How GreenSquareAccord claimed the #HDTop30 Sustainability top spot

After claiming the top spot in Housing Digital’s Top 30 Sustainable Housing Providers list, Carl Taylor, assistant director of New Business and Growth, explains what makes GreenSquareAccord’s sustainability strategy so effective

Why do you think GreenSquareAccord was able to claim the top spot?

I think there was two reasons really. One was longevity of consistency of approach, in that we’ve been going at it since 2005/2006, and that is clearly longer than most organisations. We’ve got data going back, and we’ve been continually improving since 2005/2006.

Secondly, it was the holistic nature of our vision. We weren’t just concerned with carbon; we’d moved into other areas. For example, the virtually plastic-free house, where we moved into the whole area of biochemicals and natural products and how we work in a more circular economy and have a more circular approach to housing.

Were you surprised to come top of the list?

We were delighted, I think it’s fair to say. GreenSquareAccord, while we have a very long history in terms of pushing this agenda since 2005/2006, we are also an incredibly new organisation having only been formed in April.

I think it’s the first thing we’ve won as an organisation, and that’s fitting because one of the key planks of our merger proposals was around environment and sustainability, so it’s good to see that being recognised.

In your winner’s presentation, you said your two main areas of concern were funding limitations and the properties you have in heritage conservation. How do you plan to navigate these challenges?

I think that is really difficult, and I’m not sure we’ve got all the answers – and I’m not sure anybody has got all the answers.

I was dealing with a new development actually where, once again, we had planners saying we need to use brick as the primary building material. Bricks have four times the embodied carbon of timber frame, and so while we have a commitment on paper from planners to more sustainable policies, we still don’t have a realisation. That means they have to change some of their other policies to enable that to happen, and that’s as much in new-builds it is in existing communities.

The areas we are talking about are all your traditional terraced streets, and to do the levels of deep retrofit that are necessary to get to zero-carbon, we do need to change the exterior appearance of those long rows of brick terraced streets to something that can sustain a lot more insulation and keep those living in the properties in a warmer, more affordable, and more comfortable house on both extremes of the temperature gauge going forward.

To what extent does your future success depend on external factors such as government policy and a more robust and mature supply chain?

Massively. We’ve been addressing the supply chain by trying to build our own in house. So, we have our LoCaL homes factory, and that can produce the materials that we need to decarbonise our stock, and also to do it in a more sustainable and more circular fashion than previous building methods were.

But at the other end of that, we can only do what we’re allowed to do, and their needs to be a realisation that there is a need to act now and to change policy now. And I think that’s coming.

When was your LoCaL homes factory up and running?

In terms of the LoCaL homes factory, we built our first closed-panel timber frames from Scandinavia in 2008. We realised that the building methods that were being used in Scandinavia were producing far more environmentally friendly, far more energy efficient and better products that we would be able to build using traditional building methods in the UK.

We also realised that, being based in the West Midlands when we went to look to what they were doing, it was very similar to the car factories that our parents worked in not so long ago, and that those skills still existed in the West Midlands.

“We haven’t changed the way we build houses in this country since the late 18th century – that needs to change”

We don’t build cars with one person screwing on every little bit; we use an industrialised method for building cars now and enable them to be personalised to people. The same should be the case for houses.

We haven’t changed the way we build houses in this country since the late 18th century. That needs to change and evolve, so that people can personalise their houses and so that they can get the sort of quality that you get in a factory – but also so that we can use materials that aren’t going to damage the environment.

It sounds like GreenSquareAccord was ahead of the curve in that regard.

We were the first house association to open a timber-frame factory. I think we were probably the very first pioneers in looking at closed-panel timber-frame houses. So yes, I think we were ahead of the curve, and we intend to try and stay ahead of that curve because we think it’s important to be able to build really high quality, really sustainable housing that’s good for the next century.

Speaking of sustainable housing, how are you getting on with your virtually plastic-free homes?

They are on site as we speak; workers are there doing what workers do to make houses happen.

Plastic was clearly one of those industries where we needed to have a focus on. While people think a house will be there for 100 years, so why are you worried about plastic in the house, the reality is the kitchen lasts maybe 12 years, the heating system lasts maybe 14 years, the windows maybe 20 years, the bathroom 30 years, and people bash the walls around and replace them.

CGI projection of GreenSquareAccord’s virtually plastic-free housing development

So while the structure stays, it’s a bit like Trigger’s room in Only Fools and Horses, and therefore it was important that we did concentrate and focus on plastic, so that when we change a bit of Trigger’s it doesn’t do any damage to the environment, and we don’t leave plastic microbeads each year to the environment and kill wildlife and have an effect on the biodiversity of our planet.

