Tuesday, December 15, 2009

We are making cars more efficient, but what about houses?

I have been chugging round in my Smart Diesel for a few days now.

My previous carriage of choice was twice as long and had an engine five times as big.

It is definitely not as luxurious as my petrol Mercedes was, but in all other ways it is a lot less of a compromise than I was expecting.

For one thing it is amazingly comfortable on long trips - just been to London and back - and I found the seats fine. Being a turbo diesel means it has a lot more urge than Karen's Daihatsu on the motorway - and it is quiet.

The biggest incentive was at the pumps. A return trip in the Mercedes was never less than £90 in fuel and about another £100 in maintenance and wear and tear. The trip in the Smart cost £30, about half the cost of going on the train.

I am not a convert to the global warming theory and remain a sceptic about the evidence that mans activity is causing the planet to warm up.

But in many ways whether there really is global warming or not is irrelevant; the balance of probability says we should try and be more fuel efficient. If the climate scientists are right then it will help prevent warming, and if they are wrong it will preserve our natural resources for future generations. This is a win-win.

If each of us tries to do something less harmful then there is no obvious downside and there could be a benefit for future generations.

The main plus of the public concern about the environment so far is a change in perceptions, turning up for an important business meeting in a small car like a Smart, or a Fiat 500 would until very recently have been seen as at best eccentric, and at worst as a career-damaging move whereas now it is seen as reflecting a responsible attitude.

What a pity that the realism in the business community that means my Smart is now seen as a perfectly acceptable form of transport for a senior executive has not spread to the world of Government Planning Inspectors and English Heritage.

Carbon dioxide emissions from the housing sector account for 27 per cent of the UK's carbon footprint while passenger cars account for only about 12%. There are 375,000 listed buildings in the UK of which 92% are the least important Grade 2 type, all of which are stuck in a 100 year old time warp and excluded from much new building material technology.

Take for example our home in Torquay. It is Grade 2 listed and under current legislation we cannot replace wooden sash windows and doors with more thermally efficient modern replicas even if they are indistinguishable to look at from the originals. We could not take advantage of the South facing aspect of the house to fit solar panels nor could we have a wind generator on the roof even though they would be invisible from the road. In fact after already fitting a condensing boiler and a lot of loft insulation there is little we can do to improve our homes thermal rating.

This is a classic case of a lack of 'joined up' thinking in Government, where one department sets rules and laws that directly conflict with another. On the one hand we want more efficient homes yet we actively prevent homeowners from making desirable improvements to bring their houses up to date, thermally speaking.

I agree that classic buildings need protecting from inappropriate modernisation but we should modify the listed buildings legislation to encourage thermal and efficiency improvements when new technology allows it to blend in, or when it is hidden.

The Georgians, Victorians and Edwardians made great buildings by embracing new building materials and technologies. What would they have made of our modern obsession with keeping thousands of buildings inefficient and wasteful - all in the name of purity?

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