Attempting to live sustainably every day

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In light of this year’s Earth Day (which was Saturday) and the UN’s Year of Living Sustainably, I thought I’d take the time to reflect on some of what we can do in our daily personal lives to contribute to a more sustainable planet. The UN has been publicizing their Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World, which, despite it’s patronizing title, is actually a handy list of everyday things people can be doing to contribute to environmentalism.

These things alone will not, of course, “save the world,” but it’s a start to changing behaviors that put together do have a major impact, plus it’s certainly more than many people are already doing. In my household, both Aaron and I work in environment and sustainability for a living, and while our work attempts to help address environmental issues at much larger scales, what we do at home matters, too.

The UN guide lists three different “levels” (gamification is a great tool for behavior change!) and I think we roughly meet most of what constitutes Level 3, but always more to improve! Below is a list of the activities we try to do roughly organized by category (though all the categories overlap…such is the nature of sustainability). Eventually, I or Aaron will probably write more detailed posts about some of the individual items, but for now, here’s the summary. Thoughts on way we can improve or questions about any of the items are welcome!

Water efficiency and integrated water management

Considering we both work in water, we must actually practice what we preach!

  • Low flow shower head (…sometimes I find it just a bit too low flow) and timed showers
  • Use a Samsung EcoBubble washing machine (which won a Waterwise Checkmark) and consistently use the EcoSaver setting, as well as only running a full load. People claim that it doesn’t wash as well, but we’ve never noticed a difference, only that it takes longer.
  • Use the EcoSaver setting on our dishwasher, avoid pre-rinsing and only run full loads of dishes
  • Though, as renters, we cannot disconnect our downpipes and connect them to water butts (rain barrels, for US readers), Aaron has created a makeshift water butt out of a dustbin. While it doesn’t provide any surface water management benefits, we are able to water the garden from the water collected, which reduces the amount of potable water used.
  • Our house is in an area at low risk of river flooding, but medium risk for surface water/stormwater flooding. The Environment Agency has updated their website, so it’s quite simple to check the flood risk of your address, too.
  • Aerator in our kitchen tap to reduce flow
  • Turn off taps when not actively using them (does anyone even really do this anymore??)
  • Occasionally in the summer we put the watering can in the shower to collect excess water to use in the garden. One time, a snail hitched a ride and ended up crawling across our bathroom floor!
  • Room for improvement: Unfortunately, we do not have water meters recording our potable water consumption, and because we are renters, we cannot get them installed. Not only do we not have any information on our actual water consumption, but we’re likely paying for more than we consume.
  • Room for improvement: Because we have an electric shower heater, we can’t install additional devices on our shower head that may change flow, such as the Amphiro device that records water flow and sends it to your phone (part of the DAIAD project Aaron’s working on).

