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New Tricks with Old Bricks

13 October 2008

WoodbrookOfficially opened in June, the first 300 homes of a new development at Woodbrook near Lisburn have incorporated many features which enable Woodbrook to claim its status as “Ireland’s first eco-village”. And it has much of which it can be proud – a biomass district heating scheme, high levels of insulation, rainwater collection and free bicycles for home-owners.

Many of its innovations will provide useful pointers for another such ‘eco-village’ in Enniskillen, promised by the Social Development Minister earlier this year. At the same time, Minister Ritchie announced the mandatory use of the Code for Sustainable Homes at Level 3 for all newly built self-contained social housing schemes. The Department will also work towards its ambition of ensuring that all its new properties meet the zero-carbon Level 6 by 2016.

In a parallel initiative, English Partnerships has launched its Carbon Challenge to developers, inviting them to bid for sites on which they can build zero-carbon (Level 6) or near zero-carbon (Level 5) estates. Yet the Department’s ambition for the Enniskillen development stretches only to Level 4 of the Code. It should go further, raising the standards of construction through high-quality design that can deliver exceptional environmental performance. Government is in the business of leadership and here exists a perfect opportunity to demonstrate what may be achieved.

The construction industry in Northern Ireland is no less capable of delivering such high quality homes than is its counterpart ‘across the water’. It is resourceful and well capable of meeting its clients’ demands and, to judge from the attendance at recent conferences on sustainable building, there is an appetite within the sector to deliver these better buildings. The Department could usefully issue its own Carbon Challenge to builders here.

While there will always be a need for new housing, we should not ignore the potential for the effective refurbishment of existing homes. At least 80% of the homes that will be used in 2050 have already been built and the household sector is responsible for some 27% of total UK carbon emissions. Our existing homes therefore have a significant part to play in meeting the Executive’s target to reduce our carbon footprint.

In conjunction with the SDC, the UK Green Building Council is conducting a consultation to determine how emissions can be reduced by 80% in the existing housing stock by 2050. This stakeholder research builds upon the considerable volume of work that has already been undertaken in this area, including the SDC’s Stock Take report.

This report should be of considerable value to key agencies in Northern Ireland at a time when we are undertaking a multi-billion pound investment strategy. Whether it is the work of DSD as it tackles an extensive programme of housing in the south Belfast Village area, the SIB and Ilex leading the regeneration of the North-West or DCAL’s mandate to ensure the design quality of architectural projects, the sustainable re-use of existing buildings is of critical importance.

A recent report from the Empty Homes Agency demonstrates significant carbon savings through the refurbishment of old properties. With thousands of vacant properties in Northern Ireland, their future deployment needs careful consideration, especially at this time when affordability issues in housing have such prominence.

Such issues are central to the focus of two conferences, with which the SDC is involved, and where we are seeking to harness the combined brilliance of our architects, designers, engineers, builders, surveyors and planners to come up with the goods to take us towards a zero-carbon future for the built environment.

» Conference one: Building without Costing the Earth

» Conference two: Making the Connections

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