This article features in issue two of Connected Places magazine.
The future of 21st century housing
A lot is expected of the home of the future. It should not only be adaptable and sustainable, but also affordable and deliverable. Plus, as demand outstrips supply, the housing market is under pressure to up the quantity, but with no drop in quality. The heat is on, in every sense.
To help mitigate the impacts of global warming and the climate emergency, the UK Government has committed to a strategy to Build Back Greener, with policies and proposals for decarbonising all sectors of the economy to meet its net-zero targets by 2050.
Critical to the UK achieving these climate goals is the built environment. Current estimates suggest the demands of heating and powering all buildings constitute up to 40% of the UK’s total energy use. In fact, around 22% of carbon emissions come from homes alone.
As part of this climate strategy, therefore, new homes in England are now required to produce 30% less CO2 under the latest changes to building regulations, effective this June. These updates will pave the way for the Future Homes and Buildings Standard, in 2025.
There is more to the sustainability of future housing, though, than just energy and carbon.
Greater incidence of drought conditions in the UK, for example, has raised concerns around water stress and the impacts of new development. On top of that, there are circular economy issues to resolve, as official statistics show that construction, demolition and excavation generate more than three-fifths (62%) of total UK waste.
The responsibilities for change, like the opportunities, run sector-wide throughout the built environment — from the council chamber, to the construction site.
Together, these multiple sustainable development drivers call for joined-up thinking across the built environment, both as an asset base and an industry. In context, therefore, future-ready new housing plans and projects would be best viewed through a lens of urbanisation, suggests Léan Doody, Director, Cities Planning & Design Leader for Europe at Arup:
“We need to take a holistic view of housing as an integral part of cities – whether that be adding more housing capacity to city-centre areas with existing amenities, or building new mixed-use districts on brownfield or suburban sites.”
Innovative ideas around shared infrastructure and resource reuse are already in play at a district level in Finland, for instance, with Microsoft recycling waste heat from its new data centres for homes around Helsinki. On the other side of the globe, potential for wastewater heat recycling is being mapped city-by-city by New Zealand start-up wastewaterheat.online.
In effect, the responsibilities for change, like the opportunities, run sector-wide throughout the built environment – from the council chamber, to the construction site – says Doody:
“The emphasis should be on using data to support key agendas such as energy efficiency, plus active and sustainable travel, as well as social connections. However, whilst planning can play a key role in setting the brief, everyone needs to step up – all the stakeholders need to play an active part in making climate-resilient housing communities.”
Wealth, health and equity in an ageing society
To be truly sustainable, of course, all new housing developed in alignment with the ecological parameters of the planet must also meet the needs of the people.
Deciding how, where and for whom new homes get built determines the affordability and availability of housing, with implications for social equity and exclusion.
This is not merely a matter of market access to basic housing of an acceptable quality standard. Equitable provision means offering nationwide access to accommodation that is resource-smart and cost-efficient to run, plus supports wellbeing and digital engagement.
When it comes to a diverse and evolving social demographic, providing housing for everyone is not easy, though – there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
The mix of new homes must cater for families and the older generation, singles and young people — including forever-renters, for whom home-ownership seems but a distant dream.
In terms of older residents, by 2050, 1 in 4 people in the UK will be over 65. In response, the Homes for Healthy Ageing programme run by Connected Places Catapult uses real-world testing to investigate the role that innovation, collaboration, and a human-centred approach can play in accelerating the development of healthy, age-friendly homes.
Of course, given that 80% of the homes that we will be living in by 2050 have already been built, the imperative to retrofit appears clear and simple. Unfortunately, the process is not.
One of the main mechanisms for future-proofing stock includes the current adaptations system. Adaptations involve health and wellbeing-related home and environmental modifications for social housing tenants, private renters and homeowners. They help prevent health crises and also futureproof homes for a diverse and ageing population.
However, a new report entitled ‘Adapting the Adaptations Process’, just published by the Centre for Housing Evidence, argues that a wider, more effective adaptations process is urgently needed. The current system is problematic, says lead report author, Dr. Vikki McCall, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Housing, University of Stirling:
“There are many good practice examples throughout the UK, but the adaptations system is shown to be fragmented, overly complex, and bureaucratic. These challenges undermine the preventive potential that adaptations can offer to service users. The processes that support adaptations involve clear divergence between both local authority area and tenure.”
As well as representing a major concern for the existing retrofit market, these issues also place an even greater onus on current and future providers of new housing to ensure adaptability is built-in from the start, where possible, not left to be bolted-on at a later date.
Responding to the disruption of a pandemic
As if housing were not already a hugely complex puzzle to solve, issues have been complicated still further by questions raised during lockdowns, working from home (WFH), and lifestyle changes forced upon us by Covid-19.
How did the pandemic change the demographics of housing and demands of residents? How might the decline of the city-centre HQ affect the commuter belt, for example?
Whilst everyone’s individual experience of the pandemic may have been unique, certain impacts have proved common across social groups and communities, suggests Linda Farrow, Director for People and Culture, at Agile Property and Homes:
“The pandemic, successive lockdowns and profound associated impacts – personal, financial and social – only served to amplify differences between those who were already resilient and those more vulnerable. This, in turn, has further increased housing demand, making an already tight market, even tighter – which means that only the wealthiest (and healthiest) people actually have any real choice about where and how they live.”
With interest rates and fuel bills on the rise, affordability is a major concern for housing at present. Such adverse economic conditions can heighten the risk of sustainable design, materials and tech becoming a housing market luxury. Buyers and renters on a budget then effectively start to be discriminated against, unfairly. However, it need not be this way.