Energy efficiency and carbon emissions reduction

  • We both cycle as our main mode of transportation and commuting, either using our own cycles or the Santander cycle hire scheme. Our secondary mode of transportation is public transportation. We no longer own a car. Part of choosing where we live was to make sure we were close enough to central London to be able to walk or cycle most everywhere, including be within the Santander cycle hire scheme network (just barely! Our Doddington Grove station is the most southeastern station in our area). And if cycling in Central London sounds too terrifying to do (which it certainly did to me at first), I’d highly recommend cycle training, which most local councils offer for free. We took private courses through Southwark with Cycle Confident and it was game changing for my ability to cycle regularly.
  • We switched to Good Energy as our supplier, which provides 100% renewable energy for our electricity and carbon neutral gas that’s 6% biomethane for our heating. We haven’t noticed a price increase, though others have…we don’t have high energy use, though, so any increase may not be that impactful. If you’re interested in switching, let me know and I can share a code for £25 off.
  • Our biggest carbon offense is undoubtedly air travel. Considering we both live on separate continents from our families (mine in the US and Asia, his in Australia), it’s a necessary evil. However, we have from 2017 started carbon offsetting all our flights and intend to slowly offset our past flights over time. Additionally, when traveling within the UK or Europe, we try to travel by rail when possible.
  • We use an Owl energy display device to track our energy consumption. As is often the case with these types of interventions, we got the most benefit out of it at the beginning when it allowed us to notice which devices used the most energy and start changing our use patterns.
  • We have an instantaneous electric water heater in our shower to heat the shower water. I’m not sure I’m convinced of whether this is more energy efficient or not, but at the very least, since our electricity is 100% renewable, it’s using that instead of gas.
  • We’ve switched almost all of our lights to LED.
  • Air dry all our laundry (as an American, it’s taken me awhile to get used to this one…and I still miss a nice dryer for the towels)
  • Most of our windows are single-pane except for the double-pane in our conservatory. As renters, we can’t change the windows, but we’ve put in the plastic film that acts as secondary glazing to keep heat in and cold out in the winter.
  • We keep our boiler on a timer so that it’s not blasting heat unnecessarily all day.
  • The washer and dishwasher mentioned above are both energy efficient.
  • We always turn off lights, tv and appliances when leaving a room (though one of us is better at this than the other…). We’re lucky to have a good amount of daylight into our house, so we can often avoid turning off lights completely when there’s daylight in the summer.
  • Don’t pre-heat the oven or try to use the toaster oven if it’s not a large item.

Material resource efficiency and waste reduction

  • My second largest carbon offense is the amount of meat I eat. It’s not realistic for me to become a full-blown vegetarian any time soon, but I try to reduce my meat consumption, especially red meat, and when I do eat meat or seafood, I try to find sustainable/organic/free-range/etc. options. Still an area that for me needs a lot of improvement.
  • Record the expiration dates of all our perishable food on the fridge door to help use eat things on time and reduce waste. And we freeze things when we won’t be able to eat them before they expire.
  • Take full advantage of our local council (Southwark) regular recycling and food and garden waste recycling schemes. We end up putting very little (2-3 grocery bags a fortnight) into the waste bin.
  • In the garden, we use sustainable no-peat sourced compost
  • Use refillable water bottles and reusable coffee/tea mugs as much as possible
  • Always carry reusable bags in my purse and very rarely take new bags from shops
  • When we do have to get plastic bags from shopping, we reuse them as bin liners in the kitchen waste bin. Similarly, I use empty plastic packaging from toilet rolls as the bin liner for the bathroom bin.
  • Donate unwanted stuff to local charities or take to the recycling centre (though, it’s more difficult to do the latter now that we don’t have a car).
  • Use rechargeable batteries when possible
  • Reduce paper statements and cancel junk mail
  • When restaurants give out more napkins than I need, I always save the extras and we use them as our napkins at home. I’m kind of like an old lady packing these things away, but we’ve never had to buy napkins at home…and why waste??
  • We use hand towels to dry hands in the kitchen and got these reusable cloth towels to wipe up counters rather than using paper towels. When we do need to use paper towels, we only use half a sheet. For awhile, we bought those ones that were perforated into half sheets, but it was a waste. We now buy recycled paper towels and are perfectly capable of tearing them in half without perforations.
  • Room for improvement: UK groceries use a lot of packaging on things, so we end up with more packaging waste than I’d like (even if it’s recyclable, still better to avoid completely). They annoyingly wrap vegetables in plastic, so I would like to be better about buying from markets more often.

Ethical shopping

As much as it’s great to make all your own things and opt out of the consumer cycle, in a modern society, that’s not realistic. When we have to buy things, we do try to do so in ethical ways.

