A spreading stain on the bathroom ceiling and a strange noise emanating from the loft were the first indications that something was wrong, so the owners of the two-bed, Code Level 5 demonstration house in the south-east called in an engineer to take a look.
A closer inspection revealed the source of the leak to be the mechanical ventilation and heat recovery system, where a large pool of water had gathered in the main unit due to poorly insulated ductwork and ventilation problems that had allowed water to condense inside.
The unit had not been commissioned properly, says the development manager for the housing association that led the project, who described the problems on the condition that the housing association would remain anonymous: “The commissioning report was completed, but there was confusion over whether it was the plumber or electrician’s responsibility. Whoever had done it was very lax and just thought ‘as long was we can switch it on it works’, but the unit needed fine tuning.”
Teething problems on the house, which was designed to test building techniques and technologies intended for zero carbon homes and retrofits, did not end there: external pipes for a rainwater harvesting system burst in the cold weather due to a lack of insulation; and delays getting the building watertight during construction caused internal plastering to crack.
“The intention was to build the external skin up quickly, using high thermal performance lightweight concrete blocks, then get the roof on and get weathertight fast,” explains the development manager. “But the builder erected the walls like traditional masonry in two layers, which slowed the project down and the weather caught us out.”
Meanwhile, the owners’ heating bills turned out much higher than expected after they grew frustrated with the slow response from a ground source heat pump and repeatedly used the immersion.
Such problems are by no means isolated in an industry struggling to get to grips with a changing environmental agenda, and research on new build and retrofitted properties shows that several key technologies are failing to deliver, either because systems are underperforming in-situ, or because of poor installation or commissioning. There are also issues surrounding poor communication over how renewable technologies work and lack of management of homeowners’ expectations.
In many ways, the industry is still playing catch up with green training and knowledge. “It should be about getting design messages from the design team to the site and understanding that achieving ambitious energy standards means paying greater attention to detail and more care over commissioning,” says the development manager.
“I’ve come a cross a range of schemes which have all had similar issues with the correct set up and commissioning,” adds Terry Keech, head of sustainability at Calford Seaden. “This has led to residents’ perception of poorly performing renewable technologies and clients’ concern at above-average defects reports.
“The main concern is residents’ lack of bonding (for want of a better word) with the technology to really realise the potential energy savings. Perceptions of poor performance lead residents to bypass the technology, or in some cases the client to remove and replace it. Responses range from lukewarm, to feelings that renewable technologies are little more than a gimmick.”
Things will come to a head at the launch of the government’s Green Deal in October next year, when the industry will require a small army of newly qualified installers to implement a range of energy efficiency measures on the nation’s existing housing stock. The initiative is expected to create 200,000 jobs and provide millions of pounds worth of work on the 14 million homes targeted for renovation by 2020, simultaneously driving down emissions to help Britain meet its 80% carbon emissions reduction target by 2050. But many are wondering how on earth the industry is going to be ready in time.
Over the coming months, the industry must identify the gaps in its skills and knowledge and develop new courses to help address them. No mean feat, when you consider that just two in 10 small builders and tradespeople are confident they have the right knowledge and skills to meet the challenge of the Green Deal, according to a July poll by market research company onehundredpercentcotton.
The Green Deal’s success hinges on consumer take-up, so new rules on the accreditation of home energy advisers and installers will also be introduced to ensure people don’t fall foul of cowboys — a big task as most of the work will be carried out by small builders who currently require no qualifications to operate.
“It’s a massive challenge to work out all the skills required and there is concern among the consulting bodies advising the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) about how we are going to get this all done in time,” says Brian Berry, director of external affairs at the Federation of Master Builders (FMB).
“It’s a bit of a learning exercise in terms of best practice and identifying the right remedial measures for properties, but at least we have started and the government has recognised that all of this needs to be pulled together.”
With the twin imperative of cutting domestic fuel costs and carbon emissions, under the Green Deal private firms, such as retailers or energy providers, will offer consumers energy efficiency improvements to their homes at no upfront cost, then recoup payments through a charge on energy bills.
Under current plans, homeowners will be able to choose from 23 different technologies, including cavity wall insulation, draught proofing, solar water heating, wood burning stoves or biomass boilers.
