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What Will Your Town Look Like When Zero Carbon Building Is The Norm?

| Sunday October 19th, 2008 | 3 Comments

hanham.jpgWhat if zero carbon building became the standard? What would towns look like? Are carbon free homes only for the rich? These questions dominate the news headlines in Great Britain, which is preparing to have all new houses being built to be zero carbon by 2016. The UK government issued the strictest rules in the world on its building industry two years ago and the impact of the new regulations is drastic.


Whether the 2016 deadline is going to be achievable is doubted by both builders and regulators, but a lot of effort is made at making building green. The rest of the world looks on with eager anticipation at how it all unfolds.
In many ways, building is an obvious target for a country that is serious about reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. In the UK’s case the housing sector generates 27% of the national CO2 emissions, 153m tonnes per year. And government officials say that the building sector is relatively easy to overturn, especially if you compare it to other industries such as aviation.
But the construction sector is complaining because builders are faced with both unprecedented building targets as well as the new standards for new homes, which are drawn up in the Code for Sustainable Homes. There’s a lot of unclarity about the practical details of building green. And, even though building a zero footprint house is not something obscured by massive theoretical difficulties, the very scope of the rules is something the industry has never faced before.
Every zero carbon home that’s built still is big news in the papers, even in the national British newspapers, but to give you an indication of what’s going to be happening in the future, just look at the houses on the pictures and imagine their numbers multiplied by a few million.
ecohse3.jpgOne thing’s clear; estate agents will now definitely have to add words to their vocabulary when they describe properties. Standard specifications simply don’t stretch to the new eco habitats. Yet it is possible to identify various central features in all zero carbon homes. Most come with triple glazed windows, lots of glasswork facing the south, solar paneling, wind turbines and not to forget the underground drainage tanks.
zero.jpgA recent absolute first in terms of materials used was a cork based insulation technique in a new zero carbon house in Surrey (photo on the left). The house’s walls are lined with 45 cm of cork, which not only insulates it perfectly but it also helps to save an important European eco system – the Meditteranean cork oak forests which are under threat because the wine industry is switching from cork to other materials. This is slimming down the forests dramatically and according to WWF UK numbers, the forests are likely to to be gone in only ten years’ time.
A major question people ask is whether green building is more expensive. The easy answer is simply yes. But because the trend is so well established now, you’re almost certain to find good deals because as new methods and products are tried out there’s way more information about what’s on the market. Estimates indicate that building an absolutely zero carbon house increases the price tag of a new building by ¬£36,000 or more than a ‚Äònormal’ house, mostly due to all the new technologies and expertise involved. But the authors of the research report predict that as more eco homes come into being, this is likely to level out.
ecohseunst.jpgThe owners of a new zero carbon house recently built on the Shetland Islands and dubbed the ‚Äòultimate eco friendly house’ (photo on the left) say they did not spend a dime more than they would have done if they had build their place in the regular fashion. The owners, Michael and Dorothy Rea, built the eco habitat with a focus on energy saving and maximum heat retention. The cost of their house came to ¬£210,000, but building firms had also come up with a price tag of ¬£700,000 for the four-bedroom eco house. Their advice? Shop around!
Brits who are not building from scratch are less focused on weatherizing their houses or making them low carbon than Americans. That’s because UK houses tend to be a lot older than the average Yank’s abode. It would take too much money and work to get to near zero carbon levels.
Yet there are plenty of local government initiatives to encourage green residential living. The city of London for instance recently launched two green homes services, a free telephone advice line and a website offering help on how to reduce household carbon dioxide emissions. And the London Green Homes scheme also offers to do a home audit to people that want to structurally modify their homes. The program, funded at £4m for 2007-08, targets emission reductions of 500,000 tonnes a year by 2010.
As always when national trends go underway, major studies come out predicting new markets. One such report predicted the UK market for zero carbon energy provision is estimated at over ¬£2bn annually. Problems lie ahead though because the rules are too strict. There won’t be nearly enough solar energy companies and biomass boiler producers by 2016 according to the report. This could slow down the pace of housebuilding. The report pointed out that on site renewable energy is not going to happen overnight and the deadline of 2016 is too optimistic, according to the report’s authors.
This is why schemes like the English Partnerships’ Carbon Challenge and the Carbon Trust have been launched. The Carbon Challenge aims to mobilize the housebuilders and assist them in their response to climate change. It’s sponsored by the Department of Communities and Local Government. Hanham Hall, near Bristol, is English Partnerships’ first Carbon Challenge site.
masdar2.jpgIf you thought that the UK scene wasn’t exciting enough, think again; Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is constructing an entire zero-carbon city. The plan, dubbed the Masdar Initiative, is developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in Cambridge, US. The city will spread out over 7-square-kilometres on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi and building went underway in February. The new habitats will house 50,000 residents plus businesses, including commercial lighting industry buildings. The Abu Dhabi government is looking to raise a total of $22 billion worht of investments. The city will be powered by renewable energy entirely, which is somewhat of a statement given the fact that the country is the host to 10% of the world’s oil resources. Part of the motivation behind the project is prestige. “This is going to create huge business and research opportunities to get beyond where we are today,” according to Khaled Awad, a government official at the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company who was quoted in the New Scientist recently. Interestingly, the city plans to ban cars. Instead, people will go round in podcars (short for ‚Äòpersonal rapid transport pods’) and a light railway system will also run in the town. A total of 82% of all its electricity nees are going to be derived from solar thermal tubes. The remainder of the city’s energy is going to be derived from burning recycled food waste (17%) and wind turbines (1%).


