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Green is the new black

Green is the new black

Justine Matchett 25 Apr 2017
Last month in France a law came into force requiring all new commercial buildings to be equipped with either rooftop vegetation (a green roof) or solar panels. France is the first country to enact such a requirement. Whilst the benefits of solar panels are widely appreciated there is, in my experience, less understanding amongst architects and developers in the UK about the benefits of green roofs. The concept of a green roof goes back as far as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, believed to have been a series of intensive green roofs built by Nebuchadnezzar II for his wife who was homesick for the plants of Persia. These days, green roofs are generally one of three different types: intensive – parks and gardens including urban agriculture; semi-intensive – garden green roofs; and extensive – natural low maintenance green roofs. The latter are the most common these days in the UK and can take the form of either sedum or biodiverse roofs. In the past green roofs were seen primarily as a way of satisfying planning requirements to provide external amenity space in urban areas. However more recently it has become clear that they offer a wide range of other benefits which, if properly understood, could increase their attractiveness to the development industry. Green roofs help to reduce urban heat islands which result from roads and buildings becoming impermeable and trapping excess heat.  In warm climates, this can result in cities becoming nearly 3 degrees centigrade warmer during the day and up to 12 degrees at night. Green roofs are now known to decrease the heat transfer through the ceiling which improves the energy efficiency of buildings. Recent research by Universidad Politécnica de Madrid[1]   shows that, when vegetation density is high, the incoming heat into the building through the roof is 60% lower than the incoming heat without vegetation. Essentially a green roof with high density vegetation works as a passive cooling system, making it particularly suitable for use in warmer climates. Green roofs impact the process of water cooling in chillers and improve the efficiency of heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems through reduction of temperature around them in the summer. Research into the effect of green roofs in different climates[2] showed that green roofs are able to reduce the cooling energy demand in summertime up to six percent, whilst at the same time having a negligible impact on energy consumption in cold seasons.   In cooler climates, green roofs also act as a wind shield which leads to reduction of heating energy demand. Green roofs can also make a valuable contribution to surface water drainage, having the ability to limit storm water runoff by between 50% and 90%. They can also help reduce air pollution by providing a natural filter for pollution. Green roofs can increase the flora and fauna diversity in urban areas and they decrease the rate of carbon-dioxide emissions by converting carbon dioxide into oxygen via photosynthesis. An important factor to consider when designing any green roof is the dead load capacity (or weight) that the roof exerts onto a building. Whilst retrofitting can be difficult, new buildings can easily be designed to ensure that they can withstand the weight of a green roof, making them a viable option on many sites. Admittedly green roofs have higher capital costs than their traditional counterparts. This is particularly true in the UK, as they are relatively uncommon at present. Capital costs for extensive green roofs are generally between 150-200% more that traditional ‘black’ roofs. Since they are currently not common in the UK, there are few specialist contractors available and this is probably one of the primary causes of the increased capital costs. Maintenance of extensive roofs however is about the same as a traditional roof, only requiring visual inspections every six months. With the increased lifespan of a green roof (approximately double that of a tradition roof) the number of times the roof has to be repaired or replaced is halved - meaning that the introduction of a green roof can actually reduce maintenance requirements and costs. In an ideal scenario, a green roof would be complemented by the addition of photovoltaics to generate electricity.  Research shows that the two uses are complementary, since the cooling effect of the planting increases the efficiency of the photovoltaics. The original draft law put before the French Senate proposed solar and green roofs rather than a choice between the two. This would have removed the choice between technologies and promoted ‘biosolar’ roofs that deliver both biodiversity and renewable energy generation. Unfortunately the Senate concluded that such a requirement would result in “a negative impact on the economic vitality and employment”. Nevertheless, unlike the UK, the tariffs for renewables are still favourable in France and in some parts of the country, there are incentives for green roofs - so biosolar roofs may have a future in France after all. Back in the UK Lichfields is working on a planning application for a residential development in the north east of England which incorporates an extensive sedum green roof across the entire 1,500 square metre roof area, along with 40 square metres of photovoltaic panels. The size of the photovoltaics in this project has been limited not by cost but by the potential generating capacity of the site.  