Hot air about building performance creates turbulence

Alistair McIntosh, Chief Executive, HQN

We’re in the danger zone now. Winter is coming, as they say. Picture if you will a cold, wet day where the light is fading fast. What does a builder on scaffolding ten storeys up with freezing fingers do? You know what’s coming. He bangs on the cladding without the insulation using any old screws and hops back into the comfort of a warm Transit. That’s what I’m told by people in the know anyway.

It could be true. I was sitting in the café the other morning when two loud mouthed hi viz blokes came in. They pulled out an enormous architects’ drawing and proceeded to tell all and sundry how they would ignore it to get the job done.

So should we file all the specifications for our buildings under fiction? Hold your horses! The architects are fighting back.

You should get your hands on Fionn Stevenson’s new book called Housing Fit for Purpose. It sets out the gaps between homes as planned and what goes on when people actually live in them. Fionn is looking at carbon emissions but there are lots of lessons for fire safety too. Her starting point is the shocking statistic that new housing in the UK routinely uses three times more energy than predicted. How did we get so far out of sync and what must we to do to get back on track?

Fionn says that “key areas of concern were poor implementation of new technologies, unnecessarily complex controls, inadequate training of installers, poor commissioning and handover procedures and poor fabric construction, resulting in extensive thermal heat loss.” That’s damning isn’t it.

As you would expect the designers try to say it’s all down to the folk in the homes not using them properly. That’s more or less what car makers used to claim in the 1960s when their motors were “unsafe at any speed”. Here we go again. According to Fionn – “They wrongly blame the occupant or believe that the answer lies in ‘educating the occupant’ … when, in fact the cause lies blatantly in the poor design and installation of technology. This makes it impossible for the hapless inhabitant to use it properly.”

So what can we do to put this right? Fionn comes up with a set of practical suggestions.

Firstly, we need to test out that what we build works in real world conditions. We almost never do this.

So we need to go back to the homes when folk are living in them and make sure all is going to plan. Was everything fitted the way it was supposed to? Is it working in the way it is meant to? What do the residents have to say? How can we use this evidence to get it right next time? Fionn pulls no punches; sometimes the testing can disrupt day to day life. You will need to find a way of getting the resident to sign up to it. If you don’t you will keep on making the same mistakes.

Are homes built in laboratory conditions in factories the answer? Well they do demote the freezing fitter from a main part to a supporting role. And that’s a start. But there is still a flaw. You can use all the science there is to design the homes and the robots can put them together with inch perfect precision. Despite that you still don’t know how it will work out in practice. What can you do to fix this? Fionn suggests asking families to live in the prototypes part time to test them out. That will help to identify any teething problems. When a builder tried this they found that heat loss was 50% higher than the designers said it would be. So they changed the windows, sorted out flaws in the heating and hot water systems and came up with simpler controls.

All in all Fionn’s book suggests that the professionals should use a bit of humility and work with residents to solve problems. If we don’t do this the homes we build and refurbish won’t be safe and we won’t cut emissions. The Welsh Government is tying funding to decarbonisation. Will the rest of the UK follow suit? Yes they will. When they do we will need to cut emissions in real life not just in pretty drawings. Fionn shows how we can square the circle.

It puts me in mind of the slogan of the tenants that are pushing for co-production. “Nothing about us, without us.” Fionn shows the power of co-production in practice. Read her book, I’ve not done it justice.