors from electricity usage to gas, humidity, temperature and even carbon dioxide (an indicator of air flow and therefore of the draughtiness of a house).”

The OpenEnergyMonitor project are running the first course of its kind at the Centre for Alternative Technology from the 25th to the 28th of March. The course will include

Energy monitoring theory and system design.

● Electronics PCB assembly, soldering

● Arduino firmware

● Web application programming

● Using digital fabrication tools (reprap) Digital objects to physical objects

● 3D CAD programs, and tools chains for controlling an open source 3D printer

● Sensors: CT current, temperature, wind, electricity.. In the evening there will be discussions with facilitation

● Workshop: “What do we value? What are our aims? How does this relate to different ‘systems of production? and the role that open source plays.”

● Workshop: “limits of the technology in the environmental, social and economic aspects”

For more information on the course follow this link.

An Introduction to Biomass

After a brief sidestep into the realm of policy with last week’s Green Deal post, we turn our focus back to renewable technology. This week we are looking at biomass.


Biomass is biological matter composed of living, or recently living organisms, which can be burned or broken down by anaerobic digestion to produce energy. Examples of biomass include wood, straw, animal waste, agricultural by-products and energy crops like oilseed rape. Domestic biomass boilers usually burn logs or wood pellets, so this post will be focusing mainly on wood biomass.

Historically, heating homes with wood was the norm. Today, the practice is popular in mainland Europe and the USA. Many houses in the UK have a fireplace, although heating an entire house using biomass is less common. With the introduction of the Renewable Heat Incentive (see the policy section below) the popularity of biomass as a potentially cheap and sustainable way of heating the home is expected to increase.

So how sustainable is biomass? Burning wood or straw releases carbon stored in the plant matter over the course of its lifetime. When fossil fuels are burned, they release carbon absorbed over millions of years. The carbon released by burning biomass is converted into new plant material by photosynthesis, negating the release of the stored carbon. However, it is important to note that wood biomass is only sustainable if the forests it comes from are properly managed. There is a limit on the land area available to grow these fuels, meaning that in the future biomass will be one of several renewable energy sources used to heat our homes.


The Upside

• Biomass is much more environmentally friendly than using coal, oil or gas. Heating the average home using a wood pellet boiler rather than oil would release 10 times less carbon dioxide (CO2) every year.

• Burning logs or wood pellets is generally cheaper than using oil or electricity. If you can harvest your own wood then it will be even more cost efficient. The Energy Saving Trust estimates that replacing an electric heating system with a biomass one can save roughly £630 per year, with a CO2 saving of 7.5 tonnes per year.

• Biomass energy sources are renewable, but we must make sure that they are sustainably managed.

• There are several different types of biomass, so you can choose which one best suits your situation.

• It is possible to use biomass from local sources. This minimises carbon emissions from transportation, and also supports the local economy. Search for local wood fuel suppliers using Log Pile.

• It is easy to store wood pellets in your home, even if you live in a small house. To see an example of a wood pellet stove being used to heat a home, watch this video.

CAT's wood pellet boiler with automated feeder. To the right are our two log boilers.

The Downside

• Installing a biomass system can mean high initial costs. A simple log stove can cost around £500, with an automated wood pellet boiler costing up to £15,000.

• Biomass is a low-carbon technology, but it is not carbon neutral. The harvesting, processing and transportation of materials all contributes to CO2 emissions. Wood pellets require more processing than logs, but they have a lower moisture content so they burn more efficiently.

• It is cheaper to order fuel in bulk, but storing large amounts of  logs can be difficult in smaller homes.


The 2008 Climate Change Act is a legally binding agreement that the UK will reduce its net carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, compared to emissions in 1990. Government policies like the Green Deal and the Energy Company Obligation are all aimed at reducing the UK’s carbon output and encouraging people to embrace less carbon-positive fuel sources.

The Government’s latest scheme is the Renewable Heat Incentive. This will operate on a system similar to the Feed-in Tariffs for wind and solar energy, with householders who take up the scheme being paid for heating their homes using renewable energy. The domestic RHI has yet to be launched in the UK, although the non-domestic scheme has been in place since November 2011. The domestic RHI is expected to be launched this summer. More information can be found on the Government website.

Preceding the launch of the RHI is the RHIPP scheme (Renewable Heat Incentive Premium Payments), giving householders money towards upgrading their heating systems.

A look inside one of CAT's log burners

And did you know…

Over the past year CAT has been building a biomass teaching facility, which has just opened. Approved by HETAS – the regulatory body for biomass installers – CAT now offers Biomass for Installers (HETAS H005). Intended for experienced plumbers and engineers who want to expand into the renewable heating market, Biomass for Installers will enable those in the plumbing and heating sector to move in to the renewable energy field.