  • Try to buy local and independent as much as possible, including local markets and shops (like the Oval Farmers’ Market and East Street Market in our neighbourhood and shops on Walworth Road). We buy our honey from local beekeepers (BeeUrban or Walworth Garden) and our garden plants from Walworth Garden.
  • Research the sustainability practices of major retailers we use and shop with those that are better (for example, we don’t shop at Asda/Walmart and avoid Amazon)
  • Buy the organic and fair trade options as much as possible.
  • All of our cleaning products are natural or organic products. We’ve tried to make our own in the past, but realistically, we buy natural products. A large part of this is to reduce harmful chemicals in our house and in the environment.
  • We try to buy (or get through freecycle) used furniture. When we do get new furniture, we look for sustainably sourced materials.
  • We use cat litter made from wood pellets, which we can flush down the toilet. Not only does it mean less waste to landfill, but it’s a lot easier to keep clean.
  • Room for improvement: We’ve done research on ethical brands of cat food, but unfortunately, the cats are picky and didn’t like the top brand, so we stick with Hill’s Science Plan/Diet for now.
  • Room for improvement: At the moment, I use my work phone as my personal phone. This is less wasteful in that I don’t have an extra unnecessary smart phone around, but I’ve also been considering getting my own personal phone. I’ve been looking into ethical phones, such as the Fairphone.
  • Room for improvement: It hasn’t been a need yet, but if ever we need occasional use of tools or appliances, I’d like to look into using a Library of Things
  • Room for improvement: Google isn’t the best company out there, but it’s nearly impossible not to use their products. I’d like to look into more ethical email server companies in the future…but it’ll be a hurdle to move past Gmail!

Civic engagement

  • Share articles and information with others related to environmental policies
  • Volunteer with local community groups
  • Read local planning applications and formally comment through the consultation process on environment and sustainability issues
  • Vote! (alas, I cannot vote in the UK, but I still vote in the US and Aaron votes in the UK)

Moving

I find this to be one of the most excruciating life events, so I try to avoid it as much as possible. One part of it that can be really bad is the amount of waste that occurs. On our last move from West to South London, we took steps to try to reduce the impact of our move:

  • Used EcoMovers (certified ISO 14001, carbon efficient vehicles, etc.)
  • Used boxes from local shops, reused from previous moves and found more dumpster diving
  • Kept our existing things rather than throwing out and buying new (meant more effort packing and more things to move, but much less waste)

Tips for sustainability on site beyond targets and trackers

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This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

It’s the last sprint on site before the finish line. Everyone is working around the clock to finish a project. The last thing the team wants to hear is that there are sustainability targets not met that no one was paying attention to until someone highlighted them as part of the contract close-out requirements. Unfortunately, it’s a situation we’ve seen often.

It’s not enough to set targets at the beginning of a project, forget them once planning is approved, then expect them to magically be achieved by the end of the project. What does it really mean to say “achieve an air permeability of 3m3/h.m2” or “ensure materials are responsibly and ethically sourced”?

Ensuring sustainability relies on early and meaningful engagement with everyone involved. That means translating sustainability in way that helps everyone be successful:

Regulators & planners: set clear requirements and understand constraints, conflicts and implications for design

Client: set clear briefs that incorporate sustainability and work with the team to reconcile conflicting priorities

Architects & engineers: ensure designs, details and specifications meet desired outcomes by understanding implications of design decisions

Procurement: ensure tender packages include details of sustainability, that the supply chain understands what they need to deliver and prices it accordingly, not losing things during value engineering

Contractor/subcontractor: include best practices within method statements, but also engage with workforce on site and provide tools, infrastructure and training to help them succeed

Honest engagement from all sides can help not only improve outcomes on site, but advance industry knowledge by identifying what does and doesn’t work. Addressing problems head on collaboratively leads to more actual sustainable outcomes, rather than closing one’s eyes and hoping for the best or ignoring contradictions and negative data to report publicly only the positive bits.

