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Sustainability Challenges for Housing

October 2014

The housing market is an area of near constant discussion and debate, especially so in London.  Development is on the rise and we are faced with the significant challenge of needing to build a couple of hundred thousand houses per year for the next decade in order to come close to meeting the market demand.  Doing this in a sustainable and cost effective manner is going to be tough, particularly in the wake of the Housing Standards Review and a changing playing field for designers and consultants. We recently had an internal workshop on the future of sustainable design for housing.  Based on our wide ranging experience across the residential sector we identified below what we think are the key sustainability challenges for housing over the next 25 years.

The most significant imminent target is the 2016 Zero Carbon target for new homes. Understanding what “Zero Carbon” is and how the regulatory mechanisms facilitate attainment of this standard will be key to delivering post-2016 development.  In particular the likelihood of Allowable Solutions being required for almost all development to reach zero carbon is an opportunity to consider reinvestment of funds into the development of zero carbon technology and/or adaptable and practical retrofit solutions for existing homes.  This has the potential to foster closer connection between new build and existing neighbourhoods both in terms of carbon and hopefully in physical community engagement.

The fallout from the Housing Standards Review will change the sustainable design dialogue on projects. What the future standard from the BRE offers beyond regulation and how/if it is encouraged by local authorities is important, and highlights the need to not just align sustainable design approaches with regulation and policy but to go beyond the mandates wherever possible.

There will be a shift in the energy generation mix in the next few decades that will change the relative performance of the grid in carbon terms (decarbonisation of supply). This in turn will lead to a shift in prioritisation and impact of various technologies or low carbon solutions.  In particular as space heating demands in housing stock decrease (through high performance envelope design and increasing prevalence of heat recovery ventilation systems) and electrical demands rise (due to increased plug loads and “unregulated” energy use) we will see a shift towards electrically driven energy requirements (compared to current heat driven).  We cannot afford to under-estimate the longer-term impact on local infrastructure and implications for the design of housing stock now.

The large proportion of the existing housing stock is likely to be a significant performance burden. Whilst regulation drives the performance of new build, allowable solutions and a new sustainable housing standard (from BRE) have the opportunity to propel a market shift for all housing stock.

The widely recognised shortage in suitable, affordable housing coupled with rapidly rising prices, low interest rates and extensive overseas sales for new builds (especially in London) is going to reach crisis point. The likely response may be a relaxation in regulation to promote construction leading to mass build, low quality, unsustainable housing stock that will be a significant burden for years to come.  Any solution to the housing crisis must have sustainable aspirations at its core.  There will be a need to cheaply, build affordable housing, but these should be efficient houses, with a low cost sustainable approach as a fundamental tenet.

Cost of living is a key concern for most residents and although the proportion of households in fuel poverty has fallen since 2003, it is still a significant concern. Consideration of operational energy use and impact on bills over the lifetime of a property needs to happen at the design stage.  Strategies deployed in order to meet regulations need to be underpinned by robust consideration of the lifetime costs and operational expense that the residents could expect to see.  Design needs to focus on the end user not just compliance for the developer.

We are on the verge of a shift in the market for design and operation and have the opportunity to instigate more robust thinking and practices at all stages of new build development.  But in order for us to do this we need a clear message and an identifiable sustainable brand in order to engage residents and developers.

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