Price, performance and people: three challenges in sustainable housing
NHBC Foundation celebrated its fifth anniversary with a high level debate that focused on sustainable housing's big issues.The UK may be making great strides in the practice of delivering more energy efficient and sustainable housing, but challenges remain in designing, building, financing, selling and living in the end result.
Four leading figures gave their perceptions of the challenges at a debate in London this week to mark the fifth anniversary of the NHBC Foundation, which was launched in partnership with BRE Trust to carry out research into housing delivery. Taking part in the debate were government chief construction adviser Paul Morrell, Barratt chief executive Mark Clare, Southern Housing Group chief executive Tom Dacey, and communities minister Andrew Stunell, with television presenter Kirsty Young chairing.
The panel's views on housing can be summarised around the three themes of price, performance and people:
The cost of building homes to high levels of the Code for Sustainable Homes, and the difficulties of passing on that cost to homebuyers, are a source of concern to homebuilders. Barratt's Clare said: "The question is how far can we go at a reasonable cost. We're one of the participants in the AIMC4 research project, which is looking at the delivery of Code for Sustainable Homes level 4 housing using a ‘fabric first' approach. It may be that beyond a certain level of performance, it makes better sense to be retrofitting existing homes."
At the same time, the price of retrofitting existing stock is itself a challenge, not only for homeowners but for the government, as Andrew Stunell noted: "Through the Comprehensive Spending Review we've put £2 billion into Decent Homes to upgrade 150,000 homes. Do we say that the homes should be upgraded to a certain Energy Performance Certificate level, which could mean we would do fewer homes? How far do I trade numbers for quality?"
The gap between design and actual performance is an issue that has come into sharp focus for both housing and commercial buildings, and was highlighted in Paul Morrell's report to government on the transition to a low-carbon construction industry. Morrell said: "There is a massive cultural failing. In the commercial world, buildings underperform by 40 per cent; it's probably no better in housing."
Tom Dacey added: "There's an enormous issue in making buildings perform better and in a simple way. We're beginning to struggle with issues as we speak - one of the issues rising up the agenda is excess heat. We have residents asking us to remove safety stays from top floor windows so that they can open them fully to cool their homes."
One of the factors that can make or break the performance of a building, is the behaviour of occupants. As making homes sustainable often involves incorporating renewable energy technologies that are unfamiliar to most occupants, the panel said there was a need to make the home and its controls simple to use. Paul Morrell summed it up: "We need to start using intuitive controls, perhaps ‘bolshie controls' that, when you turn a light on ask you if you really want to do it." Mark Clare echoed the point: "Cars are sophisticated, but actually microprocessors manage them. Why can't we do the same in housing?"
Next stepsClosing the debate, NHBC chief executive Imtiaz Farookhi said that the research work that the NHBC Foundation is doing with technologies is extremely important. Reflecting on the points raised by the debate, he added: "It may be time to repeat the work we did a while ago on consumer attitudes to sustainability and water."