We’ve seen many projects do things well, but many also lose money and time by doing things poorly. Here are a few tips:

  • Enable everyone to take responsibility for sustainability. Spreading the knowledge helps if staff move onto different projects, prevents long-term items from being easily forgotten and increases accountability. Plus, not all projects have the budget to have a dedicated sustainability person, so it must become part of everyone’s job.
  • Don’t hide behind procedures and documentation. It’s very easy to issue a requirements tracker or bury lines in contracts, but we all know no one reads them. The result is either death by procedure or playing the blame game after the fact. Of course, documentation is needed for clarity and liability, but more can be done to help ensure the message is communicated and that proper investment in people and resources is made
  • Educate on best practice and make knowledge sharing a two-way process (not only training operatives to improve practices on site, but also sustainability specialists learning from site operatives to understand what does and doesn’t work)
  • Understand there’s more to sustainability than compliance. The lack of resources within regulatory agencies and local authorities can mean less oversight, but it also means less assistance in the case of doing something new or difficult. Plus, there is still a duty to do what is required, and the team can be held accountable if something goes wrong later.

It’s incredibly rewarding when we see teams ‘get it’. When architects, engineers and contractors understand issues they weren’t even aware of a few months before, when they ask the right questions and challenge their own designs, the outcome is not only a better project, but better designers. They look at their other projects in a different light and increase the capacity of their own organisations, which can be a differentiator when bidding for new work.

If project teams are thinking about compliance-led sustainability requirements, the sustainability specialist can do more. Rather than chasing a BREEAM credit, the sustainability specialist can spend more time pushing the boundaries and seeking innovative solutions for complex projects.

That’s the area where KLH like to be, seeking new ideas with our industry contacts while capacity is built within the organisation of project team to meet regulatory requirements. We are seeing more and more clients requesting this type of support which is great news for the construction industry, as well as those of us that thrive on implementing new ideas!

Translating climate solutions for everyday lives

This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

Big news in the climate change world recently! With the EU and India signing on last week, 74 parties to the Paris Agreement (and counting) representing an estimated 58.82% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have ratified the agreement. This means it will now officially enter into force on the 4th of November 2016.

While the agreement isn’t perfect, its speedy ratification is great news. The momentum and united support behind it and the symbolism of global cooperation are powerful and motivating, particularly in the face of a threat as complex and massive as climate change. But for the majority of us, the memory of COP21 is likely long gone, replaced with Brexit, elections and our day-to-day concerns.

For those who live in places like the UK or the middle of the US, where climate threats are just as real, but much subtler than hurricanes, sea level rise and starving polar bears, the need to translate global goals on climate to local action may not seem as critical.

As built environment professionals, not those in front-line communities facing climate-triggered displacement, at international negotiation tables or out protesting against new mines, what can we be doing to truly “address climate change?”

KLH has done a lot of work on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London to deliberately incorporate both climate change mitigation and adaptation measures into large-scale development. Some of this has involved pulling together efforts that were already happening in the name of sustainability, health and comfort, energy efficiency or biodiversity and ensuring that they addressed the broader pictures of carbon impact and climate risk response. Many other measures were instituted directly as responses to anticipated climate impacts over time.

To reduce the contribution the development makes to climate change, we are massively reducing carbon emissions by designing very energy efficient building fabric and services, then further reducing to zero regulated carbon emissions through district heating, PVs and carbon offsetting in the local community. We are also reducing embodied carbon and energy of the building materials by 15-20% by using materials more efficiently, substituting materials and using recycled materials. The development also promotes public and active transportation and reduces potable water use which, in turn, reduces carbon emissions.

To adapt to the effects of climate change in London, we looked at the potential hazards—such as flooding, overheating, extreme wind, urban heat island effect and water scarcity—their likelihood and severity and the risk for the development. Based on that, we developed cross-cutting strategies to help mitigate and adapt to those impacts. These strategies included green infrastructure, water sensitive design principles, designing for thermal comfort, resilient construction measures and building adaptive capacity.

Even when projects attempt to address climate on site, it’s important not to overstate the impacts of those efforts. Zero Carbon doesn’t literally mean no carbon is emitted. Climate Positive doesn’t necessarily mean there are no negative impacts on climate. PVs on every roof won’t help much if the building materials used to make those roofs has a carbon intensive production process. The use of some sustainable building materials may have negative impacts for energy efficiency or overheating risk. But even if one development doesn’t solve it all, the individual measures can still add up to real benefits.

