Healthy Buildings 2020 conference report by Kate de Selincourt

A summary report of the ASBP Healthy Buildings Conference and Expo 2020, by journalist Kate de Selincourt.

Please click on the speaker’s name in bold to link through to their biography and presentation.


This year’s ASBP Healthy Buildings Conference and Expo took the theme ‘Healthy buildings in a climate emergency’. Ex-MP Mary Creagh introduced the event with a wide-ranging look across the climate and nature crises we face, and the urgent need for climate justice.

Mary Creagh chaired the cross-party environmental audit committee in the last Parliament. The committee published a report in 2019 that called for an end to government support to fossil fuel projects in the guise of “aid”- as it not only undermined the UK’s climate goals, it would also directly increase climate-related  harms to the vulnerable populations that the aid was supposed to be helping.

Mary Creagh told the conference that historically, industrial nations have incurred huge carbon debts via fossil fuel burning and deforestation – but others will be paying the price of this ‘baked in’ damage: “The worst impacts of climate and ecological damage will be suffered by the most vulnerable.”

“Flooding, drought and wildfires are already driving mass migration,” she added. “Resource conflict always affects the poorest most, but mass migration has also been weaponised to drive  nationalist agendas.”

Even within the UK, climate impacts are disproportionately harming the most vulnerable, she added.  Flooding is the biggest risk  – some people have been flooded 4 times in 4 months, and those who could not afford insurance will have lost everything. Storms, fires and killer heatwaves are other concerns, and again, the most vulnerable are often impacted most: “heat wave deaths are commonest among women living on their own on low incomes; and care homes and hospitals are also highly vulnerable to overheating”, Mary Creagh said.

Uneven and unequal harms

The impacts of climate change are not evenly distributed geographically, either. “At the poles, warming is twice as fast; seven million people in the Arctic are suffering for disproportionate impact – they are losing their livings , and even their homes, as the permafrost thaws and buildings collapse.”

Already many homes are uninsurable, and Mary Creagh warned that with a 4 degree rise, the insurance market would stop working – no-one would have insurance.

Climate change is not our only emergency. Equally of concern, she said, is the fact we are losing species at the fastest rate since the dinosaurs – “we have created a new geological era, the anthropocene”.

The Committee on Climate Change has made it clear that we need to shift every sector, at speed – with agriculture, transport and buildings needing to go furthest. What is so striking, Mary Creagh pointed out, is that getting to net zero in line with the national target is estimated to cost of only 1-2% of GDP.

“Nonetheless, with such a radical transition, there will clearly be winners and losers – so we must ensure that the transition offers good, well paid jobs to those likely to lose out; we must ensure people have the skills to work in the new industries we create, and of course we must have the policy stability that enables the investment to be made,” she said

The route to zero

Focusing down on emissions in construction, John Palmer of the Passivhaus Trust set out the clear case that minimising energy use (and not just ‘balancing’ or ‘offsetting’) is an absolute precondition of getting to zero.

Zero carbon is the national – and planetary – goal. But the more energy we use – whether in a supposedly ‘net zero’ building or not – the harder it will be to generate enough genuinely zero-emissions energy to cover all our energy use, he explained.

John Palmer’s talk focused on operational emissions, which is the Passivhaus Trust’s speciality. According to the predictions of renewable capacity, even if every single building – new and retrofitted – performed at Passivhaus levels of efficiency, building energy demand would still overshoot its share of the predicted renewable energy supply in 2030. Even the expanded supply predicted for 2050 would barely be able to supply buildings’ needs. This means that anything short of Passivhaus levels of efficiency simply won’t get us to zero.

Current “zero carbon” proposals did not even consider unregulated energy (appliances and equipment), he pointed out – never mind the very significant as-built performance gap in the majority of non-Passivhaus construction. All of these factors put additional strain on the country’s renewable energy capacity.