In Ofgem’s last quarterly report of 2012 it was noted that 90% of installations done as part of the non-domestic RHI were for biomass boilers. With the imminent roll-out of the domestic RHI, the number of skilled biomass installers required can only increase.


More information on biomass can be found on CAT’s info page.

Podcast: environmental values and visions for the future

How should we value the environment, and how does that effect how we behave? This week’s podcast excerpts from a talk by Media Officer Kim Bryan to students on CAT’s MSC Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies course. Kim includes personal anecdotes and global examples to shed light on philosophies from free market environmentalism to deep ecology and eco-socialism.


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Sustainable Architecture Blog: Should we retrofit or rebuild Britain’s housing stock?


Reassessing our built environment is vital in the fight against climate change as about 45% of CO2 emissions in the UK come from energy used in our homes and buildings. It is vital that the government looks seriously at how Britain can reduce these emissions. But should we retrofit or rebuild Britain’s housing stock?

There are a host of pros and cons to both approaches, and neither is cheap in the short-term. Like most sustainable technologies, reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of a building is a long-term investment. However, the built environment accounts for over 40% of global carbon emissions so it is imperative that reducing this becomes a focus of the international agenda. With climate change looming and energy prices rising, our built environment risks being our greatest liability.


As sustainable building methods become more advanced and efficient, new housing will increasingly impact less on the environment. This is why advocates of rebuilding Britain’s housing argue it is better than retrofitting as a long-term approach to reducing housing sector emissions. On the whole it is much easier to build a passivhaus from scratch than adapt existing housing. Indeed, the cost of refurbishing and maintaining existing homes can often exceed the home’s value.

Sustainable re-building requires low embodied energy and excellent insulation. A new structure that is well insulated with low embodied energy can have a negligible carbon footprint. The environmental impact of demolishing an existing building, especially one that contains little or no wood, can be severely reduced by disposing of the materials responsibly.

However, if large amounts of wood are burnt or allowed to rot carbon is released into the atmosphere (whereas, the carbon in wood can theoretically be locked up in landfill). Architects could incorporate reclaimed timber in their designs to offset these emissions, or even re-use the materials from the original building. The carbon in wood can be stored if it is well maintained.

This technique of locking up carbon within buildings is known as carbon sequestration. This can also be achieved by using buildings materials such as hemp, other biomass and reclaimed building elements.

‘Jobs, Growth and Warmer Homes’, a report by Consumer Focus in 2012, looked at how the UK government should re-invest money raised through carbon taxes and energy efficiency. Responding to these findings, The Energy Revolution argued that the UK government must invest the money by re-building houses. The fuel poverty alliance, the biggest of its type, commented that:

This report shows that in its bid to boost UK economy, the Government is not investing in the one thing which could create more jobs and growth than anything else – re-building the UK’s housing stock. Not only does this have massive economic benefits but it is the most effective way to bring down energy bills.”


Rebuilding the housing sector might not be high on the government’s priorities (although targets have been set to make all new builds from 2016 carbon neutral), but eco-refurbishment certainly is. One of the UK government’s main strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to make homes more energy efficient. Their flagship policy to tackle home energy efficiency is called the Green Deal. Launched in January, this is a financial investment to make buildings more energy efficient, and is also designed to reduce fuel poverty.

Retrofitting involves the addition of new technologies and materials for the benefit of the property. For instance, improving insulation makes a building more energy efficient and therefore more sustainable. Energy efficient retrofitting is also a rapidly growing market because of the savings that can be made, and it is a much cheaper strategy in the short-term than demolishing and rebuilding properties.

But what should be Britain’s approach to be?

The UK has a tougher choice then developing nations because more of the built environment in newer countries is still to be constructed. This means developing economies can set the tone for sustainable development in a way that the UK cannot. British architects must also consider the cultural worth of historic buildings that already exist. Georgian townhouses may look impressive and have a great sense of heritage, but they can also have woefully inadequate insulation, ineffective heating and aging plumbing.

The Zero Carbon Britain (ZCB) project, a scenario for a carbon neutral United Kingdom by rapid decarbonisation, supports retrofitting the majority of the British housing stock. The researchers propose using natural materials where possible to eco-renovate buildings. Hemp shiv would be an ideal substitute for artificial insulation because it is proven to be resistant to moisture ingress. The hemp used in this insulation could also act as a carbon sink.

