Housing

photo of a house made using hempcrete

Green Drinks with PHG Consulting

On the 14 July we are holding our first in-person Green Drinks networking event with PHG Consulting. Not only are PHG members of Cynnal Cymru who share our values, but last year the building became Cardiff’s second Living Wage building whereby all tenants agreed to pay the real Living Wage to their employees and contractors working on site.

This first event will showcase PHG Consulting and sister company, Wellspring Homes sharing their experience of designing sustainable housing projects helping to reduce the emissions associated with materials and construction processes (aka ‘embodied carbon’). It will also be an opportunity to hear about the innovative methods of construction using solid Hempcrete walls. 

PHG Consulting – structural engineering inspired by nature

Founded in 2013, PHG Consulting is a firm of consulting Civil and Structural Engineers based in Cardiff.

Unlike many firms, they seldom advertise, or aggressively market themselves, preferring to allow their work and reputation to speak for itself, as over 85% of their work is repeat business.

They support many local community and environment causes and are passionate about Engineering, Architecture, Sculpture and the Arts, and promote creativity wherever they can. In particular, they support the promotion of engineering in local schools. 

Wellspring Homes

Wellspring Homes are a property developer established to bring low-embodied-carbon homes to both the affordable and private market. Their vision, to pursue construction-innovation which utilises better-than-zero carbon technology to deliver the next generation of living space.

With a desire to provide homes that are beautiful, practical and beneficial to the environment, Wellspring build with solid Hempcrete walls supported by a sustainable timber frame structure. Made from a mixture of hemp and lime, Hempcrete is ‘a revolution in sustainable living’.

As well as being a natural, better-than-zero carbon product, Hempcrete is breathable, insulating and mould proof. Its breathability allows moisture to pass out of the building, virtually eliminating internal condensation and potential mould growth. Its unique properties help to store and release heat from the building’s walls, limiting fluctuations in temperature and reducing energy use, the monolithic structure ensuring a high air tightness performance.

Lynfi Court in Maesteg, Wellsprings first project, is approaching completion. With its use of environmentally friendly materials, internal area of 3000ft2, air source heat pump and underfloor heating, it delivers a luxurious example of cutting edge, eco-living.

With planning permission granted for eight more homes in Neath using the same methods, Wellspring Homes continue to demonstrate what future-living can look like when the commercial housing industry choose to ‘build-different’.

To switch on the heating, or not? – a surprisingly complex question

On cold, wet and windy days a bike ride to work seems impossible. Damp shoes and clothes seem too much to contend with and wrapping up in a blanket on a Zoom call seems too unprofessional. Whether in the office or at home, the temptation to reach for the electric heater grows as the gas prices are rising and central heating under-performs. “To switch on the heating, or not” is the question that many people across the Northern hemisphere are asking themselves.

Here at Cynnal Cymru we recognise these challenges as we too battle between the need for comfort and the feeling of warmth versus our knowledge about climate change. We know from the 6th Carbon budget by the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC), that direct building CO₂ emissions were 85 MtCO₂ in 2019, which account for 17% of total UK GHG emission. This was mostly from our homes (77%), followed by commercial buildings (14%) and public buildings (9%). The reason behind these figures is simple – it is our demand for hot water and heating. 74% of this demand in buildings is met by natural gas, and 10% by petroleum, with smaller amounts of other fuels such as coal and biomass.

To reduce total emissions, the ways in which we heat and use our buildings must be addressed. Recommendations from the CCC include changing behaviour (use less, lower the temperature), increasing building efficiency (insulation), and introducing low carbon heat (air source or ground heat pumps, hydrogen, low carbon district heating etc). The topic of heat then sits at the core of what we at Cynnal Cymru care about, not just professionally but personally too.

Over the last few months, we took part in an unintentional social experiment, because the building we are located in was undergoing a renovation of its central heating. We wore our thickest jumpers, we made many hot drinks, and despite all efforts, eventually, we turned to the electric heaters knowing perfectly well their economic and environmental cost.

This lack of heat got us talking about comfort, habits, energy, renewables, ways to keep warm, and insulation. We knew well that to reduce carbon emissions and to protect future generations, we need to do our bit around heat –which, in reality, may well mean getting used to feeling colder while waiting for a zero-carbon alternative to arrive. But how might this impact on those other fundamental human feelings and needs – for warmth, security and comfort? And what does this mean for the changes that we need to make as a society?

To delve deeper into these questions – and to explore the challenges and opportunities that Wales faces for warm homes and decarbonisation – Dr Karolina Rucinska, our Sustainability Advisor, set out on a research journey that will be shared over the coming weeks. We start with the basics – what is heat?