Do you think that this is something that will be rolled out more widely in years to come?

I think that’s coming. You can see this sort of whole trend to natual housing. I think in terms of where we’re going, we see as an innovation project where we take a big leap into the unknown. While we wouldn’t then repeat the big leap into the unknown, on every flight that we do, that are going to bits of the leap into the unknown where we think, that worked really well, and we can apply that on our future sites that become part of our standard specification.

So, I think that’s certainly going to happen, and we can see some of the learning that we are going to take from that. It is starting to be applied on our mainstream housing developments, and I think there will be more of that at the completion when we can draw a good balance sheet of what works and what doesn’t work in the plastic-free houses.

One of GreenSquareAccord’s big ambitions is to become a net-zero organisation by 2040. How achievable is this, and what could get in the way?

We have a whole chunk of stock that, whatever we try and do, without changing government policy and changing regulation, it won’t be possible to make zero-carbon.

So, we’ve got to sell that stock, and that doesn’t help the country become zero-carbon because it will almost certainly leak in to the private-rented sector, which tends to be the least invested in stock of all in the UK and therefore least likely to get treated, and so that doesn’t help the country in the long run – although, it would help us to achieve that target, but in a rather selfish manner.

Or we need some change in government regulation around that, and so there’s a whole chunk of properties we’ve got where we haven’t got the answer to at the moment.

There needs to be some change in regulation to facilitate that or we will need to dispose of that stock. We will obviously do our best around that stock and make decisions and inform and discuss with our residents about it, but that’s also often some quite popular stock. So, it’s a difficult choice to make as an organisation.

⬆️ Watch how GreenSquareAccord retrofitted a 1970s apartment block in Darlaston

We also have the funding issue to contend with. With our current resources and funding, we can’t get to carbon-neutral at 2040, but we don’t think the current funding environment is going to be the one’s that’s pertaining in 10-15 years’ time. If it does, the country is going to be in big, big trouble.

We are basing our plans on 2040 on becoming carbon neutral on the expectation that we will be able to access some funding to decarbonise our properties.

Has the pandemic helped or hindered your ambitions?

The pandemic has made it more difficult to carry out work in people’s properties in this period of time.

Having said that, in terms of decarbonising Accord as an organisation, we’ve seen a significant drop in car mileage. Therefore, vehicle travel has assisted greatly in reducing our carbon emissions and had given some food for thought in terms of how we deliver that going forward. We’ve had a localisation policy for a while now, where we try to reduce staff car mileage by making them work on localised patches, and that’s been been part of our environmental focus.

We didn’t see the savings we anticipated from our offices being closed because of the way people had to work remotely. We had to keep computers and servers running 24/7, whereas before work in the office they were working nine-to-five and that offset the gains of energy usage that there would have otherwise been. That surprised us somewhat.

There are some challenges for us about how we enable people to work remotely and at the same time reduce the amount of carbon that that involves in the IT infrastructure. We need to get our heads around that and to flag that up as an issue.

“We didn’t see the savings we anticipated from our offices being closed because of the way people had to work remotely – that surprised us somewhat”

In terms of our stock in general, which is by far our biggest carbon emission, we have managed to carry out significant improvements for properties that we manage in our planned maintenance programme, despite the pandemic.

There has been some disruption…but we have still managed to deliver on our targets throughout the pandemic, and that’s a testament to the fantastic work of the contractors and of our staff to enable that to happen.

Another one of your ambitions is to become the greenest housing association in the UK, which by our metrics you already are. How much progress you think you’re making on achieving this goal?

You’ve given us an affirmation of that but we need to continue to move the target. You can’t rest on your laurels around sustainability, we are not where we need to be, and while we’ve set ourselves the goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2040, we realise that’s probably not good enough for the planet.

We also realise that, if we want to be the greenest housing association, people are going to want that mantle more and more as the effects of global warming have a greater and greater impact. Therefore, we need to continue to improve until we get better.

GreenSquareAccord is clearly on the right track in terms of sustainability, but what advice would you give to those providers who might be struggling with their strategy?

The first thing is to get a measure of what you’re doing and what carbon you are emitting as an organisation.

I think the second thing to do is to have a continual improvement programme and have that accredited external to your organisation.

The third thing is to then develop clear strategies of how you can improve from where you are, because we all need to improve from where we are. We’re not at that point where we can sit and say, hey, aren’t we fantastic? We’ve done this, we don’t need to do anything.

We’re at a point where we’ve started a journey, and we’re still very much at the start of the journey, and we need to do a lot more and a lot quicker than we do it at the moment.

I think that’s probably the case with all every housing organisation.

Main image credit: GreenSquareAccord

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