But this model is not possible for every home. Writing for the Guardian, Tony Hutchinson argues that:

Looking at the total cost of a refurbishment project over its lifetime (including maintenance and eventual replacement) in both cash and carbon terms the outcome can be very different. Cost and benefit modelling should be used to compare the benefits of demolition and new build with the costs of maintenance of the retrofitted building over its useful life – and the cost of further refurbishment after 30 years or complete replacement.”

So if we are hoping to build truly sustainable communities for the future, developers must look at the long-term. Where possible, Britain should rebuild its housing stock. This will take time, however, and may not be possible by ZCB’s target date of 2030.

Modern architects must be bold during this transition. Many of Britain’s houses will be too expensive to eco-renovate. If historic buildings such as Victorian and Edwardian terraces must be protected, then why not keep the facade but demolish the living spaces behind? A sustainable structure constructed in its place can be integrated with the historic face of the building. Projects like Kings Cross10 Hills Place and others demonstrate that this is achievable. Obviously there will be instances where this is not possible, but architects and eco-builders must think outside the box to find creative ways to decarbonise Britain’s buildings.

ZCBlog: Volunteering for a sustainable future!

Volunteers are extremely important to the Zero Carbon Britain project. As the research nears completion the long-term volunteers are beginning to look at how best to communicate ZCB to the people that will have to embrace a sustainable future: the public.

Two new long-term volunteers, Sarah and Megan, are working hard to support CAT and the ZCB team in both research and communications.

Sarah Everitt has been working with the ZCB team for a few weeks now. She is enthusiastic about making an important contribution to a project that has the potential to vastly benefit not only the UK environment, but the global climate too.

At the moment, now that the research is coming to a close, she is working to improve the report’s structure. Sarah is putting together a template that can improve accessibility of the new report to a wider audience. This is not such an easy task, with a scenario covering a variety of topics and  complex research data, but key to communicating ZCB to the general public.

Megan Jones joined the CAT team last week from the Isle of Anglesey, Wales, where for the last three months she has been a Residential Volunteer for the RSPB at South Stack Cliffs. She came back to Britain last autumn after finishing a BA in English at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, USA.

“Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved exploring woods and mountains (so mid-Wales is pretty perfect for me), and I’m hoping to make a career inspiring others to love nature and protect biodiversity. I’m very much looking forward to being a long-term volunteer at CAT, where I’ll be sharing CAT’s stories through social media, gaining new skills in marketing, and helping bring the new Zero Carbon Britain report to fruition.”

The Centre for Alternative Technology’s achievements over the last 40 years simply wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work, inspiration and dedication of the volunteers. With Nuria leaving at the end of February and a new volunteer starting in the coming month, ZCB’s volunteers have been invaluable to the evolution of the project.

Both Megan and Sarah are helping to co-ordinate a series of discussion papers titled ‘ZCB and…’ These will explore how the Zero Carbon Britain scenario effects wider topics beyond the team’s core research. Read more about the project here.

The Green Deal – What you need to know

On the 28th January the UK Government launched the Green Deal, aimed at making UK homes more efficient and helping households reduce their energy bills. Ever since the scheme was announced it has divided opinion; some people have lauded the scheme as a step towards UK-wide energy efficient homes, others criticised the workings of the deal as not being in the best interests of the consumer. Rather than debating the merits and criticisms of the Green Deal, this post summarises five arguments for and against the scheme.


1. Incentive to make homes more energy efficient

The UK has some of the most inefficient housing stock in Europe. It is estimated that 19% of UK householders (4.75 million homes) spend over 10% of their income on heating. This is classed as fuel poverty, and the number of people affected grows every year. The Green Deal will help people invest in their homes, making them better insulated and more energy efficient.

2. Savings on bills

The Green Deal is essentially a long-term loan, with repayments taking up to 25 years. The difference between the scheme and a regular loan is that the repayments are made through people’s energy bills. Having a more energy efficient home should result in a lower bill, thereby saving people money.

3. Customers protected by the Golden Rule

The Green Deal has a ‘Golden Rule’: the repayments made through the energy bill will never be more than the savings achieved by undertaking the improvement works. This protects the customer from expensive repayments that would cost more than the benefits gained.

4. Long-term benefits

Energy prices are set to rise in the future. As heating and electricity become more expensive, reducing costs by improving the efficiency of the home is key. Although the Green Deal should reduce bills from the get go, it will be even more important in the long-term, with savings increasing as energy prices rise.

5. Finance available

The Government has pledged £40million as part of a cash back scheme as an incentive for householders.



