I write this half-naked, sucking on ice cubes, breaking off sentences to stick my head in the fridge. In the flat below, one neighbour dangles out of her window, trying to reach fresh air, while another keeps having to go to hospital because the heat exacerbates a life-threatening heart condition.
We live in a beautiful new development on the banks of the Thames. Fancy pamphlets in our lobby boast of our building’s energy efficiency. In winter, we bask in a balmy 24ºC, without having used the radiators in two years. The insulation in the walls is super-thick; our energy bills are super-low. But from spring to autumn, whatever the weather, we broil.
Welcome to eco-home hell. A brave new world of affordable homes unfit for humans to live in, built to environmentally friendly specifications that make no sense. Windows that open wide, for instance, do not exist in the eco-home. Our windows are meant to open, at an upward slant, to a maximum of 10 cm, to stop heat escaping. Air flow is supposed to be regulated by ventilators, which only succeed in recycling warm air from the rest of the building. The first summer we lived here, it was like being in a sealed vault, perfumed by the steamy stench of other residents’ dinners. It took a year of petitioning before the developers reluctantly agreed to show us how to take the windows off their restrictors. To this day, they insist we shouldn’t, ‘for safety reasons’.
Unfortunately, open windows cannot alleviate the heat built up between our walls. The Housing Health and Safety Rating System states that ‘where temperatures exceed 25ºC, mortality increases and there is an increase in strokes’ alongside a plethora of medical complaints. In our flats last year, for three months, temperatures hovered between 28ºC and 32ºC every day. Even a mobile air-conditioning unit on full blast for 24 hours could not cut the temperature by more than a degree.
We exist in a state of permanent dehydration, which can be problematic for pregnant women and the very young — and that is exactly who ends up in eco-homes. Across the country, affordable eco-flats are being flung up by developers eager to impress the government. Across the country, happy young couples move in, unaware of the torment to come. One study of a housing association scheme in Coventry, conducted over three summers, found that temperatures rose above 25 degrees so regularly that 72 per cent of the flats put vulnerable residents at risk.
This situation will only get worse. From 2020, all new homes must be eco-homes, and summer temperatures are predicted to increase. After an eco-home has been built, the only way to bring the heat down is to install powerful air-conditioning units. My neighbours and I pray daily that our developer will install such units, but it would surely be better to design homes that didn’t need them.
Ours is a diverse development, ranging in size and grandeur from luxury penthouses used as holiday homes by foreign investors to the council block next door. Boris Johnson has slapped his mayoral stamp of approval on the advertising hoardings.
Currently, Zac Goldsmith is the favourite to replace Boris as Tory candidate for London mayor and all-round blond bombshell. To date, the MP for Richmond appears to count his strident opposition to the expansion of Heathrow as his chief political achievement. A former editor of the Ecologist, he seems keen on all forms of well-intentioned green nonsense. One only has to cast one’s mind back to our last eco-warrior mayor to worry what impact his principles could have. Ken Livingstone once launched an eco-manifesto by claiming that no one in his household flushed the toilet after urinating. Londoners, he urged, should follow his example. Also, they should desist from taking baths or lengthy showers, or letting the water run while brushing their teeth.
Oh, the very memory makes me perspire. So you’ll have to excuse me: I need to go and press my face into the freezer again.