The installation of technologies which are capable of generating more than 12kWp of electrical energy cannot be assumed to be acceptable to the local electricity network operator.  Even though one may not want to export the electricity generated, the operator still has a say. Anything above 12kWp needs the agreement of the network operator; below 12kWp, no agreement is necessary. In preparing the application, a review was undertaken of the local heat map for the area, which details the likelihood of larger scale electrical generating systems being approved. The heat map showed that the installation of a larger scale system in this location is unlikely to be accepted. To limit objections to the application, the client decided to keep the application to panels with a maximum generating capacity of 12kWp. It is clear that there are many reasons why biosolar roofs are not being developed at a faster rate in the UK and there needs to be more encouragement to deliver such schemes. If such schemes are viable in north east England, then there is no doubt that they could be successfully delivered elsewhere in the UK as well.   [1] OLIVIERI, F.; DI PERNA, C.; D'ORAZIO, M.; OLIVIERI, L.; NEILA, J. “Experimental measurements and numerical model for the summer performance assessment of extensive green roofs in a Mediterranean coastal climate”. Energy and Buildings 63: 1-14. DOI: 10.1016/j.enbuild.2013.30.054. AUG 2013 [2] Ahmadi H, Arabi R, Fatahi L. Thermal Behavior of Green Roofs In Different Climates. Special Issue of Curr World Environ 2015;10(Special Issue May 2015)  

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Are we finally starting with starter homes? Lichfields’ essential guide
Around this time last year, starter homes were the ‘hot topic’ in planning and housing environments, as the Conservative Government of David Cameron was fully committed to delivering its Manifesto pledge to build 200,000 starter homes by 2020. The Parliamentary debate was so heated that it almost sparked a constitutional crisis between the two Houses, with the Lords lamenting the lack of detailed provisions in the-then Housing and Planning Bill and the Government complaining about the inferences of peers over a clear electoral commitment; by way of reminder, there were six ping-pong stage debates between the two Houses, and starter homes (together with the Right to Buy extension) were the most contentious matter. Since then, there have been many changes; without detailing many of them, two seem particularly relevant to starter homes: the new DCLG Secretary Sajid Javid (together with his Housing and Planning Minister Gavin Barwell) and the publication of the Housing White Paper. In this blog we try to understand whether the Theresa May’s Government has provided some answers to the questions and uncertainties that we highlighted in our essential guide to starter homes around a year ago, when the Housing and Planning Bill was enacted.   What’s new? The answer is simple: the Housing White Paper. The holistic policy document published by DCLG in February 2017 touches on wide-ranging topics to try to find effective ways to increase housing supply; starter homes are also featured, after having been almost completely ‘off the radar’ since the Housing and Planning Bill’s enactment. The White Paper (finally) provides some additional details and more certainty around starter homes and their related complexities, referring in particular to: the introduction of a household income cap of £80,000 (or £90,000 in London); the requirement for buyers to have a mortgage in place (covering at least 25% of the total cost); the length of the repayment period (i.e. the tapered approach): 15 years; the commitment to commence the general duty of councils to promote the supply of starter homes (section 4 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016); and the decision to not introduce a mandatory starter homes requirement for certain developments, and the intention to clarify a policy expectation that housing sites deliver a minimum of 10% affordable home ownership units. The length of the repayment period and the decision not to introduce a mandatory starter homes requirement address some (but not all) of the uncertainties around starter homes - particularly those that were of concern to lenders and local authorities. Furthermore, the decision to introduce a household income cap and the mortgage requirement seems a sensible move to guarantee that these starter homes effectively benefit those who need them the most, and to discourage those ‘who would simply wish to sell on quickly to secure financial uplift’.   