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The heat/cool dichotomy

Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe

A couple of years ago as the Green Deal really got going – in terms of Government and industry hopes of course, rather than actual bookings and signed deals, there was a report from the University of Loughborough which suggested that the Government’s flagship energy policy might actually be responsible for killing people through overheated homes.

Obviously, headlines like ‘Insulation can kill you’ are a) not helpful, b) not true and c) only written so that people will read the story. However, the research that the University did was been highlighted again this week in the FT which expands the problem to public buildings, specifically hospitals which, it says, are so badly ventilated that old people run the risk of being killed off there, regardless of what illness they have.

This latest set of research reiterates the idea that, by over insulating our homes and, indeed, public buildings (specifically older-style hospitals), we are building up trouble, if not actual ill-health and death for ourselves.

What the various reports are getting at is not that the Green Deal will kill us as we sleep in our beds; rather that a sensible approach to well-insulated homes is what is required. We need homes that keep us warm in winter and cool in summer and allow us to get some fresh air. The building fabric also needs to be able to breathe. There will be myriad problems further down the line caused by putting external wall insulation onto walls where the damp hasn’t been completely sorted out.

Of course the reason all this has hit the headlines again is because of Wednesday, the hottest July day since the Middle Ages. Days like these just highlight how little thought is given to keeping homes cool as well as warm.

Fuel poverty is a thing. It’s a Bad Thing and the best way of getting households out of fuel poverty is to make sure their houses can be made as warm as they need to be, as efficiently and as economically as possible. Note I’m saying as warm as they need to be. Not as warm as possible. Everyone has their own level of heating comfort as countless domestic arguments over the thermostat/sweater ratio will attest.

Housing design of the last 100 or so years clearly demonstrates the difficulties with pleasing all of the requirements all of the time. Those Victorian stone built cottages that are so hard to properly insulate and are always draughty in winter must have felt like heaven on a day like Wednesday. And those architect-designed modernist boxes with their plate-glass walls might let the light flood in on a Spring day but feel like the Palm House at Kew in the Summer.

Of course we have the Building Regulations and it’s issues like this that they were designed to deal with. Acres of forests and oceans of sweat and tears have gone into developing all the latest incarnations of Parts L and E and F but, all too often, the requirements of one can conflict with the requirements of another.

All this is a rather rambling way of saying that we really, truly need a joined-up, integrated policy on energy efficiency. We need our badly insulated homes to be brought up to standard, we need those specifying and installing insulation to understand the need for adequate ventilation, we need house designers and architects to understand that houses with big south-west and west facing windows are likely to turn into greenhouses in the Summer. And we need builders merchants to understand all these issues so that they can advise their customers.

Simples.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Fiona Russell-Horne
Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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