How is this tackling the climate crisis?
City of York Council is building 600 ‘zero carbon in use’ homes – properties that can be warmed and supplied with electricity and hot water without generating carbon emissions. The homes will be built to Passivhaus certification, a standard that leads to very little heat loss. Air source heat pumps will be used for heating and hot water, with roof-mounted solar panels supplying electricity.
The programme includes 600 homes across a number of council-owned sites. Two of these sites are in the planning process with construction due to start in early 2022 with first handovers by the end of the year. The homes will be in tight-knit terraces, improving their energy efficiency, and will be positioned to create maximum solar gain. The council is taking a holistic approach to make these developments truly sustainable, also offering car-free streets, free use of shared e-cargo bikes and planting schemes that increase biodiversity. The development will include homes for private buyers, social rental and shared ownership.
Consider communal heat pumps to reduce costs:
The main challenge is achieving a net zero standard that’s affordable and can be scaled up for big developments of houses. Technology such as mechanical ventilation units, air source heat pumps and solar panels all drive up costs.
Sourcing air source heat pumps that are sufficiently small (heat demand is very low due to Passivhaus standard) is challenging, and communal air source heat pumps may be more effective.
Focus on the Passivhaus design principles to keep costs down. The council originally added three storey dormers to some properties for design purposes but this altered the buildings’ thermal envelope and meant significantly more insulation. Sticking to simpler building forms reduces the need for insulation.
Training in green construction skills will be key to future projects, working with colleges is key:
Contractors are not experienced in delivering Passivhaus projects at scale. As well as this, college students are not aware of the green construction skills they will need in the future. For example the local college was considering closing its plastering course which is a key skill for external wall insulation. Including local colleges as project stakeholders is helping to address these issues.
Bringing other council departments on board is important. The project took a novel approach to development which was not always aligned to existing council design guidelines. Differences included designing for low parking demand, including more footpaths, and using sustainable urban drainage (SUDS) rather than the standard concrete drains. The project team has worked closely with the Highways team, bringing in suppliers of new technologies and at times using political leverage to emphasise the importance of an innovative low-carbon approach.
Higher national standards, set by government would reduce the challenges faced by the council:
The project was vulnerable to risk pricing (contractors increasing their prices due to uncertainty) and there was potential for quality issues on site. Higher building costs make it difficult to compete for new land that comes up on the open market, as other developers with lower build costs can offer higher prices. Further regulation from government is needed to set higher build standards.
What impact has it had?
An average new build home emits around 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), so the annual carbon savings from energy use for the whole programme will be 900 tonnes. The council has also considered embodied carbon in the design process. This is all the carbon emitted to produce the materials for construction and is usually neglected in carbon calculations for new buildings. In one instance this approach helped save a forecast 120,000Kg of CO2 equivalent (Co2e) just by changing the foundation design on one of the schemes.
Lower energy bills:
The energy used in each home will be far lower than for a standard new build property. Over the course of a year each home will generate at least as much energy as it uses, and many properties will actually create a surplus. Due to this, total energy bills will be more than 50% lower than those for a new property built to standard building regulations (around £395 per year rather than £723). 40% of the homes on each site will be affordable, so this saving will greatly help tackle fuel poverty for those residents and increase their disposable income.
Improved resident health:
The project is expected to improve people’s health by encouraging active travel, and by providing warm, well-ventilated homes.
Upskilling of local workforce:
City of York Council is using grant funding (from the Local Government Association) to work with a local college to train up lecturers on Passivhaus, and to offer conversion courses that help local gas engineers work on heat pumps.
The project aims to increase biodiversity in the area by ensuring that the landscaping around the houses is good for wildlife.