Driving Up Quality: Are We Due an Emissions Scandal in New Homes?

A recent report by the Committee on Climate Change made headlines for calling out the lack of action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from our homes. In this BBC News article, for example, the quality and comfort of new homes is rightfully criticised, while there is the usual hit-yourself-in-the-face-with-a-cricket-bat government response.

In the same article, the lack of reliable quality and performance from our building stock is compared to the emissions testing scandal that engulfed Volkswagen a few years ago. That analogy is valid but nothing new - the architect Elrond Burrell made it in a post on his excellent blog in 2015.

The way we produce cars has to change … and the same is true for buildings.

In 2018, I wrote what follows in this post for Insulate Magazine, with my own take on comparisons between the automotive and construction industries. Car manufacturers have long sold their products on the basis of fuel efficiency and emissions, despite most paying customers knowing they won’t achieve those figures.

Similar awareness still doesn’t exist for people looking to buy a new home, but I wondered if changes in the automotive industry hinted at a different future in construction.

Controlled conditions

A 2014 edition of Audi Magazine, the customer magazine of Audi UK, carried an article about fuel performance and carbon dioxide emissions figures for cars. As well as describing how the tests are carried out, there was also an explanation of the usefulness of the results.

It made for interesting reading, not least because of the openness with which it talked about how little relevance the test figures had for what would be achieved on the road. Tests must be “in strict adherence with European guidelines” and have to be done in laboratory conditions because the “infinite variations” in road conditions, weather and driving style would make it impossible to test one vehicle against another in the real world.

The other striking thing about the piece was how much resemblance its content bore to the construction industry.

The in-situ testing of construction is almost non-existent, with assessment being based around software, paperwork and the limited policing of translating design intent to site. Statements such as, “it is not practical to test every new car” brought to mind building regulations that allow acoustic or air pressure testing of a sample of dwelling types.

In explaining how the figures are “for guidance only” - but that they allow for a comparison between models from one manufacturer or different manufacturers - it was impossible not to think of SAP and SBEM calculations being used to assess building compliance, and Energy Performance Certificates rating performance without accounting for occupant behaviour.

Uncovering truth

Of course, not long after the article’s publication, the Volkswagen Group became engulfed in a scandal of its own making through the revelations that it cheated emissions tests.

With hindsight, it’s easy to be sceptical about any apparent good intent in the magazine article because Audi is part of the VW Group. In truth, however, any car manufacturer could have written it, so the validity of comparisons between the automotive and construction industries isn’t diminished.

If anything, the existence of an even bigger performance gap between a car’s lab results and road performance only serves to make the comparisons more relevant.

The reality of building performance is that energy use is typically 30% higher once constructed than was predicted at design stage. That is far too big a discrepancy to be explained away by ‘infinite variations’ of occupant behaviour, or site location and weather conditions.

Strength of feeling?

Once the full extent of the VW scandal became clear, it was not uncommon to hear suggestions that the performance of buildings - and housing specifically - should be highlighted as a similar scandal in an effort to raise public awareness.

How outraged were people really, though?

In 2016, the VW Group became the number one car manufacturer in the world in terms of sales. While some of that could be attributed to growth in China, it also suggested that other qualities of the brand were enough to keep some - if not all - of its existing customers.

The picture has started to change more recently. 2018 has brought reports of a reduction in sales of diesel cars generally. The VW issue is seen as part of that, but the biggest driver (pun intended) has been the messages coming from Government.

A taxing problem

Talk of higher taxes on diesels - because of pollutants other than carbon dioxide - and eventual outright bans as part of tackling climate change, led to the inevitable question: why would anybody buy a diesel car right now?

Another question is: could a similar fate befall buildings that don’t deliver their designed performance?

Already it feels like the tide could be starting to turn. Stories about defect-ridden new homes seem to feature in the mainstream media increasingly often. While that may not be enough to fire widespread public anger, it can only add to the pressure that is starting to come from a few voices in the corridors of power for the delivery of better quality construction.

Supply and demand

In the automotive industry the tide has largely turned. There are more than enough cars to meet demand, so car companies now need to invest in an alternative vision of the future. VW have committed to 70 billion Euros of investment in a shift towards electric vehicles.

In construction, the incentive for volume housebuilders to compete with one another for an alternative vision doesn’t yet exist. 60% of new houses are built by just ten companies; there are far too few houses to meet demand.

Questioning the suitability of current housing stock in a similar way to questioning diesel cars would risk further damaging a housing market that the Government already acknowledges is broken.

We can, though, wonder about the day that low energy construction becomes the norm - whether through public or official pressure - and there’s a legitimate case for asking, why would anybody buy an inefficient home right now?