Not everything we’ve instituted on our projects was driven by a desire to address climate change. There are many strategies incorporated in good design practice, which positively contribute to climate change adaption – and that’s where the real impact will come from.

It’s hard to convince some developers, designers, builders or even occupants to care about climate change as a driver. It’s important that whether by regulation, best practice design, long-term cost saving, risk management or unique selling point, measures that reduce carbon emissions and help communities adapt to more extreme weather become the norm. Only then will all developments be climate responsive projects, contributing to the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

The Sustainability Narrative in Post-Brexit UK

This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

A month and a half after the historic EU referendum, you still can’t get through too many conversations without discussion of the implications of Brexit. The discussion, both hopeful and cynical, ranges from everyday life to national policy to the built environment industry. Staying in the EU or not, the UK government still has responsibilities to address climate change, the environment and sustainable development. The question remains how seriously we take that responsibility, particularly without the oversight (or constraint) of the EU. The answer, unfortunately, is not clear.

With all the changes in government, delays in triggering Article 50 and lack of strategic vision for a post-EU UK, certainty and commitment are two of the key things needed from the government to reassure the sustainable built environment sector. As expected, the construction industry is feeling a slowdown and anticipating “continued hiatus in private project starts” across sectors. Cities are particularly impacted by the funding and trade implications of Brexit.

The post-Brexit changes to government, particularly the dissolution of the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and embedding of those activities into the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) remind me of a similar shift in the City of Chicago a few years ago. At the time, the city had a Department of Environment (DOE), but in 2011 it was shut down in favour of a cross-department Chief Sustainability Officer. The stated intent was to integrate environment and sustainability issues into all departments, rather than in a silo. The result was mixed. Some departments, particularly those that received the most staff from the DOE diaspora did quite well—the Department of Transportation’s sustainable strategy became an exemplar program. But many other environmental initiatives that didn’t easily fall into the existing remit of other departments, such as waste and recycling, became weaker or fell through the cracks.

The shuffling of DECC into BEIS will be similar. Those initiatives that overlap well with existing business narratives and Greg Clark’s priorities, such as energy efficiency initiatives and decarbonising heavy industry, may continue as usual or even get a boost. Other topics potentially seen as conflicting with business growth may not.

With DECC out and Andrea Leadsom in to lead Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, climate change and environmental policies may end up at the “bottom of the government’s in tray.” There are many specific questions about the UK’s role on climate change, particularly in light of the Paris Agreement, that remain unanswered.

Evidence from the previous conservative government doesn’t provide a clear signal of their priorities. Recent policies like the Modern Slavery Act and the release of the fifth carbon budget are positive signs of the UK’s commitment to global sustainability. However, the withdrawal of Code for Sustainable Homes and the Zero Carbon standard, the dismantling of the Green Deal and UK poor performance against EU air and water quality targets indicate lack of commitment locally.

Out of the EU, there is even more at risk. Access to the EU skilled architecture and construction labour force and sustainable materials such as glulam timber could be more difficult. Long-term funding for research and for major infrastructure projects could slow to a trickle. Policies and projects within the UK already in the pipeline could be halted.

Whatever the approach, clear declarations need to be made about the driving forces behind policy change. An elected government comes with a plan and a mandate, but where does the accountability come from for this government? What is their strategy for addressing sustainability and the built environment? With the systematic defunding of Whitehall and local governments, who will be left to do the tedious, but crucial work of filling in the gaps left by removing EU legislation?

No strategy is a bad strategy

Indecision on whether to keep or change policy can lead to more risk and cost, stifling forward movement, shifting resources and creating confusion. The built environment, inherently risk-averse, ends up planning in parallel for stricter policy when direction is unclear. Withdrawal of policy without suitable replacement leaves outdated standards and conflicting requirements.

The industry needs a firm commitment as to the direction the EU disentanglement will go. Good or bad, it will allow the industry to focus our attention. In the meantime, the government should commit to hold all existing legislation and EU policies until suitable replacements have been evidenced, as they’ve started by guaranteeing EU funding that extends beyond the UK’s exit.

