Interview: the first 9 NZE houses in the UK

19 December 2016

The project

Project: Nine tall and thin houses

Location: Nottingham

Housing association: Nottingham City Homes

Planning: Renovation starts April-May 2017, with the goal of a 10-day renovation

Speaking with: Emily Braham, head of sustainable energy at Nottingham City Homes

The Nottingham City Homes housing corporation chose nine houses in the UK to transform to Net Zero Energy (NZE). The houses are part of a larger renovation project with low energy standards. These nine houses, which are being called “2050 Houses”, will have the highest energy standards currently possible. The name refers to the aim that all buildings in the UK will be low to zero carbon buildings by 2050. The nine houses are the pilot project. If all goes well and financing (which depends on funding) is possible, another 200 to 300 houses will be renovated. We asked Emily Braham, head of sustainable energy at Nottingham City Homes, about the challenges the housing corporation is facing.

Strong community

“We chose these nine houses in particular”, says Emily, “because the people living there are quite a strong community. We would like to build on this, in terms of communication and participation. It helps the project if occupants have a good connection. In that way they can share their experiences and maybe help each other out when necessary!”

Despite the enthusiastic occupants, some difficulties are also connected to these houses. “We do face some challenges with these houses”, Braham admits. “First of all, the houses are narrow and tall. Because of that there is not enough space on the roof for sufficient solar panels. So we need to find a solution for this.”

Large differences in energy bills

Another large challenge is the energy plan. “We are facing huge differences in the annual energy bill for heating”, says Braham. “It turns out some of the tenants are really underheating their homes, because they do not have enough money to heat them comfortably. For example, there is one tenant who pays only £50 (!) a year, while another pays £1900 a year. The average of the nine houses is £900 a year, while our calculations say tenants should need to spend £1800 a year to stay warm. We cannot just ask our tenants to pay this amount each year, so we are working on a solution for this as well.”

The housing corporation is already investing in these installations. Emily adds: “and we have European funding for the demonstrator houses. This means we can probably subsidise occupants that currently have a very low electricity bill. Once they move out and new tenants come in, we can set the normal price. Anyhow, in the UK you cannot get to zero in terms of your energy bill. You always have to pay for standing charges and electricity in winter times. You would be able to sell your excessive energy, but the price for selling is much lower than the price for buying.”

Designer for dinner

Nottingham City Homes has already informed their tenants about the plan. “They are really eager to know more about it”, says Emily. “Once we have sorted out the energy plan, we will invite the tenants for dinner. A special guest will inform them about the project, the designer Hemingway. He is famous for his clothing label, Red or Dead, but his company is now focussing on housing as well. Hemingway will be one of the panel members judging the concepts of the contractors.”

So, what will the tendering process be like? “At the moment already three or four contractors are interested in the project, but there will be more”, says Braham. “The first step will be that we select three to five contractors with relevant experience. In the second stage these contractors will customise their concepts to the property. A panel consisting of Nottingham City Houses, Hemingway, academics, a representative of Energiesprong and probably even a representative of the tenants will eventually choose the best concept.”

Work in progress

Much is already happening with regard to the renovation. “Working groups, which meet every two weeks, are now finalising some of the more challenging concepts, such as the specification which is required for the UK and the Energy Plan”, Emily explains. “We are developing the procurement documents. The design brief will contain some practical issues. Also, tenants who will be able to stay at home during the renovation should be part of the concept. And we set the budget: £65.000.”

“Another challenge in contracting is the Performance Guarantee, which includes a maintenance clause”, Emily continues. “Who will be responsible for this? Will it be our responsibility, or the suppliers’? A possible solution could be to take shared responsibility for maintenance, for instance split into 10-year time frames.  We have our own direct labour team, so it is ideal for us if they can continue to maintain all of our homes – but we need to understand the impact of this on the guarantee.”

Spread the word: Will you be next?

Word about the renovation is already spreading. “The tenants of the nine chosen houses are very enthusiastic”, says Emily. “We are already facing other tenants in the neighbourhood asking why their houses do not get refurbished. It is our job to explain to them that they will be next, if all goes well and if enough funding is available.”

Emily adds: “The future of funding is not clear for housing providers in the UK, but Nottingham sees this as a way of doing more with the same money. Luckily our organisation is very keen, as well as the Head of Energy at the City Council. People are so keen and think this is such as great idea, that my challenge at the moment is making sure we can deliver these pilots at a pace which results in the best outcomes and allows us to learn from them.”

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