Building of the week: Zero Carbon House Birmingham

Yesterday I was at the Energy Saving Convention in Birmingham, and I wanted to mention a couple of local buildings in my talk. I only featured one in the end, but it’s a good one. It’s just a couple of miles away from the venue, and it’s a private house that is notable enough to have its own website: Zero Carbon House Birmingham.

original-1840-semiHomes built to zero carbon standard are generally new build. You can substantially retrofit an older building and make major efficiencies, but genuine zero carbon is a high bar. If you’re aiming for no fossil fuel use, you just build things differently. If nothing else, you’d want to orient the house correctly. With retrofitting there’s a lot to undo or work around, and it’s a different challenge altogether.

The thing is, it will take hundreds of years to entirely replace our housing stock, so we don’t have the luxury of just building new Zero Carbon Homes. We have to be able to radically refurbish what we have. So architect John Christophers set out to upgrade a 170 year old semit-detached house to Code 6 for sustainable buildings – something that had never been done before.

The house was extended substantially in the process – out the back, to the side and upwards. That gave them the opportunity to create a roof optimised for solar power. The result is, it’s fair to say, dramatic:

Title: Zero Carbon House Architect: John Christophers Developer:

At this point, it’s almost a new build eco-home piggy-backing on an 1840s house. But of course the older parts of the house had to be improved to match the spec of the extension, so it’s still a remarkable refurbishment.

According to the website, it remains the only Zero Carbon refit, which is a shame. Given how important existing buildings are, we ought to have a whole lot more examples and case studies to work from. (If you know of any, send me a link). Fortunately there are more examples if we look beyond Britain, and the Dutch Energiesprong initiative is leading the way. Now established in Holland, they are facilitating demonstration projects in Britain. They’ll be completed next year, and I look forward to featuring them then.


  1. cant imagine it was worth the rebuild. you now have a high maintenance mess. we need to start thinking thousand year plan if we are to provide for all, not just england or prosperous countries.

    1. All the details are on the website, so you can see how it works and what they did in considerable detail. Someone’s got to be first with these sorts of things, and they’ve done far more than most to share their learning.

      I’m with you on the long term planning on new build, but we also need to refurbish older homes. Not sure you can do a thousand year plan on an 1840s house, but I’d be interested to know what you’d propose.

      1. that’s for my book but you need to look at the bigger picture if we are to make a go of it and help everyone. the house would much better be thought of as very temporary or disposable lodging.

  2. the house has a woodstove and fluorescent lighting. it gets much worse … the building should have been bulldozed. although nice profits for somebody.

      1. Sorry you misunderstood. I said profit for somebody. Of course the home owner would be excluded. The profits would go to materials suppliers including old tech, to those who would provide continued maintenance and supplies etc. The house was also designed to accomodate the distorted lifestyle we live today ….

        1. jeremy, the link takes you to new tech. mass produced and taking all into account including building structure the cost is dramatically less. the power use after the home upgrade is also deplorable. new efficiencies would require less than a tenth to run the home. again the home should have been classified temporary and bulldozed. we no longer have the time or resources for silly experiments. all the tech you see used is that which companies sell to make maximum profits for themselves. all of it is simply variations of decades-old junk.

          even retrofitting the product at low volume prices was an improvement.

          1. This home is so well insulated it doesn’t require heating – that’s remarkable in any house, let alone an 1840s building. It’s just not true that its energy performance is deplorable. It’s a zero carbon home. If we’re not building those, I have no idea what it is that you think we ought to be building instead.

            The link you’ve posted is to a roofing insulation panel, which looks great. It would be just what I was looking for if I was renovating an old home. That complements what I’m suggesting here, it’s not an alternative idea.

  3. the site mentions the thickness of the walls. thick walls take much resources to construct. retrofitting also takes much resources as opposed to new construction. so does maintaining and replacing inferior material. jeremy, to write about all the problems with the house would take pages. everything about it is wrong or could be drastically improved upon. the wasted resources of which could be used to raise the 90 % of the worlds population and more who live in poverty, out of it. perhaps my antipathy is related to my empathy for these people.

    “Tree surgery was required as a planning condition, and that timber has provided all the fuel needed for top up heating during the first six winters.” odd.

    zero carbon has little to do with what most would believe it to be. it does sound hopeful though!

    1. Even a zero carbon house needs top-up heat from time to time, if the house has been empty for a few days, or if you had to have the doors open for some reason. Six winters without having to bring any extra fuel on site sounds pretty good to me. The site has a very clear explanation of what a zero carbon home is, and in my view it’s exactly what you’d think it is.

      Sorry, but the idea that retrofitting takes more resources than new build just doesn’t make any sense. That’s the whole point of retrofitting, that you’re saving materials by working with the existing foundations and structure. And new-build houses have thick walls too if they’ve been well insulated. In this case they’re insulated with a material made from recycled newspapers, so that’s hardly wasteful or depriving those in poverty of materials. Straw bale homes are some of the most sustainable around, and they have very thick walls, so thin walls is really no indicator of sustainability.

      I’d love to have new build houses for everyone, but there is neither the time nor the money, nor the resources, to do that. Retrofitting is a must if we are to reduce emissions. If you think ‘everything about it is wrong’, then we’re going to have to agree to disagree.

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