While the recent buzz around sustainablity in the sector may be a passing fad, Wayne Gethings, CEO of Wrekin Housing Group, thinks the movement is here to stay
Sustainability has become something of a buzzword in the sector. This surge in discussion about how to best ‘futureproof’ UK housing is no passing fad, though. It has come about amid a perfect storm of opportunity and necessity.
A key driver is the much-needed push towards more environmentally sustainable practices that can help reduce our carbon footprint and combat global warming.
If we include consumer product use in the home, housing is the third biggest carbon emitter in the country, after energy and transport. In 2019, approximately 19% of carbon dioxide emissions came from the residential sector.
As we look to hit our national target of creating 300,000 new homes each year, there are other environmental considerations, too, such as protecting biodiversity and minimising other pollutants.
Novel technologies continue to provide solutions. In new-builds, we can look to incorporate alternative energy sources, or more efficient insulation and water management. For example, at Wrekin, customers have just moved in to four timber-framed passivhaus homes in Arleston (Telford & Wrekin), which require very little energy for heating and cooling. They’re great for the environment and the customer.
“In a year littered with horrible news and hardships, there was solace to be found in local communities pulling together to support one another”
There are also things we can do with existing properties – we have a project underway to retrofit battery storage and introduce solar photovoltaic technologies.
Crucially, these green technologies need to be married with approaches that reduce the environmental impact of development. This means being smart about the materials we use – and where we source them – and being similarly shrewd about our construction techniques.
Achieving something close to carbon-neutrality and environmental sustainability, though, will require a broader scope for our thinking. It will require a harmonious relationship between the built and natural environments that can only be achieved in tandem with progress towards social and economic sustainability.
This will require more joined-up thinking across the sector, from policy makers and large housing providers like ourselves, to individual private landlords and homeowners.
Whereas ‘new’ can provide answers on the environmental front, it is perhaps ‘old’ ideas that can help us to build homes that encourage social and economic sustainability.
For us, that means embracing our community and making them a part of the process. Some of it comes from more ‘active listening’ to customers, partners and local residents – a central pillar of the recent white paper on the future of social housing.
Doing so properly can help us to understand the actual needs of residents and develop properties that meet said needs. This might be by working with our partners to ensure good access to public transport, or through simply making homes truly affordable to local families.
Training and employing people from the region, from all backgrounds and age groups, further underlines a commitment to invest in the heart of our communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought that into stark focus. In a year littered with horrible news and hardships, there was solace to be found in local communities pulling together to support one another.
I have always seen our role as being greater than being mere providers of housing. We have a civic duty, as anchor institutions, to provide spaces that can become communities, and a responsibility to facilitate positive connections between local people, local businesses and services, and the surrounding environment.
Doing so creates a framework for resilience. Those places with strong communities were the best equipped to deal with crisis, and that is what true sustainability looks like. That is how the quality of our housing can make a positive difference to peoples’ lives.
These are not new ideas. But they are important to stress.
This brings me to the other aspect of sustainability that the sector must address. By its nature, sustainability requires long-term thinking. There is little benefit to new designs or policies that need radical overhaul in 10, 20, or 50 years. Any new housing development needs to be high-quality and fit for purpose to reduce the need for refitting or rebuilding down the line.
“Throughout the sector, we will have to make decisions about what we do, and how we do it. Perhaps some need also to consider why we do it”
A crystal ball would be helpful in future-proofing, sure, but there are some things we can predict and prepare for.
We are yet to witness the true impact of escalating climate change but it will be significant. We need to consider more efficient ways of both heating and cooling our homes, be that through passivhaus methods, retrofitting, or otherwise. We can also make the choice to exceed current regulatory and legal requirements and thus build resilience for what follows.
In the wake of the pandemic, will businesses tack towards more home-working? If so, we need to think seriously about the working spaces in our homes (as anyone struggling with makeshift home offices will attest). Forward-thinking housing providers and developers can design homes with an in-built flexibility.
Sustainability will become more and more prominent on the housing agenda in years to come. Holistic thinking that understands the deeply interconnected nature of our society, the economy and the environment, is needed.
Throughout the sector, we will have to make decisions about what we do, and how we do it. Perhaps some need also to consider why we do it. Solutions can be found by both looking forward, adopting new technologies; and back, towards the roots of housing and our role in building communities.
Image: Wayne Gethings, CEO, Wrekin Housing Group
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