There is the potential for the UK to be a global leader in climate change and sustainability. Within the industry, though, we can’t be naïve and wait for it all to fall into place or remain the same. We have the opportunity to retain the best of EU policies and to improve on the rest. It could be an opportunity to radically change the way the UK does business and create a more progressive, sustainable, resilient, smart, economically viable and equitable place.

Until there is more leadership, we will have to fight battles on multiple fronts. We can’t only envision our dream scenarios, we simultaneously need to identify and lobby for what needs protecting. Frustratingly, this could mean less money, time and attention for innovation, new research and collaboration.

We need to be nimble enough to frame sustainability and the built environment within the narrative that dismissed experts. We need to pick our heads up out of our projects and engage with politicians, civil servants and perhaps most importantly local communities. Without the EU to oversee, we all have a responsibility to keep the UK on the right track.

Hands on design: sustainable LEGO homes

I was recently back in Chicago for the holidays and while searching for something warm to do downtown with my family, I took them to see the city model and exhibition at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Before we could make our way from that to the Chicago Biennial, we stumbled into one of CAF’s LEGO Build Workshops and before you know it, three+ hours had past and we were all creating architectural masterpieces.

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My sister built a bright, airy modern school building. Her partner built a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired party house. My partner built the tallest skyscraper he could (earning envious stares from nearby children). What did I build? Ultra-realist me built three UK-style terraced houses.

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But wait, there’s more! They were not just any terraced houses, they were sustainable terraced houses! Perhaps I’d spent too many hours focused on my work project the week before, but I decided to bring back a little bit of London to Chicago.

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Features you’ll find in these sustainable terraced houses:

  • Simple building form, resulting in improved fabric energy efficiency
  • Front and back gardens, providing ample private outdoor space

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  • Shallow plot with dual or triple aspects, meaning lots of daylight
  • Space for waste, recyclables and food waste/compost bins

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  • Rain barrels/water butts collecting water for use in the back gardens for the middle and one of the end terraces

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  • A greywater recycling system on the other end terrace
  • Shared roof terrace with biodiverse roof elements (ok…there were no landscaping legos, so pretend there are plants & log piles and substrates for holding water and whatnot)

Obviously I don’t win any points for originality, but for my structured mind, it was a nice creative outlet and who doesn’t like to play with Legos?

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Go big or go home: new and challenging projects to keep busy

EWS modelHappy holidays and happy new year! I’ve really not spent as much time on this blog as I’d like to (believe me, I have so many posts waiting in the wings until I have a few minutes to catch my breath!), but largely it’s because I’ve jumped head first into several new projects.

You may have seen in KLH Sustainability’s Christmas message, but the main project I’m working on is the redevelopment of the London Olympic Park! The stars aligned and I was at the right place at the right time saying the right things about the right skills and talking to the right person to get to work on this exciting project. The project is to create out of what was part of the former park lands and prior to that, derelict industrial lands, into a massive (though…from an American urban perspective, arguably not large enough) residential/mixed-use development. The two new neighbourhoods, one in the area surrounding the former media center/new Here East building and the other south of the Copper Box Arena and west of the Olympic Stadium, will have 1500 new homes and lots of commercial/non-residential development.

There’s a ton happening with the development to make it more inclusive and sustainable:

  • housing will be mixed-tenure (social rent, affordable rent, shared ownership, private rent & for sale);
  • commercial space is hoping to attract small, independent businesses;
  • all the housing is being built to Lifetime Homes standard and a significant percentage are having additional accessibility modifications made to them;
  • multi-ethnic considerations are being taken into account, including allowing for provision of BAME-oriented bathroom fittings and kitchen layouts (more on that acronym in another post…);
  • significant thought put into public realm, placemaking, context-sensitive design and more;
  • “smart city” innovation considerations and integration with the park and beyond (more on the whole smart cities concept in another post…);
  • and of course, what I’m spending a huge chunk of my life on, more ambitious sustainability aspirations than you can shake a stick at, including but not at all limited to zero carbon homes, Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4+, BREEAM Excellent and so so so so so so much more. I’d love to go into more detail, but the perils of working in the private sector (as I am painfully learning) is that you really can’t be as open as you want to be…at least, not without approval, so more details will have to wait.