If it is to work, the Green Deal must ensure that technologies deliver the required energy performance and associated savings needed to offset the initial capital costs of their installation. Effective insulation and airtightness are seen as fundamental to cutting a home’s energy and space heating needs, but it is still rare to find this done properly, says Ian Mawditt, director of consultant Four Walls, an expert on building fabric issues and technical adviser to the government on building standards.
“I’ve inspected hundreds of new-build properties and it’s not often I see a fault-free cavity wall installation where the insulation has been dressed properly, or where there are no air gaps or thermal bypass issues,” says Mawditt. “I’ve completed thermal imaging studies that show only two thirds of a house’s walls have been effectively insulated.”
Loft insulation upgrades in existing properties are also failing to match up to manufacturers’ heat conservation claims, says Mawditt. Four Walls recently completed a study of 40 homes retrofitted with the recommended 270mm depth of loft insulation and found that in most cases U-values were much lower than advertised. “Manufacturers are claiming 270mm can reduce home heating costs by 20-25%, but the quality of work is not there,” he says. “The biggest problem is getting insulation rolls into the eaves to prevent thermal bypass. In reality we are seeing U-values of 0.25W/m2K, nowhere near what’s being claimed.”
The effectiveness of solar photovoltaic panels, which are also likely to become available under the Green Deal, is also in question. A 2.7kWp domestic installation costing £12,000 was originally estimated to knock £120 a year off household bills, but the Energy Saving Trust has since revised this estimate to £70 a year, saying that, for most people, only 25% of the energy produced is used in the home because solar panels only operate during the day, when occupiers are out.
Meanwhile, a report by Which? highlighted the poor solar PV advice being given to homeowners by installers. Of the 12 solar PV panel companies investigated, two thirds overestimated how much energy panels would produce, and eight underestimated how long it would take for the system to pay for itself.
Other renewable energy systems, such as communal biomass and green water recycling, have been causing teething problems on a development of Code Level 5 homes, completed towards the end of 2009 by a UK housing association (which also asked to remain anonymous).
Counter to design predictions, the communal biomass boiler, used for heating and hot water, proved very expensive to run, using far more pellets than predicted, a spokesperson says. The 9 tonne annual consumption estimate, had already reached 12-13 tonnes by July this year, and the system requires £4,000 of electricity a year to run.
Heat recovery systems had problems with condensation build up, which means filters have to be cleaned every three months, a big problem in tenanted properties where access can be an issue.
“If we did the whole thing again, we’d ask a few hard questions about how much maintenance is required,” a senior manager at the housing association admits.
“We have tried to brief our maintenance people, but they are not geared up for it. Tenants will ring up and say the boiler isn’t working — the fact is they don’t have a boiler — so the maintenance staff go and tinker with the biomass, but really they don’t know how to fix it.”
Ultimately, the Green Deal should act as a catalyst to revise how industry allots responsibility for work. Product manufacturers will take greater interest in how their products are being installed, as they are often the first point of contact for homeowners when something goes wrong. Green Deal providers will focus more on the quality of the installers they use and there will be renewed interest in managing liability on jobs.
But the Green Deal has its work cut out to expand environmental retrofit work from a very small industry sector to cover the entire country and there’s a danger that such rapid growth could lead to poor practice and skills shortages. The DECC and industry partners are moving to address these issues, with primary legislation for the Green Deal expected in early autumn, dependent on Royal Assent to the Energy Bill, followed shortly after by consultation on secondary regulations.
There’s a lot to be optimistic about, but success is by no means guaranteed, says the UKGBC’s Cat Hirst: “It’s a chicken and egg thing — you need a skilled workforce to enable the launch and to get customers signing up, but at the same time you need the market there to encourage businesses to put employees through the training. As we get closer, businesses will need reassurances that the market is actually going to materialise,” she says.
With 25 million UK homes in need of energy improvements, the industry clearly has some catching up to do if it is to deliver a competent assessment and installation workforce in time for the launch of the Green Deal.
To tackle this issue, the three sector skills councils — Asset Skills, ConstructionSkills and SummitSkills — have formed the Green Deal Skills Alliance to research and prepare an action plan for the roll out of training and to develop common standards to sit across all aspects of Green Deal assessment, advice and installation.
There is a need for Green Deal energy advisers to assess properties and recommend measures to homeowners, says Cat Hirst, sustainability training and education programme manager at the UK Green Building Council: “For me, there are two critical factors: the home energy assessment process itself;
and the expertise of the assessors. We will need a core group of highly competent assessors in place or the whole Green Deal could fail before it has even started. The good news is, there is a lot of work going on to ensure that building assessments are accurate and can be delivered in a standardised way.”
