As we head into winter and the temperature falls we will all be turning the heating on and up. For those on low incomes this is a difficult time of year as worries over bills and how to pay them increase. Many people will be forced to choose between eating and heating.
What exacerbates the situation is that the UK has some of the oldest and most poorly insulated housing in Europe; as a consequence the heat simply leaks out.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Back in 2000 an experimental house, the EcoHouse, was built in Cumbria by Brampton Rural Housing and Carlisle City Council. The architect from Penrith was the wonderfully named Mr Bodger, whose work featured in one of the early Grand Designs television programmes. This EcoHouse was so well insulated it didn’t need a central heating system. A combination of a small wood burning stove and the heat generated from cooking along with the body heat of the occupants was deemed sufficient. However, worries that no one would rent it without a central heating system meant that one was added. The occupants found they hardly even had to switch it on and it became the first building in the UK to receive an EcoHomes ‘Excellent’ rating.
That was nearly 20 years ago and since then building well insulated homes has become easier not harder. This rather begs the question as to why the major house builders are still building homes that are so expensive to heat?
Since the Second World War, manufacturing, farming and retail have all seen dramatic rises in innovation but meanwhile the house building industry has essentially stood still. A car factory today is very different to a car factory of 50 years ago but a building site is essentially the same as in the 1950s. I’ve been told that the only real innovation in house building in the last 60 years has been the invention of the nail gun!
But innovation is coming and it is coming in the form of off-site construction where modular, often wooden, homes are being manufactured indoors in factory conditions and then delivered by lorry either flat packed for assembly on site or in units (think static caravan size) that already have the electrics, plumbing, kitchen and bathroom installed and are then ‘clipped’ together on site. Two such factories now exist in Yorkshire, one with Legal and General and the other, which opened last week, owned by Ilke Homes.
There are numerous benefits to off-site factory construction including the opportunity to manufacture extremely well insulated homes. Other benefits include no delays to construction caused by bad weather or shorter days in the winter, rather the opposite as 24-hour production is possible with staff working in shifts. On a visit earlier this year to Finland to see a modular homes factory I noticed a significant number of women working on the production line doing jobs including tiling and electrics. How many women have you ever seen on a British building site?
We could also make a significant move to end the high energy bill ‘rip off’ by generating our own electricity. Take Ecopower in Belgium for instance. They have 50,000 members and 40,000 customers and produce their own electricity from solar, wind and hydro. They own 20 wind turbines and members install solar panels on their homes. Members of the co-operative buy shares costing 250€ and are entitled to cheaper electricity, a dividend of not more than 6% per year and a vote in the decision making process.
We have some similar companies in the UK such as Robin Hood Energy, which was the first local authority energy company in the UK, run and wholly owned by Nottingham City Council. Other councils such as Bristol have followed but none of these companies are making their own power.
A combination of owning and making our own green energy together with manufacturing the homes of the future in factories could significantly drive down household energy bills and tackle fuel poverty while at the same time addressing climate change. There is every reason why the North East should be leading this green revolution. A greener future is within our grasp.