Learning the lifestyle

Sustainable living has to be learnt. Even something as basic as putting out the recycling means understanding what can and cannot be recycled and which bin it must be placed in. When it comes to the home itself, things potentially become much more complicated. The most ‘eco’ home on the planet will fail to meet its full potential if the occupants don’t understand how it works; what’s more misconceptions are rife.

A recent blog by Dr Wolfgang Feist, of the Passive House Institute, set out to dispel myths about passive housing that even some in the industry have been guilt of perpetuating. Among the ideas he quashed was the belief that you can’t open windows in a passive house and that, due to mechanical ventilation, there’s a draft.

Worryingly there are also more practical issues to consider. The NHBC Foundation review, Indoor air quality in highly energy efficient homes, states: “Recent BRE discussions with UK manufacturers of MVHR (mechanical ventilation and heat recovery) systems suggest that there is no market for replacement filters with several reporting no filter sales at all. This suggests that maintenance is not being undertaken – even at the most basic level.”

Where technology such as MVHR is not maintained, there may be very real problems within the home such as a build up of humidity which, in turn, can lead to health issues and damage to the building’s fabric.

Maintenance in homes is already a big issue. If we’re lucky the gas boiler might receive an annual service but the need for more general maintenance has always been a difficult subject to get across. Many homes have failed due to even basic maintenance, like cleaning out gutters, being overlooked. When it comes to designing eco homes thought must be given to this aspect of human nature and it will be sensible to invest in proven technology which is simple and intuitive.

Consumer awareness, understanding and acceptance of ‘green’ technology in homes is undoubtedly in its infancy. This is partly due to the few examples of these technologies that have been installed to date. A survey by the NHBC Foundation – Zero Carbon: What does it mean to homeowners and housebuilders? – revealed that 92 per cent of respondents were found to have had no experience of micro-generation.

Meanwhile, Zero Carbon Homes: Creating the marketing programme, a report for the Zero Carbon Hub, highlighted the fact that 53 per cent of people have seen no ‘green’ technologies installed – even in a show home.

Education is undoubtedly the key but quite who should take responsibility for this is unclear. In the present climate it seems unlikely that it will be the government so the job will fall to housebuilders and, increasingly, to those involved in retrofitting the existing housing stock. Reaching the end user is not going to be easy but, unless a way is found, consumer ignorance and apathy could blight the road to zero carbon.

Image credit: Worcester Bosch Group


  1. Christian A. Wittke on August 24, 2010 at 9:27 am

    It would make a very good start to get rid of confusing and wrong terms such as “zero carbon” or such stupid thesis like “wood” or “nuclear is carbon free” energy.
    Yes, the consumer takes the decision so she/he is the one to know and understand; e.g. the difference why draught proofing is just not good enough.
    By the way, why is it mainstream’s best guess that a government can not be expected to take responsibility e.g. for education? And why – if so – is it still called Government instead of … what?


  2. Liz Male on August 24, 2010 at 10:24 am

    Good blog post Roger. Absolutely agree that there are risks from poor maintenance regimes – risks to our health and quality of life, risks to the fabric of our buildings, and risks to the UK’s aims of cutting carbon emissions.

    What seems to set things apart this time though is the latter set of risks. We have always had a situation where peoples’ neglect of their properties has resulted in damage and poor living conditions. This time around it matters more because the likelihood of problems are so much higher and because of the environmental impact too which could see many of our domestic low-carbon efforts come to naught.

    So you could argue that what we need is education about how to live more sustainable lifestyles as a whole, including understanding how a whole range of issues (shopping, motoring, travel and leisure etc.) impact on the environment.

    Interestingly though, I think starting with our homes would be an excellent place to begin. It could start at school (the new ‘home economics’ curriculum?), and would then extend to advice to students and tenants in rented accommodation (provided by councils, landlords and managing agents), to new home buyers (provided by housebuilders and warranty bodies), to anyone with buildings and contents insurance (provided by insurers), and to anyone undertaking home improvements (provided by product manufacturers, installers, RMI builders etc). As part of the home buying process, surveyors and solicitors could even check that proper maintenance regimes have been followed and documented, with all the relevant guarantees in place.

    This sort of awareness and rigour in making us good stewards of our housing stock may, I hope, take us a good way towards raising our overall environmental awareness and making us good stewards for the planet too.