The project is still in planning and going through consultation. I’m really excited to be working on this project and wanted to share a bit of what’s been keeping me away from being as active outside of work as I’d like to be.

Read more about the project on the KLH website.

In addition to this project, I’m also working on the final stage of the Olympic Stadium Transformation (is anyone interested in massive numbers of seats from the stadium???), some smaller sustainability projects, just became a qualified Code for Sustainable Homes assessor (and the future Home Quality Mark), recently presented at the International Water Association (IWA) World Water Congress, kicking off a project with my IWA Specialist Group on digital engagement and water and been trying to get increasingly more active with Urbanistas London, several UK water groups, some local community groups in my home neighbourhood and more!

I don’t really do new year’s resolutions, but I do hope this year to be able to spend more time on here exploring new ideas and projects. Thanks for following!

Could Home Quality Mark redefine what it means to have a sustainable home?

This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

How can we make sustainable homes more relevant, desirable and beneficial to those who will actually live in them? This is question that has been on my mind for a while, but it was brought to the fore as I undertook the initial training for the BRE’s new Home Quality Mark (HQM) voluntary housing certification scheme. It appears that, at least in principle, the HQM rises above expectations.

HQM was developed as a replacement scheme for the Code for Sustainable Homes (CfSH), the government housing sustainability scheme withdrawn earlier this year. While many of the CfSH requirements have yet to be incorporated into building regulations, the BRE has stepped in to fill the gap with their new voluntary scheme.

HQM attempts to do more than just replace or even simply update CfSH, it attempts to redress the sustainability balance, moving away from a purely environmental focus with the ambition of making sustainability relevant to real people.

It is interesting to note that BRE chose to use the word “quality” instead of “sustainability” in part to get past that environmental focus. Some worry that taking sustainability out of the name means undervaluing the environmental impacts of development, but the scheme still considers the environmental aspects, albeit framing them in terms that the average person cares about such as health, comfort and cost.

The HQM training and consultation emphasises cross-sector coordination in an attempt to address the most common problems associated with delivering sustainable housing. There is an entire section of the scheme devoted to “Knowledge Sharing,” which focuses not only on measures to communicate with occupants, but also improving communication between industries to help address the performance gap. Even the implication on the financial sector was discussed, including what a “quality home” could mean for reducing insurance and mortgage interest rates.

One interesting opportunity is whether this new emphasis could stimulate broader investment by third parties in engagement-based services. Could more new businesses or social enterprises develop and professionalise resident services like building management, resident hotlines, post-occupancy evaluation, maintenance packages modelled after service warranties and web portals or apps? Similarly, BRE is considering pre-approval for certain aspects under HQM that may overlap existing processes. For example, prefabricated manufacturers could pre-certify their modules under the My Home section of HQM or developments participating in BREEAM Communities could pre-certify under the Our Surroundings section.

On the assessor’s end, there was welcome news about streamlining evidence collection and data entry. HQM aligns with BIM and SAP outputs and allows measurements taken for one credit to be cross-referenced in another, simplifying the amount and type of data collected. And there are now multiple levels of robustness for evidence, allowing partial credit for having at least some evidence.

Of course, it remains to be seen how easily the HQM’s well-intentioned ambitions can be implemented. How will this increased intention on consumer interaction be enforced and at what cost? Many of the additional issues being assessed are relatively new and untested, so the evidence required for compliance is flexible at this point. That’s good for early adopters of the assessment, but not so good for quality control. In addition HQM will be a voluntary scheme, carrying less weight than the government’s CfSH. Who will end up using it and would the energy required to get people to use the scheme be better spent trying to embed some of these issues into regulations?

