Energy efficiency and UK culture
Mark Brinkley, author of The Housebuilder's Bible maintains that air-tightness in homes is vital to energy efficiency. But can the UK make a cultural shift to accept the air-tight way of life?
The airtight solution to cutting energy costs
In the past, when home owners wanted to improve the energy efficiency of their dwelling, the solution was to add more insulation, install a condensing boiler or put in double glazing.
By 2006, however, the Building Regulations' requirements for insulation, boilers and windows had caught up with and even surpassed what was previously thought of as high performance, suddenly giving builders and home improvers more work and new standards.
Writing in the Last Word column for Homebuilding and Renovating magazine, The Housebuilder's Bible author Mark Brinkley said nowadays, simply adding more and more insulation is not going to achieve a genuinely low-energy house.
This is because insulation is "subject to the law of diminishing returns", so while the first inch saves a "huge amount" of heat, the second and third save less and less. After ten inches, the savings "make very little difference".
Perhaps more importantly, adding insulation will make no difference at all if the heated space is draughty, as all the air will simply leak out.
"You simply can't build a really low-energy house without addressing air-tightness - it's critical," Mr Brinkley wrote.
In January, Leeds Metropolitan University's Low Carbon Housing Learning Zone published a study that found levels of air-tightness in residential property varies widely across the UK, with the least airtight dwellings suffering air leakage around ten times the level experienced in the most airtight homes.
Furthermore, the report cited evidence from the Building Research Establishment, which indicated that on average, properties constructed between 1980 and 1994 were actually no more airtight than those built at the start of the 20th century.
In places like Canada and Scandinavia, airtight construction is much more commonplace, as winters are much colder, Mr Brinkley noted.
Indeed, Canada has demonstrated that truly low-energy properties can be built with insulation levels similar to those used in the UK - if they are airtight.
The cultural shift
The problem for UK homes is "more cultural than technological", he said. "Britons want their cat flaps, their draughty letter boxes and the much-desired open fireplace."
If UK builders are going to have to get serious about airtight design then home owners are going to have adapt their lifestyles, Mr Brinkley said.
"Just as your car's fuel consumption depends to a large extent on how you drive, so your home's energy performance depends on how you live in it," he commented.
Unless this cultural change takes place, he concluded, UK builders could work to ever-higher standards of energy efficiency but fuel bills will not fall and carbon emissions will not be reduced "because we don't like closing our windows".