John Palmer pointed out that energy use is a more reliable metric than carbon, because it can be predicted and therefore controlled by the building’s designers and users. By contrast, carbon emissions are controlled by energy suppliers, so cannot be pinned down and used as a benchmark in the same way. While building designers should clearly be designing out any fossil fuel usage, minimising energy use was the most direct and accountable way for buildings to play their part in the drive to zero.

Individual air pollutants – guidance at last!

Discussion and concern about toxins in the indoor environment has been on the increase for the past few years,  and in response, public bodies are starting to develop more detailed information and advice. In January this year, the National Institute of Care and Health Excellence (NICE) published guidance on indoor air quality for building users, health care professionals, and the construction industry.

A couple of months before that, Public Health England (PHE) released new recommendations for limiting exposure to individual volatile organic compounds. Sani Dimitroulopoulou explained that PHE had been receiving increasing numbers of requests for specific advice on VOC levels, so they decided to develop some more up-to-date guidance, and widen the range of chemicals covered.

She added that to date, part F of the building regulations has referred only to total VOCs, and did not distinguish at all between those that may not be harmful in small quantities, and those that were highly toxic. Without any UK guidance bodies such as the Department for Education have had to refer to the 2010 WHO standards instead – only covering five VOCs.

To prepare the new guidance, PHE reviewed over 8000 scientific papers and selected the most robust and relevant. These were distilled into  guidance on a total of 11 volatile organic compounds, all of which are regularly detected in home and/or office environments; originating from either construction materials, furnishings or consumer products.

The guidance sets recommended ceilings for short- and/or long-term exposure. The list includes formaldehyde, one of the most common indoor pollutants of concern, and also limonene and pinene – ubiquitous perfumes in consumer products.

Natural insulation and indoor comfort

Indoor environments were also the subject of Mark Lynn’s discussion on the properties of natural fibre insulation. Mark Lynn, ASBP vice-chair, Director of Thermafleece and a member of the ASBP Natural Fibre Insulation Group, pointed out that insulation makes up a significant proportion of  the building envelope, by volume. This means that all of its properties as a material, and not just its u-value, make an impact on the way the building works.

Natural fibre materials may have different acoustic properties, durability and buildability compared to petrochemical-based insulations, as well as performing differently on measures of sustainability, possible toxicity, and resource use.

Mark Lynn’s talk focused on two properties in particular: heat- and moisture-buffering.

He explained that the fact that to achieve the same u-value a natural fibre insulation might need to be both thicker and heavier than foam or mineral fibre products, was not necessarily a disadvantage. A relatively heavy layer of wood fibre or sheep’s wool could both reduce the temperature swings on the inside of a building, and delay the peaks and troughs of temperature – potentially more so than a layer of mineral wool would. This effect could be especially valuable under a roof, as temperature swings immediately beneath a layer of thin tiles are very high, he said.

Natural fibre insulation is also able to take up some moisture into its fibres, in a form safely bound to the fibre molecules – different from the fibres simply getting  “wet” with liquid water. Wool for example can bind around 10% of its own weight in water closely into the fibres, meaning that swings of humidity in a building may be dampened down, potentially reducing the risk of problematic condensation forming in the internal structure.

We need a rebellion

Mark Lynn was keen to dispel any idea that manufacturers of natural fibre products would not be able to scale up to meet increased demand. As all the speakers stressed, the challenge was getting people to overhaul the way building were designed and specified – and fast.

The kind of industry-wide change needed to tackle the climate and ecological emergencies amounts to a revolution, and the second keynote speaker, Sam Conniff Allende, shared his revolutionary philosophy – taking inspiration from 17th century Pirates. In his best-selling book ‘Be More Pirate’ Conniff overturns the usual ‘murderous thieves’ understanding of pirates, and presents them as rebellious social innovators. Conniff believes we all can and should take inspiration from these pioneers, and question the usual ways of doing things. We should be willing to break rules, if those rules are threatening the planet.

“Breaking rules – without doing that we’re over. Business as usual is based on exploitation – and we’ve f**ked it. We need a rebellion,” he urged.

“Breaking rules feels dangerous – but we are close to danger anyway. Like pirates, we need to go off the edge of the map. Sometimes when you get a ‘no’ for something, but you know it’s the right thing – just pretend it’s a ‘yes’ and go ahead. Are we going to fail to save our cities from flooding, just because of rules?”

Sam Conniff proposed a philosophy of business that would be familiar to many delegates and ASBP members: “Ask yourself, are you here to sell something – or start something? Start with the change you want to achieve, then create the business around that.”

The world we want to live in

Manufacturers and distributors in the ASBP exhibition all put energy into pioneering products they believe in. The conference heard from many companies committed to providing safe, low-impact products, and investing effort into supporting customers to use the products effectively and safely. As Chris Brookman of Back to Earth put it “we see our central function as handholding, right through the specification and construction process.”

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Architect Nicola de Quincey, describing her forthcoming trip to study ocean plastics with last year’s keynote speaker Emily Penn (see below), summed up the philosophy as “working for the world we want to live in.”

To round off the sessions, ASBP research associate Katherine Adams gave a rapid roundup of the organisation’s current activities, and ways in which delegates could get active and participate in the working groups and campaigns.

The ASBP Plastics in Construction Group was established following last year’s healthy buildings conference, which heard a powerful address from Emily Penn of Exxpedition. Emily Penn painted a vivid and alarming picture of the extent to which plastics have spread everywhere in our atmosphere, our watercourses and oceans, and are finding their way into every form of life.

Nicola de Quincey was so inspired by the talk, she immediately applied to join the next expedition studying plastic in the open sea, and will join them later this year.  It’s an all-women expedition, which is significant she said, because many of the undesirable impacts of plastic pollution seem to affect fertility and reproduction particularly.

Plastic-free construction?

Katherine Adams said the ASBP Plastics in Construction Group had found that construction appeared to be one of the biggest sources of plastic lost to the environment – partly because construction uses such a large amount of plastic packaging, an partly because of the plastic in buildings themselves, which in incidents such as floods and tsunamis get broken up and washed out to sea.

The group is working with stakeholders to learn more about where the plastic in construction ends up, and to work with supply chains to find ways to avoid and reduce plastics, and to find substitutes that are less harmful.

Initiatives the group members are involved with include the development of 12 plastic-free houses trialling alternatives to plastic for all the components – even the electrical installation. The group also holds regular events – one of the events coming up is a ‘dragons den’ looking at plastic-free products.

The ASBP is now also convening an embodied carbon group, with the first steering committee meeting in early March followed by a first stakeholder meeting and webinar on 29th April 2020.

The conference closed with the ASBP Awards for 2020 – with six finalists, all pioneers in their field. The awards are assessed against the six ‘pillars’ ASBP believe go together to make a truly sustainable building: health & well-being; resource efficiency; minimised whole-life carbon; ethics and transparency; excellent technical performance, and social value.

In a reflection of ongoing concern about the climate emergency, three of the six projects in this year’s awards were again built to certified Passivhaus standard – but this in no way precluded the use of healthy low-impact materials and beautiful natural timber.

Comfortable, beautiful, sustainable

Larch Corner is a 3-bedroom single-storey Passivhaus home built for a client who put a very high priority on health and wellbeing – and also, on their love for natural, untreated timber. Architect Mark Siddall and the client opted to install a sprinkler system, rather than treat or cover the interior timber surfaces with fireproofing. Where paints were used, they were carefully selected to be non-toxic.

Air quality is further supported by an MVHR system – which was kept scrupulously clean during construction, and the peace and quiet of the interior is ensured by meticulous acoustic design. The thermal mass of the wood fibre insulation means that the structure, though timber, is not “light” –  showing only small swings in temperature, even when  outdoor conditions are  changing dramatically.

The low impact of the all-timber structure will carry through past the end of the building’s life: the building is not nailed, but screwed together, meaning it can be fully disassembled, and the timber can all be re-used.

Another Passivhaus development on the shortlist was Chester Long Court, a development of 26 affordable apartments for the over-60s. Exeter City builds all their new dwellings not only to the Passivhaus standard , but also to Bau Biologie principles – and they specify that the designs are resilient out to the predicted climatic conditions in 2080.

As explained, building to these standards enables Exeter City as landlords to ensure that their tenants have a good living environment that is healthy, with minimal heating costs, which is very important for people on constrained incomes. Passivhaus buildings are warm, comfortable and well-ventilated, and as pointed out, the thermal bridge-free design of Passivhaus means there are no cold damp spots where mould might grow – “we just don’t have it”.

The Bau Biologie approach means that VOCs are minimised or completely eliminated, and the use Porotherm clay block  enables rapid construction. Porotherm is a monolithic, self-insulating system requiring only small quantities of mortar, which enables rapid drying  of the airtight Passivhaus structure, even  in the damp West Country climate. And the certification process ensures that as the building owner, the city gets exactly what has been designed.

The winner of the ‘people’s prize’ – voted on by the conference delegates – was very much a people’s project – a community cafe, arts and gardening resource centre for Squash in Liverpool. Squash is a community organisation, based around gardening, that has a mission  to “grow great food, people and places, for greater health, wealth and happiness”.

A 30-strong, all-ages user group was closely involved in the design, and the group was clear they wanted to build in timber, and they wanted the new building to be light, open and welcoming, promoting a feeling of wellbeing for users.

Designers URBED worked with the users to develop a super-insulated timber structure with a monopitch roof,giving a presence on the street, but dropping away to minimise impact on the southerly neighbours – offering an excellent slope for PV generation at the same time. Wide doorways front and back can open the building both to the street and to the garden – making it very much the indoors-outdoors space that the gardeners wanted.

Commitment to timber

The third Passivhaus entry was Geanaisean – a 3-bedroomed certified Passivhaus built by Makar homes using their breathable timber nSIP system.

Neil Sutherland of Makar has a long-standing commitment to working with local timber, marrying the expansion of  Scottish forestry with the provision of healthy, comfortable, ultra-low-energy buildings.

Makar has invested in  developing  an off-site manufacturing panel system,  produced in their own factory. They system uses Scottish timber, with wood fibre & cellulose insulation, making the panels breathable and low-impact – and enabling site time to be minimised, which is a tremendous advantage in Scotland’s changeable weather.

As Neil Sutherland told the conference, his vision is long term. “We are achieving quality and consistency;  speed and lower cost follows.”

Neil Sutherland’s long-term vision and commitment  is very much an example of having a mission and building a business around it; this was recognised by the judges, who awarded the project first place in the new build category.

The first of the two retrofits/extensions on the shortlist was the sensitive and meticulous restoration and retrofit of a pair of abandoned 19th century chapels in a West London cemetery. They have been converted into one comfortable home – greatly improving the energy performance of the building, without sacrificing any of the character of the original.

“The buildings were in very poor shape – they were crumbling away,”  Sarah Khan of Roger Mears Architects explained, and as extensive work was needed anyway, this allowed a deep retrofit to be undertaken.

The original stained glass was supplemented with secondary glazing and shutters, so it could be retained, and a coat of hemp lime provided a breathable, moisture-robust insulating lining to the walls, while leaving the carved stonework uncovered. Monitoring has shown the building achieves a steady, comfortable indoor temperature, and the new occupant is very happy with their home.

In an echo of the approach to materials resourcefulness taken by Harry Paticas, that won the hearts of last year’s judges, designer and self-builder Colin Rice took a truly mindful approach in sourcing low impact and reclaimed materials to build a small, cosy timber extension to the family’s beach bungalow in Norfolk.

Spending less than £25,000, the low cost was achieved by the use of patience and a lot of time – a process that Colin Rice described as ‘an absolute joy – I loved every minute’. Judges were won over by the ultra-resource-lean approach, and the project, ‘Green Tiles’, took the prize in the retrofit category.

Awards finalist case studies

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