Heat is moving

If you are grumbling about how cold your house is despite having the radiators on, it is because heat, if it can escape, will always do so. However hard you try, the hot stuff will eventually become cold because the world we live in is governed by the uncompromising laws of thermodynamics. ‘Heat in motion’, Chris Woodford explains in Atoms under the floorboards (2016, Bloomsbury Publishing), ‘is another way to describe thermodynamics, which explains things like how cars waste energy, why power stations need such stupendous cooling towers, why cows have damp noses and dogs dangle out their tongues – and even why Arctic musk oxen spend so much time standing still in the snow.’

While the first law is concerned with energy loss, the second law of thermodynamics is concerned with the movement of heat, always from hot to cold and never the other way round. So, cold stuff is simply the lack of heat, while heat is stuff that always wants to go where there is less of it. Sounds weird, but effectively this is what is happening in our homes. Heat moves around and is, as it were, always on the go, so to make your home cosy, you are effectively trying to heat up every atom in everything that is inside. This takes huge effort and of course energy. If you are using different heaters that store heat and give it away at different rates, then you might wait hours if not days to feel cosy, while all that heat continues to slosh around and move.

This physical side of heat points to one thing: if you want to keep your house cosy, you must insulate it. Without insulation, heat will always escape regardless of how you warm it up. Before you look up low carbon alternatives to your boiler, invest in insulation.

If only it was that easy….

The UK has some of the oldest and most leaky housing stock in Europe. According to the Independent review on decarbonising Welsh homes, 32% of the Welsh housing stock was built before 1919, when there were no construction standards in terms of thermal performance. Research by the Cardiff University School of Architecture showed that the average energy performance (EPC) rating of the Welsh housing stock is a ‘D’ rating*, which raises the incidences of fuel poverty. 43% of people living in private rented accommodation are living in houses built before 1919.

The Guardian reports that, nine in 10 households rely on gas boilers, and lots of gas boilers need lots of gas: UK households consume more of it than almost all of their European peers, at around twice the EU average. With the price of gas going up and energy companies going down, heating leaky homes feels wasteful if they continue to be not insulated well enough to counter that physical side of heat. Between 2012 and 2019 the number of home insulation installations actually dropped by 95%. National Energy Action (NEA), the national fuel poverty charity, has noted that at that rate it would take nearly a century to properly insulate all of the current fuel-poor homes in the country. The statistics are eye-opening indeed. They are clearly telling policy makers and businesses that to significantly reduce carbon emissions from buildings by 2050, actions have to be taken now. But there is something about heat that speaks not to reason and data, but to feeling, an embodied feeling.

Heat is us

Like houses, our bodies too are governed by thermodynamics. Heat escapes our bodies and even after vigorous exercise, we eventually cool down. We give away heat, which we feel immediately, and we want to do something about it, immediately. But we cannot wait years and decades until housing stock is less leaky. We can put on the warmest jumpers to almost insulate our bodies as we would with our houses, but nothing will stop us from eventually feeling cold again. At some point we will need to, despite all that we know about the costs of gas and leaky houses, warm ourselves up. We are all taking temporary and readily available solutions simply because it is cold.

The problem though is that the embodied feeling is not experienced, which in turn perhaps influences our motivation and ability to act, for ourselves and others. Illness, age, cardiovascular system, place, and even norms, as research suggests, dictate how our bodies experience heat or lack thereof. If you have had a disagreement with your family or co-workers about the “right” temperature settings, then you will know what I am talking about.

Heat is suddenly a societal thing. It unites us as well as divides us. How one experiences heat or the lack of it, and what one does about it, also reveals something, unknowingly, about us. Which is why, heating our homes or not, it is about us too. It is a personal, deeply private and emotional thing. As researchers, Erin Roberts and Karen Henwood, from Cardiff University observed, heating is not just about thermal performance of a house, but about thermal comfort. It evokes the feeling of belonging, of feeling safe, of feeling looked after. It brings up the good memories of being with a family and sadly, bad memories of coming home after school with radiators off because parents, often despite being in work, cannot afford high energy bills. Heating can then become, unfairly, a social stigma and a social divide.

Heat is incredibly complex then, as it touches on our most intimate and most sacred parts of our lives, lives which, just like our housing stock, are governed by laws of thermodynamics. Our attention to these laws and insights, or lack of it, will influence future heating actions and policy.

Over the coming weeks, we will be sharing a series of articles to explore the challenges and opportunities it poses for equality, decarbonisation and social transformation.