Old (but still valid) uncertainties Among all the uncertainties we previously highlighted, probably only one (although multi-faceted) remains, relating to discount repayment and market price estimates. Specifically, the three key questions that are still unanswered are: How will the 20% discount on market price be assessed and, particularly, how will market prices be calculated for different areas within the same local authority or ward, for example? How will the discount repayment be calculated in relation to the tapered approach, when a starter home is sold within the first 15 years (as house prices are not fixed over time): would the repayment be based on the initial market price or on the market value at the time of selling? Who would the ‘specified persons’ be, to receive the starter homes discount repayment (as detailed in s3(1)(a) of the Act), as this ‘may be the Secretary of State, a local planning authority in England or any other person’? These might seem to be just technicalities, but the answers to these questions are likely to affect the future of what seems an already-watered down starter homes regime.   New uncertainties At this point, and having seen the removal of the mandatory starter homes requirement, the elephant in the room relates to how likely it is that starter homes are to become an effective part of affordable housing mixes. Starter homes potentially have intrinsic complexities for developers, such as in drawing a distinction between starter and market homes within their own schemes, or in relation to territorial discrepancies (particularly around Greater London’s outer boundary); plus, they are a new product that has not been piloted or properly tested - thus they could be more risky and in reality, too uncertain to implement. As a consequence, developers might prefer to stick with more familiar, tried and tested affordable housing tenures, such as shared ownership or affordable rent instead. The Government seems aware of this risk and, accordingly, has pushed forward some of the more ‘light-touch’ measures consulted on in relation to starter homes and, in particular, brownfield land developments, to try fostering the delivery of starter homes (and not reneging on the Manifesto commitment?). Specifically, the White Paper confirms the intention to amend a change to the NPPF to allow ‘more brownfield land to be released for developments with a higher proportion of starter homes’; this will be achieved through: Allowing any ‘starter home-led development’ proposal on employment land sites that have been vacant, unused or unviable for a period of five years (and that are not strategic employment sites) to be considered ‘favourably’; Expanding the starter homes exception site policy to include additional forms of underused brownfield land, such as leisure centres and retail uses; and Allowing development on brownfield land within the Green Belt, if this ‘contributes to the delivery of starter homes and there is no substantial harm to the openness of the Green Belt’. It is yet to be understood whether any of the above measures will be an effective means of delivering starter homes, and additional details will be crucial in understanding their potential impacts; by way of example, what will be considered as a ‘higher proportion of starter homes’?   What’s next? Four steps are yet to come: HPA-related Regulations, new Planning Practice Guidance and the Government’s response to the White Paper consultation. A Commencement Order is needed to bring into force the general duty on councils to promote the supply of starter homes (s4 of the HPA) and the other relevant starter homes-related sections (ss1-8 HPA). Regulations are needed ‘to finalise the starter homes definition and monitoring provisions’. Regulations will be also required for clarifying the detailed operation of the restricted period (i.e. the tapered approach), and incorporating the details of the mortgage requirement. Planning Practice Guidance will be required to detail the operations of the council duty to promote starter homes and (probably) to highlight the way house prices and repayments should be assessed. The Government’s response to the White Paper consultation will hopefully clarify whether the proposed requirement for a ‘minimum of 10% of all homes on individual sites [to be] affordable home ownership products’ will be included in national planning policy. In terms of timeframe, a letter written by Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (DCLG Under-Secretary) this January states that the two starter homes-related Statutory Instruments planned at the time were ‘expected to come into force in Summer 2017’. However, it’s worth noting that the letter preceded the White Paper’s publication and stated that the Statutory Instruments were expected to deal with ‘[…] the starter homes requirement on suitable, reasonably sized sites […]’; this might mean that the changes that occurred in the month between the letter and White Paper’s publication could imply a different (i.e. possibly delayed) timescale. Finally, the Housing White Paper subtly updates the 200,000 starter homes target (stated both in the Conservative Election Manifesto and by David Cameron’s Government); the expectation is now ‘to help over 200,000 people become homeowners by the end of the Parliament’*. As explained in the following paragraph, this takes into consideration other affordable home ownership tenures ‘like shared ownership’ and homeownership support programmes such as Help to Buy and Right to Buy. What a difference a year makes for starter homes! * This may now be impossible given the call for a General Election…  

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