Energy Efficient Housing

1 November 2011

Kilburn houses

Although household heating accounts for much of Britain’s energy usage, little is really known about how efficient – or inefficient – our houses are in energy terms. Even basic aspects of domestic comfort, such as the temperature of people’s homes, are unknown.

This makes it hard to plan for a more energy-efficient future in response to issues of security of supply and climate change. Professor Robert Lowe argues that more measurement is needed in order to inform both construction and energy policy. ‘The housing stock interacts with the energy supply system,’ he says. ‘This affects how each evolves.’

Energy Evolution

For example, the national grid relies on an average household electricity consumption of around a kilowatt. If we all start using more electricity, for example by switching to electrical forms of heating, or if, conversely, we begin spending our summers selling electricity made by photovoltaic panels on our roof back to the grid, the system will no longer be able to cope. ‘Housing and energy supply need to co-evolve in a way that makes sense.’

The human factor is an additional complication. ‘Many people still live in quite cold houses. It’s not by choice, and it’s not good for them. That should change. Up to 2050, my guess is that people’s homes will get warmer at the same rate as outside.’ Overall, Lowe expects no reduction in energy usage.

The Green House Effect

Lowe’s group has been the academic partner in a number of demonstration projects. The Low-Energy Victorian House Project with the London Borough of Camden involved gutting a townhouse and doing everything to make it energy-efficient, from insulating the walls as well as the roof to installing photovoltaic cells, and then measuring its performance. ‘It’s almost impossible for academics to make such projects happen,’ says Lowe. ‘You need a coalition of stakeholders.’

Following the study, the Technology Strategy Board has launched a nationwide study of 100 homes, for which Lowe’s group is reviewing some of the results. Chit Chong, senior sustainability officer at Camden, says the academic involvement was essential. ‘While we could do the pilot study, we couldn’t do the research that showed it achieved the energy reduction it did.’

There is now a growing awareness of the need for large-scale strategic intervention in the housing stock. With assistance from UCL Enterprise, Lowe is in dialogue with government departments to find effective ways to invest in people’s homes. The aim is to contain the increasing costs of energy generation and supply as much as to bring household savings. Without sufficient understanding of how housing and the energy supply network interact, any such exercise would be folly, says Lowe, ‘like attempting D-Day without maps and compasses’.

IMAGE: A Victorian house renovated by the Low-Energy Victorian House Project in Camden.