Posted by: Jules Birch30/06/2011
Eco-bling? Hmm. There’s something not quite right in the statement by Grant Shapps about zero carbon homes this week.
The housing minister was opening the Natural House, a low-carbon home developed by the Prince’s Foundation at the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in Watford. The idea is to show that eco-homes can be low carbon and energy efficient using traditional materials and designs.
Shapps said: ‘We all know the Scandinavian-style homes that feature on property programmes - wearing their green credentials for all to see. These are popular and display a high quality of design and craftsmanship. But a lack of creativity could mean this eco-bling dominates our neighbourhoods in as little as five years - I am clear that the beginning of zero carbon does not need to mean the end of Great British design.
‘That’s why between now and 2016 when all new homes must be zero carbon, I want developers and designers to go back to their drawing boards and see how they can ‘green up’ our traditional, British properties. People want to buy homes, not causes and just because a home is greener does not mean it can’t reflect the character of the local area.’
He wants local people to have their say, working with the Design Council ‘to shape the future designs to have their say and make them cleaner and greener’.
Shapps is of course making a legitimate point about producing homes that people want to buy rather than see featured on TV.
However, there is also a populist undercurrent that conjures images of us all sitting in our Barratt home sipping warm beer rather than rolling about naked in the sauna attached to a home designed by those dastardly Continentals. Best not to tell him then that the Natural House relies on a German construction system.
And the minister is also associating himself with the particular view of architecture promoted by the patron of the Prince’s Foundation. Prince Charles is a longstanding critic of anything that smacks of modern design but his own Poundbury scheme has in turn been attacked as pastiche.
Meanwhile, the bit about local people working with the Design Council also strikes a questionable note. The press release tells us that: ’ In February 2011 ministers confirmed that the Design Council would expand to take in many of the activities, skills, knowledge and expertise from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, creating a one-stop shop offering a service to industry, councils and communities.’
Not mentioned is the fact that just 20 staff transferred over from CABE when it was abolished - it certainly sounds like they are going to have their work cut out.
This is also the first statement by Shapps that I can find since he announced the watered down, and still incomplete, definition of zero carbon last month.
The Natural House combines a thermal and airtight envelope with traditional materials and design. However, the man whose firm has pioneered the use of that German construction system in the UK - Neil May of material supplier and consultant Natural Building Technologies - has questioned the idea of zero carbon and the ‘unrealistically short timescale’ to 2016 in the past.
As he put it in an article in 2008: ‘There is of course no such thing as a low carbon building. There are only buildings and the way they are built and used by humans. This is not a trivial point, as the promotion of low carbon “this” and zero carbon “that” is actually a way of ignoring human behaviour, the interaction of humans with their environments and the forces that enable people to change how they live.’
And of course the new definition of zero carbon only covers the fabric of the building, heating and lighting - and not the emissions caused by human behaviour in stuffing their homes full of air conditioning and plasma TVs.
Until he applied it to Scandinavian-style homes, eco-bling meant the sort of ineffective green technology that people fit to their homes to show off their eco-credentials. Gadgets like the famously useless wind turbine fitted by a certain senior Conservative politician to his West London home.
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context