Empowering residents with data-driven solutions to combat cold and damp housing

Cold and damp homes have been proven to have damaging impacts on physical and mental health, especially for the most vulnerable groups in society.

For adults over 55 years old, the risks of respiratory conditions from excessively cold living conditions are profound. Beyond physical health, the effects of living in a home with inadequate heating and can result in poorer mental health due to issues like thermal discomfort, persistent worry about the affordability of heating, and potential damage to possessions*. Additionally, the stigma and social isolation that may accompany a cold home can have further detrimental impacts of mental wellbeing.  

The impacts of cold and damp conditions are manifold. According to the Building Research Establishment (BRE), excess cold affects nearly 836,000 homes, and dampness affects 75,000 homes in England. If mitigated, these conditions would save the NHS an estimated £857 million and £38 million per annum, respectively, in treatment bills alone**. For residential landlords, cold and damp conditions can result in the need for additional maintenance, deterioration of building fabric, and strained tenant relationships. For local authorities, cold and damp housing conditions result in a greater demand for services like social care, advice services, and housing services. For health practitioners, the respiratory and cardiovascular health conditions arising from cold housing conditions lead to excess winter deaths. More importantly, cold and damp often hinder a person’s ability to live comfortably and healthily in their own home, which can affect their health, wellbeing, and independence. The seriousness of the cold and damp problem for housing providers and tenants was highlighted by the tragic death of toddler Awaab Ishaak in Rochdale in November 2020.***

Sunderland City Council partnered with Connected Places Catapult through the Homes for Healthy Ageing programme to explore possible solutions that could address or mitigate the impacts of cold and damp housing. The Homes for Healthy Ageing programme explores the UK’s healthy ageing challenges through the nexus of the home. Working collaboratively with local authorities, academia, third sector organisations, and businesses, the programme is delivering five testbeds across the UK to test the impact of innovative solutions to a range of challenges faced by many communities across the UK, including social isolation, housing quality and care provision. 

For cities like Sunderland and others with a growing ageing population, the issues linked to cold homes can be particularly challenging. For Sunderland City Council, tackling this issue is a priority across the housing, health, social care, and community sectors. Sunderland seeks to be proactive in identifying ways of preventing issues and the testbed allowed exploration of solutions, as well as aligning with Sunderland’s Smart City agenda, particularly the ‘healthy smart city’ focus to reduce health inequalities and enable people to live healthier, longer, and more independent lives. 

Trialling data-driven solutions and innovative technologies in testbed environments 

Led by the City’s Ageing Well Board – made up of health, housing, social care and voluntary sector providers – Sunderland City Council created testbed opportunities for 7 SMEs to trial innovative solutions to cold and damp housing conditions and fuel poverty.  Given the complexity of the issue, it was acknowledged early on that there was no single approach that could tackle cold and damp homes. The focus was therefore on trialling a range of replicable and impactful solutions to both progress Sunderland’s healthy ageing agenda, as well as share useful insights and lessons with other local authorities experiencing similar challenges. The solutions tested fall into three distinct approaches to respond the challenge: 

Identification: These solutions used big data at a national and local scale to help the city identify properties impacted, or likely to be impacted, by cold, condensation issues, and fuel poverty

  • Bays Consulting – uses predictive analytics to highlight homes at high risk of cold and damp, and work with Parity Projects to prescribe measures to reduce that risk in the home. 
  • Urban Tide – developed an innovation platform driven by Artificial Intelligence that helps organisations treat data as an asset used to inform business decisions. This data will be used to help energy hubs, local authorities and managing agents to increase the uptake of energy efficiency schemes within certain homes or areas.

Confirmation and management: Sensor-based technologies to validate information from data tools, and to help people understand and manage quality and humidity levels in their homes

  • Solcom – uses a home monitoring system to track movement, detect and identify changes in behaviour that highlights increases in risk to individuals within their living environment. This solution can then inform users on the immediate actions to be taken that can impact the temperature of a room to maintain its warmth. 
  • SORA– uses their indoor air quality monitoring solution to inform residents about the current environment, to create better indoor health for longer independent and healthy living.

Innovative physical interventions: When confirmation or management is not enough, it was important to explore physical solutions that could improve properties’ resilience to cold, mould, and high levels of humidity.

  • AirEx – developed a smart passive ventilation system that uses sensors to detect temperature, humidity, and air quality. This is combined with external weather data to optimise ventilation to prevent damp and mould while managing the thermal performance of the home. 
  • HausBots – uses technology to protect and maintain the built environment. Their HB1 Wall Climbing Robot applies waterproof paint to protect against damp and rain by improving the thermal resistance of masonry. 
  • Gardarica – provides unique solutions in eco-friendly design, landscape architecture and water management. The Gardarica Green System is a solution created to address the problem of cold and damp housing, consisting of green indoor walls, an insulation system and rooftop gardens. 

Applying Connected Places Catapult’s Real-World Testing Framework, the SMEs were able to trial their solutions in several homes across Sunderland and monitor the impact they had on residents. The identification and confirmation solutions were found to empower tenants by educating them and giving them access to data which they could use to better understand their living conditions. Residents were able to take this information to their GPs and have conversations about how their living conditions could be impacting their health. Moreover, social prescribers and housing providers could use this information to keep track of tenants’ housing conditions, and to spark more in-depth conversations around fuel poverty and how tenants could be supported.  

Next steps for Sunderland City Council 

Given the recent global rises in commodity prices for oil, gas, and other inflationary pressures, finding solutions to cold and damp housing is now a national priority forming part of Sunderland City Council’s wider response to the cost-of-living crisis. 

As part of the city’s response, Sunderland is actively promoting the successful solutions which were discovered through the testbed within the council and with external partners. There are also ongoing discussions around how the identification solutions trialled in the testbed may be able to support strategists in identifying households most at risk of experiencing cold and mould, as well as fuel poverty and cost of living issues. 

The Council’s housing team are adopting a fabric first approach to their new build and renovation projects, with the aim of ensuring homes are better insulated and that, where possible, air flow within homes is designed to prevent the build-up of humidity and condensation which are major contributing factors to mould growth. As part of this approach, the Council’s housing team is considering how it may utilise some of the confirmation and management, and physical intervention solutions in their projects. Those innovations, when applied through a multi-faceted approach, may provide some answers to a very complex national problem. 

Gerry Taylor, Executive Director of Health, Housing and Communities at Sunderland City Council, said: 

“Sunderland’s strengths in digital, and our strong collaborative partnerships, mean that we are very well placed to explore new and innovative ways of supporting residents and addressing challenges met by authorities across all corners of the country, setting the bar in proactive support that helps our residents to live well for longer. This programme demonstrates our proactive, positive approach and is just part of a programme of innovation that is ensuring we do all we can to support our communities to thrive.” 

Find out more about the Homes for Healthy Ageing Project here.