“Fabric first” has been doing the rounds in housing for some time now, often promoted as a sustainable way to build and retrofit homes. But as Steve Wharton, manager of MPA Masonry, sees it, the approach is more relevant today than it has ever been
The rising cost of living and a devastating energy crisis has hit the UK hard, putting the squeeze on business and consumers alike. Certainly, it’s a situation that will have given the social housebuilding community food for thought, given that some of the most vulnerable members of society rely on the properties they build for shelter, warmth, and security.
With margins tighter than ever, developers will be looking at where they can achieve maximum value, without compromising on quality or derailing their efforts to meet official emissions targets. Fighting back against rising costs, every aspect of the build will be audited, from the materials used to the systems in which they are installed.
Thankfully, there are a few areas that can be addressed quickly and relatively easily, such as employing existing, tried-and-tested delivery methods to reduce cost with minimal impact on the bottom line and sustainability goals.
The fabric-first approach is nothing new; in fact, you could say we’ve been building in this way for centuries. But it should also drive our approach towards the way we build social housing going forward. And the government thinks so, too.
The gradual introduction of the Future Homes Standard, which will see Part L come into force later this year, will provide the impetus for this more efficient, lower-carbon way of building. Specifically, it stipulates that any future homes built must be 30% lower in emissions than the currently accepted levels.
Of course, the immediate, and most obvious way to achieve this is to reduce reliance on mechanical HVAC systems, achieved through maximising the potential of the building’s fabric. It also possesses the added benefit of taking developers far closer to the Holy Grail of Net Zero 2050, something which will be on the minds of everyone as we look to halt climate change over the next 100 years.
Furthermore, it reduces occupant reliance on artificial heating and ventilation, driving down energy bills thereby saving much-needed finances in tighter times.
“Taking a fabric-first approach makes complete commercial, environmental, and social sense”
Fabric-first construction will be critical to meeting the requirements of Part L, particularly to ensure all new residential properties achieve a U-Value of 0.18 W/m2k in England or below – which sounds ambitious, but not unachievable.
For example, cavity-wall construction, a system that has been used by housebuilders for centuries, is a longstanding example of fabric-first and one which can deliver ultra-low U-Values. Converse to what one might read about MMC, more often than not, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to meet your objectives.
Furthermore, when enhanced with other modern components, such as the latest high-performance insulation boards and graphene ties, a correctly constructed cavity-wall system can deliver maximum thermal efficiency, reducing the need for mechanical HVAC intervention.
However, it’s not always a cookie-cutter approach. Developers need to consider several other locational factors to optimise thermal performance.
Rain or shine
Materials interact with their surroundings differently depending on geographic, geological, and climatic conditions, and this can alter how they perform. In the case of a cavity wall, the width of the gap between the outside block leaf and the inner wall insulation can have a significant impact on the home’s thermal efficiency.
Areas with more precipitation, such as properties on the UK’s west coast, will require a larger space to prevent moisture entry from wind-driven rain, than drier regions of the country, such as East Anglia.
To further improve the property’s thermal potential, a range of cutting-edge technologies can also be added to boost fabric potential. A plethora of low-energy, technology-backed alternatives are now widely available on the market. Including solar PV panels and natural HVAC, which can work alongside the structural fabric to improve performance. This results in more energy-efficient residential properties, but reduces emissions, increases self-sufficiency, and, once again, lowers energy bills.
As you can see, taking a fabric-first approach makes complete commercial, environmental, and social sense.
With inflation and interest continuing to rise, the cost of living crisis is likely to become more acute. Those who can maximise thermal efficiency by using a fabric-first approach will be delivering value not only to potential inhabitants of homes, but to the overall reputation of the industry itself.
Image: Steve Wharton, manager, MPA Masonry
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