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  • Uncle B

    A solar rototiller? A godsend to me in my quest for a “Zero upkeep Zero running cost” retirement/(GRD) great republican depression survival shelter! I have found solar fridges, solar yard lights, solar computers, solar cellphones, solar cookers, greenhouses galore, solar distilleries, wind chargers Li-ion storage batteries, solar supplied LED lights, low power microwave cookers with browning features to boot! Solar water pumps, solar dry-composters for humanure, super insulation, super-glazing, ground heat storage, passive solar building instructions, and more, but a solar powered rototiller for my small garden would take the cake! Beware, oh great corporate enslavers, you know not what ye build, or how I will use it to free myself from your eight to five snare!

  • Martin Normanton

    To make a zero carbon house you need first to minimise its energy use ( the govt has got that bit right), then you need zero carbon energy source(s).In Abu Dhabi that is easy, solar thermal electricity (NOT PV) easily generated close by, though not on the site of an individul home. In the UK we have one comparably cheap resource in the form of windpower on windy hills, so the idea of large amounts of on site generation is laughable. PV is a non starter not just becaus of its high cost, but even more because its output is lowest in winter when elecricity demand is highest.Biomass beyond a certain point will compete with food production for land, so has a limited role. A carbon free energy system, which will also include nuclear and/or CCS, is quite possible, and absolutely necessary, but the pursuit of zero carbon homes is counterproductive unless the definition is extended to include homes powered by renewable energy sources tens or hundreds of miles away.

  • Martin Normanton

    To make a zero carbon house you need first to minimise its energy use ( the govt has got that bit right), then you need zero carbon energy source(s).In Abu Dhabi that is easy, solar thermal electricity (NOT PV) easily generated close by, though not on the site of an individul home. In the UK we have one comparably cheap resource in the form of windpower on windy hills, so the idea of large amounts of on site generation is laughable. PV is a non starter not just becaus of its high cost, but even more because its output is lowest in winter when elecricity demand is highest.Biomass beyond a certain point will compete with food production for land, so has a limited role. A carbon free energy system, which will also include nuclear and/or CCS, is quite possible, and absolutely necessary, but the pursuit of zero carbon homes is counterproductive unless the definition is extended to include homes powered by renewable energy sources tens or hundreds of miles away.

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