1. Based on average, not tailored to households

Before signing up to the Green Deal an Assessor will make suggestions that will lead to greater energy efficiency. Their calculations, however, are made using UK-wide data and are not tailored specifically to the house in question: the actual savings could be less than those predicted. Furthermore, the mean temperature suggested is 21⁰C for main living areas. If householders choose to maintain their homes at a lower temperature they will still have to pay back the loan equivalent of keeping their houses at a higher temperature.

2. Relies on predictions of future energy prices

Although the scheme should save householders money off their energy bills in the short-term, the cost of energy in the future has been a key part of the Green Deal. This relies on estimations of energy prices in the future, something we cannot predict.

3. Early re-payment fees

In most circumstances it should be possible to pay back loans early. However, Green Deal providers may be able to charge an early repayment fee as compensation for the loss of interest they would have accrued over time.

4. The interest rate

The interest rate for repayments will be market-led, but estimates have placed the average at around 7.5%. Depending on the amount borrowed and the length of time taken to pay it back, householders could end up paying double what was originally spent due to the interest rate level.

5. Cost of an assessment

The Green Deal scheme encourages householders to have more than one assessment done of their property before deciding what improvements should be made. Most Assessors will charge a call-out fee of up to £150, reducing the number of plans a householder can choose from.


The Whole Home at CAT


Sustainable Architecture Blog: Should buildings be green or sustainable?

Last week the blog looked at the future of sustainable architecture, this week we explore the differences between sustainable, green and natural architecture. Sustainability appears to be a much more popular concept in professional circles than it is being green. So should architects distance their designs from being labeled as green?

In recent years, the prefix green has become increasingly unpopular, particularly in professional circles, in promoting environmentally responsible architecture.

But what does green mean? The word brings to mind a wide range of associations. It has grown to be synonymous with environmentally-friendly lifestyles. But for many, green simply means that the end product minimises effects on natural resources; producing less waste in the process.

A lot of the backlash against using the word green stems from the trend to promote businesses and brands as environmentally friendly, even when they are not. This practice is known as ‘Greenwashing‘. Fortunately many of the underhand tactics used to make businesses appear environmentally responsible, have now been curtailed by international advertising standards and regulatory bodies. However, it seems that architects prefer to promote their designs as sustainable rather than green.
In recent discussions with architecture students, both AEES postgraduates at CAT and undergraduates from other colleges, the opinion was that the phrase ‘green architecture’ has connotations with natural building. To some it lacks precision, being more issue driven than quantitative in a measurable manner. It seems that green building is not seen as being cutting edge in the same way as sustainable architecture often is.

Natural building focuses on using local resources to negate the environmental impact of a building. These resources can include geological factors and the surrounding ecology. The use of plentiful materials that have not be treated with synthetic chemicals is often key to reducing the ecological impact. In general this means that many of the building processes are informed by historic methods of building. Therefore natural building tends to rely on human labour, more so than cutting edge technology.

Popular raw materials include stone, clay, sand and locally sourced & renewable wood. These materials can be combined to create surprisingly resilient structures. For instance, earthen architecture is one of the oldest examples of built environments. Cob, rammed earth and adobe are all examples of earthen architecture building methods.

So how does natural building compare to sustainable architecture?

Sustainability as a concept can often be contradictory and muddled. To be sustainable is be aware of the long-term; the effects of what you do on your environment and the future. To sustain is not to over-reach but to endure. In this interpretation of the definition, sustainability is about so much more than just being green.

However, a building can claim to be sustainable without being truly environmentally responsible. If a building is energy efficient then it can be argued that the structure is economically sustainable. Indeed, energy efficiency has become the over-riding consideration for much of sustainable architecture. An architect may design a building that is totally energy efficient but it might not be green. As sustainable assessment methods, such as LEED and passivhaus certification, become more popular the aim of many sustainable building projects have shifted. The aim might now be to achieve a certain rating at the expense of the environment.

An example of this is the use of concrete as a building material. Concrete has a high thermal mass and therefore, can be very efficient at storing heat or insulting buildings. This can make it very energy efficient. But the production of concrete is very energy-intensive. The concrete industry emits large amounts of carbon emissions because of transport and production. A final consideration is the fact that concrete is resilient, so the building may last a long time. The materials needed for repair might be reduced. This highlights how a construction material can be seen as sustainable but not necessarily green.

The argument for and against labeling building methods as green will continue to rage. It is obvious that professionals might not want their projects defined as being green but architects should not be afraid to label their sustainable processes as green.

By designing buildings that have a holistic approach and a green ethos, architects can consider the wider impacts on climate and environment. This must be the goal of all sustainable architecture.

Further reading: