Code Six: the “new” standard for a zero carbon house is actually an ancient concept

Many years ago, a wealthy client of mine presented me with a problem. He had run out of places to invest his excess money. He wanted a safe place, but somewhere that would give him some pleasure. It also it had to be sustainable: a self-renewing asset.

I found the answer: a forest. There were tax-free grants, exemptions, and reliefs from Income Tax, Capital Gains Tax and Inheritance Tax. If there were a cottage on the land, and it could be let as a holiday home, that would also attract various additional tax benefits.

The forest I found for him was situated on the banks of Loch Fyne in Scotland. This was no twee bluebell wood, nor an enchanted glen of yew and ancient oak, but a pine plantation whose tall columns grew on to produce paper, plywood, timber for the construction industry, and Christmas trees. It was also home to red squirrels, pine martins and roe deer.

On the edge of the loch was that tax friendly cottage. The east and south elevations faced the water, enjoying both the views and the sunshine. The rest of the property was shielded by wooded hills. The walls were built of stone blocks from the local quarry, so finely chiselled by the stonemason that they slotted tightly together with no need for mortar. The windows were cut through, the glazed frame fitted inside, letting in the light but sheltered from the winds. A storm porch guaranteed that the only door remained draught proof. The roof was of local slate and insulated with seashells, dried seaweed, and strands of discarded sheep’s wool, providing great thermal insulation. A snug, cosy cottage, it was warm in winter and cool in summer. The stove and fireplaces were fuelled by fallen timber, and eventually augmented with wind and solar power, plus a baby water turbine, driven by the cottage’s sole freshwater source – the burn that raced down the mountain. The night soil was decomposed naturally in a deep earth cesspit.

This was not only an off-grid tax exemption before “going off-grid” became a mainstream idea: this was the original Code 6 dwelling house.

The Code For Sustainable Homes became a voluntary standard in England in 2006. The basic aim was to produce a dwelling built in an eco-friendly way from sustainable materials that generated a low carbon footprint. The resultant safe and comfortable house would be friendly with the environment, last for many years, and require minimal maintenance. The highest rating, Code 6, covered nine nomenclatures: energy and CO2 emissions; water; materials; surface water run-off; waste; pollution; health and well-being; management; and ecology.

So what can you expect to find in a contemporary Code 6 house? A few identifiers include: dual flush WCs; reduced flow taps; smaller baths and hand basins; super efficient water and energy use white goods; boilers; lighting systems all buttressed by triple-glazed windows; insulated walls and roofs; plus enhanced security. A modern Code 6 house should be a lifetime house, built for all generations, suitable for the able-bodied and disabled. It should also be robust, sound and fire proofed, with plenty of light and controlled air circulation. Outside, water run-off may be assisted by porous paving slabs, energy produced by solar panels.

Building to last, and to a high standard, does cost more, but this can be reduced by being – and building – smart, and moreover, by design. Think what Dyson did for the vacuum cleaner. There is very little that cannot be improved by design. However, the building trade is inherently conservative and regulation bound. It therefore needs to be encouraged to break the paradigm and embrace the Code 6 concept, taking it onwards to another place. Not only a greener place, but a place where more of us will be working from home and where, with the advent of driverless pooled cars, the car is no longer the star.

Code 6 is about New Builds. But what about most of the existing housing stock in mainland Britain, which ranges from old to antique? The phrase ‘Let’s upgrade to Code 6′ may sound as sexy as ‘Let’s Socially Distance’, but it works. Taking simple measures, such as managing heat, light, air and energy through monitoring, or introducing thermal insulation elements in walls and roofs would be a start. Or how about simply replacing a few windows and doors?

Of course, there’s another problem: just as we are all having to spend more time than ever at home, there are not enough suitable dwellings to go around. But is building more and more new houses the only solution?

Next time you’re on a double decker bus, look at the empty spaces above shops, and the ghostly office blocks. Notice how many empty factories there are, and derelict industrial estates. What about that old coal power station or the disused docks where ships will never moor again? ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ needn’t only apply to household waste. If we are to save the planet and address our housing needs, we must build smart, differentiate by design, and allocate scarce resources wisely, just as we’ve been doing naturally for centuries.

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