Sustainability and affordability can go hand-in-hand from the outset, argues Farrow:
“With the best ecological and passive design approaches built-in from the outset and a commitment to naturally renewable materials, new-build homes can be eminently affordable, relative to conventional homes, in the design and construction phases. They also show substantial advantages in occupation as a result of much lower utility use.”
For Emmaus Bristol, Agile is creating 15 new low-carbon, affordable eco homes up on the roof of the city-centre offices of the charity that works with formerly homeless people. Complete with food-growing and shared amenity space, the project utilises modern methods of construction (MMC) in the form of straw-bale and timber panels.
Agile’s model of distributed manufacture also supports local job creation and skills training, helping bring revenue and social value to the immediate community through procurement and supply-chain management. The economic benefits are boosted further by unlocking the valuable potential of a rooftop site, then optimising affordability via simple finance options.
Innovation at scale and investment in construction
Alongside people and the planet, the third element of the sustainability equation for future homes is profit: the business case must work for mainstream housebuilding.
Considerations here include the potential for market disruptors and niche players to drive change without compromising supply-chain resilience, plus how much new finance, funding, and private capital investment can boost quality development of affordable housing.
In terms of transformation, innovation itself is not the problem; it is more a matter of scale.
According to Dr. Zainab Dangana, Head of Sustainable Technology, at Wates Group, many saleable solutions lack the support necessary to speed their diffusion into mass markets:
“The technology to enable this extraordinary transformation exists, but the uptake has been slow due to lack of knowledge, skills and practices required to deliver homes reliably and at volume. Many environmental product and service innovations have been developed and tested, but most of these are produced and consumed in small market niches.”
With the best ecological and passive design approaches built-in from the outset and a commitment to naturally renewable materials, new-builda homes can be eminently affordable.
Some sector support is available to help the industry embrace new technology, provided via the likes of the Wates Innovation Network.
The Advanced Construction Accelerator, run by Connected Places Catapult, has also selected its first cohort of nine SMEs.
Along with business and technical support, the cohort will receive commercial guidance and an opportunity to run live trials and demonstrations from a consortium of industry partners.
As regards investment, the top four trends identified by Connected Places Catapult are: greater private capital investment in social and affordable housing; better solutions for renters; more innovative repayable finance options for charities; and the emergence of sector-wide environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards.
Interestingly, MMC has consistently been attracting significant investment of late. For instance, Legal & General has ploughed millions into its modular housing arm, M&G is putting £500m into housebuilder Greencore Construction, plus Weston Group has allocated £35m to its British Offsite operation in Essex. Even Ikea has been getting in on the act – partnering with Swedish construction giant Skanska on its Scandi BoKlok homes concept, at sites in UK locations such as Worthing and Littlehampton.
The UK’s largest housebuilder, Barratt Developments is also embracing applications for offsite solutions and MMC, as part of its approach to futureproofing the sustainability of its build programme and supply-chain. MMC offers the prospect of multiple benefits, explains the company’s Technical and Innovation Director, Oliver Novakovic:
“We already use modern methods and offsite construction in 27% of our homes and want to get to 30% by 2025. For instance, we are increasing our use of timber-frame homes, which save seven tonnes of CO2 emissions over their lifespan. It is clear offsite helps in terms of speed of build, using fewer materials, creating less waste and being more efficient.”
Working towards completing 20,000 homes a year, Barratt views construction innovation as a critically important part of the drive to deliver zero-carbon properties at scale.
In collaboration with the University of Salford and 40 industry partners, Barratt created the Zed House last year — a zero-carbon concept home that goes substantially beyond the Future Homes Standard.
Taking things a step further still, Barratt is currently building a complete home in conjunction with Saint-Gobain UK and Ireland, located within the University of Salford’s Energy House 2.0 testing laboratory, the biggest of its kind in the world.
Known as eHome2, the property will be subjected to both extreme hot (+40 degrees) and cold (-20 degrees) temperatures to assess its technical performance and climate resilience.
Ultimately, though, getting the fabric of the home right remains the determining factor on energy performance, critical to lowering emissions and bills in use, concludes Novakovic.
“The primary way we are going to reduce carbon emissions, both in construction and once residents live in homes, is through a ‘fabric first’ approach to building. If you line-up all of the holes in a typical older home, it’ll come to about half a metre square. Whereas if you line up the holes in one of our new homes, it’ll be smaller than a piece of A4 paper.”
The future of housing in the 21st century is a complex story with a simple start: fewer holes.
Building new housing markets
The UK companies on the first cohort of the Connected Places Catapult’s Advanced Construction Accelerator.
Fully autonomous construction progress tracking,
quality surveying, and near-real-time adherence to
Enhanced concrete that promises to be a game-
changer thanks to the transformational addition
of 2D material – graphene.
A technology capable of isolating significant
amounts of CO2 in concrete with the potential
to mitigate 2 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions.
A patent-pending wall-climbing robot that can
climb any surface and be used for inspection
and maintenance tasks.
Enabling designers and architects to procure and configure joinery using tools that seamlessly integrate with existing CAD and BIM software.
AI-powered carbon accounting software to accelerate decarbonisation for building and infrastructure projects, saving clients up to 60% of time.
Using multiple data silos within an organisation to generate intelligence on forecasting, time reduction, and process and maintenance management.
AI-based tools for structural engineers for reducing concrete required in design without changing workflow.
Cloud-based logistics scheduling and planning to connect vast supply chains on a real-time platform.
This article features in issue two of Connected Places magazine.