Perspectives on sustainability and climate change in domestic housing

Today's best in class building and heating technologies provide many answers to the question – how will we tackle decarbonisation of heating in existing homes?

We often look to the horizon in search of new, exciting concepts and solutions, hypothesising how the status quo can be transformed from combustion of fuels to an electrified eutopia. In this future gazing mode, it is sometimes difficult to see what is right in front of us, and solutions that have been developed over decades can appear to be irrelevant.

Let's think about best practice for a moment – best practice is often elusive, not achieved. This can be for a variety of reasons – lack of awareness, lack of availability, suspicion of change… but it is usually because of cost.

In an ideal world best practice would become minimum standard, and new solutions and best practice developed continuously so that the bar is progressively raised.

When one looks at the average domestic dwelling it looks much the same as it did a decade ago, it has loft and cavity wall insulation, double glazing, and a high efficiency gas boiler. If you look ahead to 2031 the picture won't have changed significantly; Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) bands may have increased a notch from D to C, but the typical home will not be recognised as todays' 'best practice', rather 'minimum standard'.

If we are serious about retrofitting our homes for net zero, we need to stop talking about 'minimum standards' in policy and regulation and have a ratcheting mechanism that continually raises the bar to new and improved standards.

Today’s best practices include gas condensing boilers with load compensation controls, system balancing and right sized emitters for low temperature operation and equipped with thermostatic radiator valves (TRVs). If this was the minimum standard, we would quickly reduce gas consumption by 30% making a huge dent on the journey to net zero (30% hydrogen blend by volume only reduces carbon emissions by 10%).

This optimised heating system would also become ‘heat pump ready' as well as 'hydrogen boiler ready' and therefore be a no regret action that would quickly payback the investment as well as putting the brakes on waste and emissions.

I have recently had an air source heat pump and smart cylinder installed, and very impressive they are. What wasn't so impressive was the level of disruption and time taken to convert what was a best practice 'heat pump ready' system to a '2025 spec' heating system. A huge challenge remains unanswered – the challenge of industrialisation. These technologies are mature and have been around for decades, yet they remain futuristic and rare.

Therefore, in summary, I would implore all stakeholders to embrace 'best practice', become an expert at it, tell everyone that 'good enough' isn’t good enough anymore - then we will be ready for '2025 spec' which when you think about it is still only halfway to 2050.