As the climate agenda heats up, Sustainability manager Gordon Watts shares what South Yorkshire Housing Association is doing to become more sustainable as both a business and a social landlord
How did your sustainability journey start?
The sustainability journey for South Yorkshire Housing Association (SYHA) started some time ago with developments such as Henley Grove Road. This development was built to very high fabric standards and included solar PV and solar thermal. We also have our so-called Power Roof portfolio, where we installed solar PV panels on around 300 homes to provide renewable energy for our customers.
Additionally, we’ve had a long-term campaign to make sure the basics such as loft and cavity wall insulation are up to spec and insulated some of our solid wall properties. Getting the building fabric right must always come first.
Why was it important for you to include sustainability as one of your six themes of your strategic plan for 2020-2023?
Sustainability has been a growing agenda within SYHA over the last seven or so years. It has been gradually moving up the list of priorities for lots of reasons: the growing awareness of the climate crisis through the likes of Greta Thunberg, the work of Extinction Rebellion on biodiversity, changing legislation, and internal work to raise the profile of the challenge we face.
Our internal discussions and external developments have converged, so we know that it’s the right time to step up and play our part in tackling the climate emergency.
How are you going about decarbonising existing stock?
There’s a couple of key things we are doing here that will help us put together a plan for getting our homes to net zero carbon.
One is getting the data right. We’ve placed a lot of focus in recent years on improving the quality and completeness of the data we hold for our stock. This is underpinning work, as without good data we are sailing blind.
It’s a big and expensive undertaking which is why we are doing a piece of consultancy work with Turner and Townsend at the moment. They’re supporting us with two things: establishing what our current carbon footprint is so we can measure progress, and analysing our stock data, current asset management strategy, and ambitions to help us develop a top level decarbonisation plan for our stock.
“Getting the building fabric right must always come first”
This will include what activities we should consider along the road, our approach to improving different housing, and the cost and resource implications.
Given the huge scale and implications of the decarbonisation task, we are taking this time to plan the big push to decarbonise our homes at scale. Whilst this important work continues, we continue to deliver smaller scale retrofit projects including under the Green Homes Grant Local Authority Delivery scheme.
Are you using or looking to use MMC on your new developments?
Yes we are, and we have already done a couple of pilots in the past. The primary focus until recently has been improving the efficiency of the development process, but we recognise the other advantages of MMC in tackling the net-zero carbon goal.
As building components are factory built, for example, you can get a more accurate performance on site – things fit better, the buildings are more airtight, and the performance gap is reduced. Also, a lot of MMC products come with the scope to have very high levels of insulation, and achieving a high fabric performance is always the place to start.
Moreover, many MMC products come in wood and in terms of embodied carbon is a much lower amount than traditional building materials.
Why have you decided to move to an ESG accreditation system in three years’ time?
South Yorkshire Housing Association hasn’t committed to adopt ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance) at the moment, partly because it’s a relatively new thing to the sector. However, we are keeping a close eye on developments and the adoption of The Good Economy ESG standard and also how the finance sector is changing its approach to lending.
We are in the early stages of developing an environmental management system (EMS). This will give us a coherent framework for managing our sustainability performance and information and act as a valuable feed for future external performance reporting.
How are you getting customers on board with the green agenda?
We’re just at the start of the road with our customers, but over time, we’ve done lots of activity to help engage our customers around energy and the green agenda. Things such as providing information and advice on our website and providing new lettings with ‘Sustainability Starter Packs’ that come with guidance leaflets and items such as a water saving pack, a room thermometer, and low-energy light bulb.
These have been well received and are a nice thing for our customers in their new home to hopefully get them off on the right foot – a bit of a Sustainability chocolate on the pillow.
Over time, we have also provided Green Doctor support in partnership with Groundwork, helping our customers to understand how their every behaviours impact on their energy use.
How are you getting employees on board?
For our employees, we have run lots of initiatives and projects, including:
- ‘Green Fairy’ campaigns – a peer support approach to helping people be mindful of the energy they use in the office and which encourages them to turn off devices when they aren’t using them
- Improving our recycling facilities and performance, including getting rid of the deskside bin – many people don’t really get that recycling saves energy too
- Our Live Green champions (a group of employees who want to do a bit more around the green agenda) have organised butterfly walks, ‘swishing’, recycled craft events, and even a ‘Top Gear’ style race to test different ways of commuting to our workspaces
- An employee induction, where new starters can learn more about our green agenda and what they can do to make a difference
You recently held a series of discussions with tenants on the climate crisis and how it relates to social housing. How successful were they?
We are working hard to get all the technical solutions and finance lined up, and it is vital our customers are on the journey to net-zero carbon with us. Whilst we still have a strong focus on treating our worst performing properties, we are now moving into a world in which we will also need to replace gas boilers in otherwise pretty energy-efficient homes. This is a different discussion with our customers.
We’re involved in discussions and debate through a group started by Placeshapers and TPAS which is getting the ball rolling on these important conversations with our customers. We are also looking at own approach at SYHA. We want everyone – including our employees – to be on the same ‘decarbonisation’ song-sheet, so it is key that we get going with this dialogue.
What does your dedicated sustainability team add to the organisation?
The role of Sustainability manager came about in 2014, and my remit is very broad encompassing the homes we provide (new build and existing stock), how we engage with and support our customers, as well as looking at our corporate operations – our workspaces, how we manage waste, travel, procurement, and so much more.
“Whilst we still focus on treating our worst performing properties, we are now moving into a world in which we will also need to replace gas boilers in otherwise pretty energy-efficient homes – this is a different discussion with customers”
We also have a Sustainability property services officer, who majors on our retrofit agenda and the delivery of projects to improve our current stock. We’ve recently welcomed our new Sustainability officer to the team as well, who is taking the lead on developing our new EMS.
Collectively, the team is there to support our customers and internal teams with our green agenda and journey to net-zero carbon.
What sustainability initiatives are you looking to launch in the future?
There is a lot of activity going on in our team. I’d say the two most significant developments at the moment are the development of our EMS and the ongoing work to establish our current carbon footprint and set out the roadmap for decarbonising our business. On this we are very much, and unapologetically so, in the discovery phase, setting out our stall so that when we start to act we can do so with clarity and conviction.
A huge amount of improvement work will flow out of our EMS development and roadmap development – so even busier times lie ahead.
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