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Did you see the exciting news about the UK’s first zero-carbon house?The clever team at the Welsh School of Architecture have designed and constructed what they say is “the UK's first purpose-built, low-cost energy smart house, capable of exporting more energy to the national electricity grid than it uses.”It was made all the more newsworthy because, just a few days before, the Government scrapped its plans for 2016 to make all new homes carbon neutral. As BBC News said, “they have constructed the sort of house George Osborne once described as impossible.”Apparently, the house is designed on the basis of ‘buildings as power stations’. It uses both solar generation and battery storage to power its combined heating, ventilation, hot water system and electrical power systems, which includes appliances, LED lighting and a heat pump. The solar air system preheats the ventilation air which is topped up from a thermal water store.Other innovative ideas include low carbon cement, structural insulated panels, external insulated render, solar collectors and super-efficient windows and doors.Which all adds up to not just a zero-carbon home but one that was built in 16 weeks and within the budget for social housing of £800 to £1,000 per sqm.All in all, it’s a triumph of innovation and should be applauded.Interestingly, on the same day the zero-rated house made front-page news, another housing first was announced – it received less attention, but perhaps is no less innovating.Apparently, 35 councils and housing associations have joined together to form the UK’s first non-profit energy supply company. In a direct challenge to the ‘big six’ energy companies, Our Power Energy will provide cheap energy to 200,000 low-income households in Scotland by 2020. The energy is expected to be up to 10% cheaper compared to standard tariffs.Last year, at the other end of the British Isles, Plymouth Council signed a deal with energy company Ovo to supply their residents. Many other councils are looking at similar schemes amid increased frustration with the traditional suppliers.For their part, the ‘big six’ explain that their pricing structures are necessary mainly because of a lack of a clear, long-term Government energy policy over the past two decades.Add to that the uncertainty over the future of energy efficiency schemes such as the Green Deal, Energy Company Obligation and Feed-in Tariffs, and it becomes clear why many in the housing industry are taking matters into their own hands and looking for innovative solutions.Providing affordable, sustainable housing is as big a challenge today as it has ever been. Housing emissions account for almost a third of the UK’s total CO2 emissions. And the latest research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows the strong evidence that links poverty and housing. As it says: “Until recently, a combination of social housing, Housing Benefit and the homelessness safety net has provided protection against poverty. However, on current trends, there is a real danger that the housing system will create poverty and deprivation.”Further on it calls on central and local government to make changes: “Improving the sustainability of housing is important in meeting the challenge of climate change but it can also help to make housing more affordable by cutting energy bills, and this more affordable warmth promotes health and well-being at a local level.”For our part, at Mears we are proud of the innovative approaches we take to reduce our own environmental impacts, as well as working with Local Authorities to help create more sustainable social housing.As the UK’s leading service provider to the social housing sector, we recognise that we must give our clients access to the best and most effective delivery methods. We work closely with partners who can provide innovative solutions – such as using drones to survey roofs, conducting property ‘MOTs’ or using new technology to overcome the likes of cold bridging in walls. This not only gives clients innovative delivery options, but can cut time and project expense.We also work closely with residents to help them understand the long-term benefits of energy-saving measures – after all, they are the ones who will see the savings on their bills.If we are to improve the quality of lives for residents by reducing fuel poverty and providing them with affordable warmth, as well aspromote and raise awareness of climate change and carbon reduction, we must address the challenges of energy efficiency within the social housing sector – and at the heart of that is innovation.


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