How insurance-friendly is Kevin McCloud’s eco house?

  • Construction can be a wasteful business
  • Housing associations are under pressure to be more efficient and eco-friendly
  • But radical solutions such as Kevin McCloud’s eco house, mean big risks, and established techniques are likely to be safer and more effective

Building a house can be a wasteful business – the construction sector throws away up to 20% of all the materials it uses, according to recent estimates. Clearly, there is pressure for change for both environmental and commercial reasons.

One radical attempt to explore better ways of doing things, is taking shape on the south coast, at the University of Brighton, where Channel 4’s Grand Designs presenter, Kevin McCloud, is constructing the UK’s first prefabricated house built using entirely eco-friendly materials.

It’s certainly a bold project. But Zurich Municipal urges caution before housing associations imitate McCloud’s attempts to insulate walls with old video tapes and used Christmas decorations.

“It’s an interesting experiment and could be effective in raising awareness of alternative, cheaper and more eco-friendly solutions,” says Stuart Blackie, Property Team Leader at Zurich Municipal.

“But it is important to remember that in many cases these materials may not have been adequately tested for the proposed purpose, and so should be approached with extreme caution.”

Life cycle issues

Using untested structural technologies raises potential life cycle issues: how long will they last? Will they deteriorate? What effect will this have on the building? In addition, recycled materials could pose a fire risk in terms of their combustibility or the fact that they release toxic gases when they burn.

“This could have serious safety implications for both occupants and the environment in the event of a fire, and unpredictable levels of fire resistance can impact on both property protection and life safety,” says Stuart.

“From an insurance reinstatement perspective there may be real challenges around the availability of replacement materials, and uncertainty around the actual cost of components in the future. This means that there could be disproportionate reinstatement costs as a result of the need to replace a greater extent of the structure.”

We strongly advise well-researched and proven product choices when undertaking refurbishment schemes.

 Stuart Blackie, Property Team Leader at Zurich Municipal

It is also important to remember building resilience. Climate change is making extreme weather events more and more likely, and in many cases it is unclear how some newer materials will respond to floods and storms.

“For example, what structural analysis has been undertaken in terms of wind uplift?” asks Stuart. “How do materials perform when subjected to short and longer term standing water?”

Tried and tested

Given these risks, Zurich Municipal would recommend that customers continue to implement tried and tested energy performance improvements, such as thermal insulation upgrades to building fabric, and updated heating and ventilations systems, rather than making radical changes in materials and design.

“We strongly advise well-researched and proven product choices when undertaking refurbishment schemes, with a continued focus on minimising life cycle implications and costs,” says Stuart.

“Trail-blazing is often accompanied by a degree of uncertainty, and subsequently potential for an increased risk.

“Customers should be encouraged to speak to their insurers regarding proposed new-build or refurbishment programmes to ensure risks are considered appropriately, and all parties give due consideration to how best to manage the associated risks.”

Zurich Municipal is keen to work with customers to better understand their environmental challenges, and to support them in identifying, understanding and managing the potential risks involved in making improvements.

“We want to have conversations with customers that will help us gain greater insight as to how they are adapting and refurbishing their stock,” says Stuart.

“Together we can find the most environmentally-friendly response to the risks we all face.”