Finally, it is still a certification scheme, which means it still has to make compromises between robustness and flexibility, cost and marketability. It will never be a replacement for the engagement, discussion and practical innovation that is central to sustainable development, but it is certainly trying to improve how the benchmark is set.

HQM should be out at the of November for beta testing and officially released at the beginning of 2016. We are looking forward to seeing the final scheme and how this broader focus could influence changes in the industry.

The end of Zero Carbon Homes means more than the loss of sustainable housing

This post originally appeared in KLH Sustainability’s blog.

Over the last decade the UK, local governments and private sector industries connected to development have been working toward common definitions, workable requirements, innovative products and new processes to make “Zero Carbon Homes by 2016” a reality. This month, those efforts were tossed aside under the guise of easing regulatory burdens to speed up the construction of new homes.

George Osborn’s Productivity Plan, Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation, promotes the decarbonisation of the UK’s energy sector, yet states:

“The government does not intend to proceed with the zero carbon Allowable Solutions carbon offsetting scheme, or the proposed 2016 increase in on-site energy efficiency standards, but will keep energy efficiency standards under review, recognising that existing measures to increase energy efficiency of new buildings should be allowed time to become established” (p. 46).

This disappointing decision has very real long and short-term consequences.

  • Money down the drain. Responsible builders have been preparing for the 2016 target for years, so backing down from it means a waste of not only effort on their part, but also money. As stated in an open letter response from more than 200 businesses, this type of abrupt change undermines “industry confidence in Government and will now curtail investment in British innovation and manufacturing.” Having no or unclear benchmarks means uncertainty, which means even more cost.
  • Squashing innovation. All of this uncertainty means confusion about what standards industry research should be working toward, which means fewer businesses are capable of investing in innovation. No standards also means no incentive to improve and no reward for delivering what used to be labelled as an achievement.
  • Pervasive fuel poverty. House building is not just about the quantity, but also about quality. Standards like Zero Carbon are more than just feel-good sustainability add-ons. Energy inefficient housing may be cheaper for builders, but it ultimately pushes the cost to occupants who will have to pay more for power and heating. In the UK, 19.2% of the population lives in fuel poverty, the worst among 12 EU peer countries, and more than 31,000 deaths in the winter of 2012-13 have been at least partially attributed to fuel poverty and poor insulation. This was the stroke of genius in the previous ‘allowable solutions’ – it offered an opportunity for the UK to improve its existing stock as well as investing in new.
  • Favouring unsustainable housing. Lower standards for energy performance mean lower standards for homes overall. People do not want to spend more of their income on ever-increasing fuel costs, and savvy consumers have come to expect improvement in building technology over time, particularly in sustainability and health.
  • Threatening the UK’s ability to meet Climate Change Act obligations. Under the Climate Change Act 2008, the UK has a statutory target to reduce emissions by at least 80% from 1990 levels. Just last month, the Committee on Climate Change released a report on the UK’s progress and recommended actions, stating that to ensure that the UK continues to meet the long-term targets and complies with the requirement to show all new buildings are nearly zero-energy after 2020, the “zero carbon home standard must be implemented without further weakening.”
  • Increasing carbon emissions from buildings. Let’s not forget the point of the Zero Carbon Homes standard: to reduce carbon emissions from buildings and their contribution to the UK’s emissions. A Parliamentary environmental audit found that without significant measures, the contribution of the housing sector to the UK’s 2050 carbon emissions target could rise from 30% to 55%.

All of this erodes the UK’s position as a leader on regulation for, and products to meet, energy and carbon targets. The Zero Carbon Home standard was far from perfect, but it was a defined, common goal for the industry to work towards. It was also a vehicle to showcase the UK’s leadership and innovation potential.

Not all is lost. The progress achieved so far and the learning that has been integrated into standard practice means that the momentum toward energy sustainability will not stop dead. Many of our clients are continuing to maintain strong standards, even in the face of the uncertainty, because they know as well as we do that sustainability is more than just standards, it’s part of the long game.