*Properties are given an energy-efficiency grade between A and G, with A being the best – i.e., most energy-efficient – and G being the worst.

How the CLCC is breaking down barriers in climate education

Since its inception, 75 members have become trainers and 157 individuals have certified as carbon literate. CLCC’s Project Lead (Luke Penny) and Facilitator (Fiona Humphreys) were interviewed by Abi Hoare Development Officer at Cynnal Cymru to share the story behind the collaboration.

What is the CLCC?

Carbon Literacy Cartrefi Cymru (CLCC) is a consortium of 27 different housing associations in Wales, which have individually contributed resources to increase Carbon Literacy throughout Welsh social housing.

Through peer-to-peer delivery, the project provides the tools necessary for individual tenants to understand the causes and consequences of climate change, as well as empower them to act upon their choices. At the close of 2021, 75 trainers were involved, and 157 individuals had been certified as Carbon Literate, even though most independent courses weren’t due to start until 2022.

What is a consortium?

Effectively, a consortium is a formal collaboration, where people work together to achieve a common objective. In this instance, the common objective is to certify as many Carbon Literate individuals as possible within housing associations – both staff and tenants.

How does it work?

Each of the housing associations involved have contributed resources to fund the development of Carbon Literacy delivery within their individual organisations. Currently, 75 staff members have attended Cynnal Cymru’s ‘Train the Trainer’ course to support their teaching.

Even though the delivery is down to the trainer’s own discretion, participants will typically receive a day’s worth of virtual peer-to-peer learning, before submitting an evidence form to become certified. This will feature two pledges that will have a positive effect on carbon reduction at home and in their workplace/ with a group.

What is its main advantage?

Firstly, it removes the ‘us and them’ narrative that dampens climate activism and makes it inaccessible. One of the difficulties with climate change discourse, is that it’s difficult to know where to start if you have no formal education.

By providing Carbon Literacy training through housing associations, the course can give individuals the starting block they need that they may not have had the time, money, or knowledge to access otherwise.

How has working in collaboration increased action on Carbon Literacy?

In simple terms, by training new trainers, more individuals can take part in the Carbon Literacy Project than before. Not to mention, the resulting network and Communities of Practice are providing moral support that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.

The energy and excitement of the CLCC’s trainers is what makes all the difference, so having a safe space to share experiences and challenges has helped significantly.

What role does Cynnal Cymru play in the consortium?

Cynnal Cymru acts purely within a secretariat and facilitator role. It has no specific requirements within the project, besides its initial creation and providing the necessary tools and support. What housing associations and trainers choose to do with Carbon Literacy beyond that is entirely their own decision.

What’s next for the CLCC?

A second version of the course is currently in development based upon the feedback received in the Communities of Practice, but the next big step is translating the course and delivering it entirely in Welsh.

In time, there is the possibility of starting new Carbon Literacy consortiums in different sectors or industries where Cynnal Cymru are available to offer that inception and on-going support role.

Wales’ very first ‘energy positive’ house with a social conscience

The project is a celebration of low carbon energy research from all over Wales, bringing together universities, industries and the government. The house is capable of exporting energy generated on site to the grid, eradicating energy bills and supplying Wales with clean, renewable energy.

SOLCER House combines advances in sustainable technologies in order to design a house that fits within the social housing framework, meaning Registered Social Landlords are capable of building homes similar to SOLCER House at the same price but sharing net benefits amongst residents, their value chain and the environment. SOLCER House cost around £1,000 per m2, which is within the social housing pricing benchmark.

The construction materials and low carbon technologies were procured from within Wales, as much as possible, showcasing the ability of Wales to deliver low carbon innovation to the world. The energy positive SOLCER House was built with high levels of thermal insulation and reduced air leakage in order to minimise energy demand. The energy efficient design includes:

  • Cenin low carbon cement.
  • Structurally Insulated Panels (SIPs). They have higher thermal insulation than timber, supplied by SIPS Wales in Llandovery.
  • Transpired solar air collectors. This is part of the cladding, which is made up of small perforations in the surface to allow heat to be captured and circulated by a ventilation system, manufactured and installed Central Roofing South Wales.
  • Low emissivity double glazed aluminium clad timber window frame and doors that can save up to 8 pence per kWh per window, manufactured by Vellacine in Cardiff.
  • 4.3kWp photovoltaic solar panel system on the south facing roof.
  • Lithium ion storage battery, supplied by Victron Energy.

SOLCER House is the first energy positive house built in the UK and will deliver on critical targets set by the EU to build ‘nearly zero’ energy buildings by 2020. The project is a systematic model design of how these targets can be achieved.

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