Smart housing doesn’t have to be new housing

Sensemaking / Smart housing doesn’t have to be new housing

UK residents can take their ageing housing stock in hand to beat fuel poverty

By Ann Noon / 11 Jul 2017

Fuel poverty is estimated to affect over four million households in the UK. One factor is that it has the oldest housing stock in the EU: these older homes require at least double the energy consumption to stay warm when compared with living spaces in other countries of similar climes. Theresa May’s campaign pledge during the recent general election to cap energy prices for millions of households was genuinely popular among voters: it has now been watered down.

But price capping isn’t the only way to address the problem. Tackling energy inefficiency in damp cold homes saves on energy bills and has a positive direct impact on health. One way to do this is through effective use of heating controls and smart thermostats make it easier for households to optimise their heating, whilst simultaneously saving money and CO2.

Winner of the 2017 Impax Ashden Award for Energy Innovation, Switchee is the first smart thermostat designed specifically for social housing. It monitors temperature, humidity, light levels, motion and air pressure to learn when a home needs heating and when it can be allowed to cool down. And it works without wifi or mobile phone apps, automatically adjusting a household’s heating with minimal interaction from residents. Energy use can be cut by up to 15%, and data fed back to housing associations and local authorities helps them to monitor the state of their housing stock and deliver better outcomes for their tenants who benefit from more affordable warmth.

According to Ian Napier, co-founder and commercial director of Switchee: “The key to fighting fuel poverty at the domestic level in the UK is providing those who are worst affected with a means to reduce their energy bills. This can be through smart meters, which encourage and take the friction out of switching to cheaper tariffs, or smart thermostats, which optimise heating settings and can reduce consumption. Both technologies can educate and also encourage better habits in the home which leads to further savings. 

Technologies aren’t the whole answer, of course, adds Napier:

“Landlords and regulators need to approach the problem through building and heating system efficiency, upgrading both to reduce the cost of warmth. From a generation and supply perspective there are many initiatives to bring down the cost of grid supply; domestic renewable generation can enhance this. Fuel poverty is also a measure of income, so policy and initiatives to increase employment and skill/wage levels need to be factored in. The point here is that fuel poverty touches many areas of need and a multi-pronged approach is required.”

Design techniques are another way of resolving energy inefficiencies in the home. These include optimising the amount of natural light and the volume of air that flows in and out of a building – and can be used to retrofit old housing stock as well as for new build. In Norwich, the City Council is currently developing hundreds of homes, including social housing flats and affordable housing, using the energy efficient Passivhaus design standard. A Passivhaus certified building requires very little energy to heat or cool due to measures such as triple glazing, effective insulation, controlled ventilation, airtightness and intelligent orientation. The low-carbon homes not only provide benefits for the environment but also reduce owners’ or tenants’ fuel bills and can make a real difference to levels of fuel poverty.

In the UK, the Passivhaus Trust supports certification of the Passivhaus standard and provides quality control, training and advice to architects, engineers, suppliers and builders.  According to Chief Executive Jon Bootland: “Many people in fuel poverty will be in unhealthy environments: they often experience damp, condensation and mould, which can contribute to, or exacerbate, respiratory and other diseases. Most of these occupants will not be able to invest in renewables (or energy abundance). The best way to address this is to provide a whole house approach to improving the performance of the housing stock, including the fabric of the building - walls, insulation, windows etc - and its ventilation.”

There is anecdotal evidence from social landlords that rent arrears are significantly reduced in Passivhaus homes, and the Passivhaus Trust is seeking further evidence in this area. There is emerging evidence too that health benefits also result from Passivhaus homes, thought to be because the controlled ventilation avoids excessive humidity and high indoor CO2 levels, and the use of filters on the ventilation systems reduces the presence of pollen and particulates within the homes.

The potential for Passivhaus to be adopted more widely in the UK is significant but depends to some extent on the demand for low or zero carbon homes. To help make it easier for housing providers to adopt and successfully build to the Passivhaus Standard, the Passivhaus Trust are running Passivhaus Social, a campaign focused at Local Authorities & Housing Associations. The aim is to get many councils working together along with industry professionals to help implement the Passivhaus Standard in their guidelines/ specifications for new housing on their own land.

Both Switchee and the Passivhaus Trust believe that tenants can move from being passive consumers to active players in the energy system, beginning with taking their home energy consumption in hand. Jon Bootland adds: “In conjunction with the use of renewable energies, the Passivhaus Standard has the potential to stand as an answer to the nearly zero-energy building goals being established by EU Governments. Once you have optimised internal comfort through efficient buildings where energy consumption has been greatly reduced, the addition of renewables benefits ten-fold.”

Switchee’s Ian Napier thinks that the shift is already underway but that we are only just entering early adopter phase. “With the provision across the UK of tools that encourage residents to change their approach to energy consumption,” he said, “we hope to see a huge transformation in how the UK consumes domestic energy. We encourage all residents to be the driving force behind this change!”


Ashden is a Futures Centre partner.

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