Given that the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (Paris) is going on as we speak, I thought that today it would be timely to think through what many of the self builders in the research had to say about energy efficiency. This sheds light on why they think that this is important, but also feeds back into what they perceive as the shortcomings of the wider housing economy.

Energy efficiency is one of the key features that many contemporary self builders seek to integrate into their projects. To a greater and lesser degree, these self builders incorporate technologies that will help them to make their properties more energy efficient. These might include, among others, the greater use of insulation, photovoltaic panels and solar water heaters, ground source heat pumps, mechanical heat ventilation. This is often driven by overlapping motivations: saving money on daily running of homes met with fears over the increasing cost of fuel, concerns about the environment and the impact of climate change for future generations. It might be a driving force behind the decision to self build or one of a range of equally valued considerations.

What is clear, though, is that this is one of the benefits of self building that most mainstream housing  does not offer. At best, the housing economy only pays lip service to energy efficiency, with the result that it is not something that translates into exchange and symbolic value in the British housing economy.

One of the participants in the research was particularly passionate on this point as he described the focus of British ‘property porn’ – the daytime and evening TV focussed on buying and selling homes.

I really get pissed off with television programmes … all they ever talk about when they look at houses is how do they feel, the ambience, the location, they never talk about what the energy efficiency of it is … What doesn’t matter is what sort of wallpaper they’ve got on or whether it’s got period features in it, although those things can matter in certain things but certainly in a lot of Victorian houses they’ll look at it and they’ll talk about the cornices and the various other details and what have you, and all I can think is that house is going to cost a bloody fortune to heat … I just hate the idea of money being thrown down the drain, it’s burning fossil fuels to live in somewhere that’s got a few nice period features in it, a few sash windows or whatever, it just seems madness to me … there’s a big education programme needed …

You see what I think is that people should value the EPC (energy performance certificate). The first thing you should ask for is what is the EPC of this house that I’m looking at, and that should, that EPC should have a value that is reflected in the price of the house, and then it means that it’s worthwhile people spending the time to improve their houses because it will improve the EPC and then it will mean that they get more money for the house when they come to sell it. Now at the moment you can spend a fortune improving the insulation of your house and it’ll not alter the value of the house at all, because all people are looking at is what’s the kerb appeal, and how does it feel, what’s the ambience like of it. And to me the EPC has got to have a value that is recognised by people buying houses and then suddenly the whole thing’ll start to work … You look in any newspaper at the EPC ratings on houses that are for sale and it’s like D, E, F, G. Well mine are all A. But will anybody pay me more for the house? The right person, well they won’t no because you pay the market price. The estate agents aren’t going to value of the house higher on the basis of that.

It is a simple point, but one worth making, that one of our commitments to thinking about climate change is to encourage people to think about energy consumption in their daily lives and particularly, at home.

Time and again, I have met people who are thrilled with the energy performance of their homes. One family that I worked particularly closely with described how moving into their new home had radically changed their energy-use behaviour. Mediated by a small device on the kitchen worktop, they learned how to make the most of the energy generated by the house. They wait for the ‘tick’ on the meter to indicate that they were now running on free electricity to turn on the washing machine and other appliances. They recalled with glee, how they had cooked Christmas dinner for free. For them, the only thing that would improve this would be a system to automate this, a system that they had not been able to afford when they first built the house, but might be a future investment.


Smart meter indicating energy generated by home, featuring a ‘tick’ to let the household know when they are running on free electricity

While campaigns that encourage people to think more carefully about their energy use – switching off lights and appliances that are not being used, turning the heating down – and the feed-in-tariff – a policy mechanism designed to accelerate investment in renewable energy technologies – are part of this landscape, there is a bigger challenge in hand relating to getting people to value homes on the basis of their energy efficiency. This is particularly pertinent given the financial costs of making both new and old homes, energy efficient.

However, the project of valuing energy efficiency in houses needs to move beyond the individual household. In part, this is a project that relates to how energy efficiency is valued within the wider economy of housing, in relation to the construction of new homes, but also at the level of housing market intermediaries – estate agents, mortgage providers, insurance companies. But also within the representation of property in the mainstream media, recognising the power of these outlets to influence taste and consumption. In other words, work needs to be done to demonstrate to translate the benefits of energy efficiency into a value that is not peripheral to the housing economy, but central.

What I am advocating here, echoing the self builders in the study, is an urgent revaluation of energy efficiency. Rather than an add-on, an optional extra, making sure that this is embedded in the wider structures of the housing economy, should be a more sustained focus in the wider housing economy.