Building regs challenge presented by ‘COP26’ house design

IF there is a conversation to be had about to what extent the country’s building regulations address the pressing issue of our times – climate change – then architect, Peter Smith, wants to be part of it. 

In fact, he is arguably already part of it, having designed a house that meets several climate change targets and, what’s more, is expected to be priced at a relatively affordable £140,000 when, as anticipated, it comes to the market, in kit form, under the brand name, Beyond Zero Homes. 

A completed version of his design has recently been delivered to the City of Glasgow College, to inspire students, having previously been on display on a site by the river Clyde, in Glasgow, as the city was hosting, in November, world leaders for the latest United Nations conference on climate change, COP26. 

Spotting an opportunity to showcase his ideas, Smith simply asked for permission, the site managed by national enterprise agency, Scottish Enterprise.

There might be other designs offering a dream combination of environmental responsibility and affordability, but this one just so happened to be in the box seat. 

Occupying such a prominent city-centre spot allowed Smith – and colleagues at the architectural practice he works at, Roderick James Architects – to give guided tours to the great and the good of Scottish housing, including from government. 

That the building has been re-located to the City of Glasgow College says much about Smith’s design approach: creating something that can be dismantled and easily-enough re-used or re-purposed. After all, part of the climate change agenda is how to reverse our throwaway culture, and this house – essentially screwed together, with the screw heads easily accessible – allows for its component parts to be easily put on the back of a lorry. 

The house is poised to become the subject of ongoing testing and analysis, as to how it performs over several years. 

Begins Smith: “For those who know about such things, the building has been calculated to have a U-value of 0.12 W/sqm/K, which is much lower than commonplace and equal to what are known as Passivhaus homes.” 

High levels of insulation (400mm-thick wood fibre) is paired with so-called ‘mechanical ventilation heat recovery’ – MVHR – which sees fresh air being brought in and warmed by stale air being pushed out. 

He continues: “Indoor heating will be mainly provided by sunshine – through a large wall of glazing – even during the winter, backed up by infrared heaters plugged into an electricity grid that is being increasingly ‘de-carbonised’, using renewable sources such as wind. 

“We anticipate heating and hot water bills will be around £500 – £600 per year, based on my experience with other similar buildings. Obviously, this would be lower if you could generate your own electricity, not least using solar energy panels with battery storage, but these would incur additional up-front costs, and, of course, have their own carbon impact, in terms of manufacture, transportation and installation.” 

As it is, the calculation is that his house has saved more carbon dioxide than has been emitted during its construction (CO2 creating the ‘greenhouse envelope’ effect that is pushing up global temperatures). 

Naturally, the carbon dioxide-capturing qualities of trees has been integral. Roderick James Architects has a long track record in designing timber-framed homes and yet another facet of the COP26 house is how it can be built using a relatively low-grade of Sitka spruce in standard sections that sawmills are well used to churning out. 

“We have proven that we can build beautiful, affordable houses using homegrown timber,” adds Smith. 

Every possible part of the ‘COP26 house’ was interrogated, as to its ‘carbon footprint’ (including transportation and manufacture), before it could qualify to be used.

For instance, helped by the fact that the house structure is relatively lightweight, meaning less need for a base of any great substance, the house is built on foundations made up of one of the emerging ‘concretes’ boasting ‘green’ credentials. 

Offered the chance to contribute towards the house design, a remarkable 24 different companies offered to lend their knowledge, contacts and wisdom to the project.

Many of them are household names with their products often available off-the-shelf. 

Adds Smith: “Whenever a design issue required a solution that met the brief, there was an amazing willingness to pick up the phone and get it sorted. I expected we would need more companies involved, but who would have guessed a house can be built essentially with 24 different parts?”

The COP26 house is one-bedroom, with an open-plan lounge/diner/kitchen and a mezzanine floor study. But designs have been drawn up so that any number of additional rooms can be easily-enough added. It has a facade designed for rural settings, but more urban palettes are possible. 

“We had this opportunity, with COP26, and grabbed it with both hands. We all know that we can’t just keep continually talking about what needs to be done, so that our homes meet, head on, the challenge of climate change.

 “It’s not as if we haven’t got the answers; we have answers, so too have many others. 

“Of course, we would love to see Beyond Zero Homes become mainstream; if not its look then at least its principles.”

Participating companies / organisations:

Mike Wilson is a member of the Place Design Scotland team

Picture credit: Place Design Scotland


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