Installers also need to understand the complex interaction of materials and systems when retrofitting existing properties, says Tony Howard, head of business development at ConstructionSkills. “Many people don’t understand the knock-on effects of the work they are doing. Something as simple as an engineer installing a gas boiler and drilling a hole through a wall for a flue could damage the fabric membrane, or compromise the entire ventilation process if it’s a house with a MVHR system,” he says.
This new approach could trigger a sea change in the way installers work. Rather than considering their work in isolation, plumbers or electricians, for example, might have to consider the potential impacts their work has on a building’s overall energy efficiency. This holistic approach could also bring about a need for construction managers to oversee development-wide projects and understand how various works interrelate and impact on building performance.
Solid wall insulation is generally considered critical to cutting energy wastage from many existing properties, but it’s a very complex area and still very niche for the industry, says Brian Scannell, managing director of energy efficiency expert National Energy Services and chair of the qualification and accreditation forum for Green Deal advisers.
“Serious problems can arise. Get it wrong and you can find damp problems, or interstitial condensation, it’s vital to get detailing right around windows and doors," says Scannell. “On external walls it’s equally complex. My architect colleagues are saying you have no idea how complex this is until you get into it.”
Given the industry’s chequered reputation, the Green Deal will set in place new standards, checks and balances to ensure consistency and to sufficiently protect the public from shoddy work. All Green Deal advisers, providers and installers will have to become accredited under the relevant certification scheme for their trade.
“This is a major step change,” says Scannell. “Consumers need to know how they can differentiate between cowboy builders who appear to be offering you the same thing at a discounted price and those that are operating to a much higher standard.”
The government plans to build on existing certification methods, including competent person schemes and Trustmark. These schemes, in turn, will have to comply with the new Green Deal Standard (Publicly Available Standard 2030) currently being developed by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and due for publication in January, which will identify the precise competencies and qualifications Green Deal installers require.
The standard will also cover skills required for installing environmental technologies such as solar PV or biomass. The UK Accreditation Service will then provide independent accreditation of certification bodies to ensure that they are meeting this standard.
On the energy adviser side, the DECC has asked Asset Skills to develop a new suite of National Occupational Standards for energy assessment and certification,
which will also look at the creation of new standards for Green Deal awareness raising, support and services for customers, advisers providing financial advice and motivating householders towards greater energy efficiency and carbon reduction.
There will be increased emphasis on quality assurance to ensure installations are done to the manufacturers’, or engineer/architects’ specification with spot checks likely to be carried out by a supervisor or a site manager, or the installer’s federation or certification body.
“It’s important these safeguards are in place,” says Paul Everall chief executive of Local Authority Building Control and spokesman for the CIOB’s Chartered Building Company scheme. “It may be down to the LABC to check that installs comply with regulations, but checks by competent person schemes should ensure a high standard.”
There are also plans to implement mandatory insurance-backed warranties to cover work so consumers are covered if there are faults with advice or installations
(see panel overleaf).
Safeguards for consumers will be built into the Green Deal from the outset to ensure that homeowners are covered for faults with advice or installation.
A Department of Energy and Climate Change task group is considering how this will be managed. Long-term insurance-backed warranties are being discussed, but also on the table are escrow schemes, such as Bondpay, through which Green Deal loans are held in an account on behalf of the homeowner and the contractor, with funds only released to the contractor when the homeowner is satisfied that the work has been completed to a good standard. The government-licensed Trustmark reliable tradesman scheme recommends Bondpay on its website.
“The problem with warranties is they are all about the homeowner, so there’s less incentive for the builder to make sure work is done well,” says Bondpay’s managing director Nick Edgell. “Bondpay is an evolution of the warranty that benefits both contractual parties. The builder can be confident the money will be paid on satisfactory completion and the homeowner is reassured the builder can’t run off with money or receive a deposit and then not complete the job.”
Both parties are notified by email when the funds are deposited into a secure account, and the contractor pays Bondpay a fee worth 2.5% of held funds, “it’s around same fee as merchant fees when using a credit card”, says Edgell.
If the homeowner is not satisfied with the work, BondPay investigates as an impartial referee, taking a chartered surveyor to inspect the work. If problems are identified the contractor is asked to return to site to make good. The scheme also guarantees work for 12 months after completion at no cost.