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Why the housing sector must turn to futureproofing that works ecologically and economically

This article was written for Build East by Helen Town, Group Director of Property and Partnerships for Watford Community Housing

When it comes to the long- and short-term provision of housing, England sits between a rock and a hard place. The National Housing Federation estimates that in order to meet demand we need to build 340,000 new homes per year until 2031 – 145,000 of which must be affordable.

At the same time, any new homes built from 2025 onwards must cut carbon emissions to no more than 70% of that produced by homes delivered under old regulations, and all housing stock is legally required to achieve an EPC rating ahead of 2030.

So, how do we accelerate the provision of housing whilst maintaining our commitment to sustainability?

A fabric-first approach

This is a core tenet of Watford Community Housing’s strategy, as well as that of our Greener Herts partners. We use only high-performing materials that are both adaptable and cost-effective. The main traits we look for in our building fabric are:

  • Top-tier insulation that retains as much heat as possible
  • Natural ventilation points that reduce the likelihood of mould and allow air to circulate
  • Structural insulation that ensures optimum airtightness

The high-spec insulation used as part of a fabric-first approach massively increases heat retention, which is integral to cutting the carbon emissions of each home ahead of 2025.

Exploring alternative energy

While ‘fabric-first’ is always our starting point, it’s increasingly clear that this alone will not be enough. With energy costs skyrocketing for both businesses and consumers, we’re also looking at the widespread adoption of renewable energy solutions such as air/ground source heat pumps as a means of reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.

On average these types of pumps use 75% renewable energy and 25% electricity, and in drawing heat directly from the ground or the air this will reduce the amount of electricity or gas that the consumer will use to heat their home.

Though there is a significant capital outlay, the installation of these pumps represents a simplification of the energy process, energy output is roughly 3-4 times greater than the energy that is required to run them.

Off-site manufacturing (OSM)

When utilised properly, OSM is a fantastic method for accelerating the rate at which we can build and minimise the negative impact on the environment. In fact, earlier this year we commenced our first ever modular build project. Due to the logistics of the site, exploring the route of modular build allowed us to minimise disruption to the neighbouring properties, as only 20% of the works need to be done on site, with 80% being pre-manufactured in a factory setting.  Because these homes are designed for manufacture there is the opportunity to minimise waste in construction and the greater precision with design enables a greater level of air tightness. As such, it is more sustainable in both construction and occupation.

Under the right conditions, OSM allows us to construct at a faster rate – provided we have the appropriately sized factory, the number of OSM modules that can be produced and sent to site is potentially limitless. Theoretically, providing we have the land to build upon, we can build as many modules as we need in a much shorter time frame than a traditional build.

Overall, one of the best methods to increasing the number of homes that we build is by using innovative construction techniques such as OSM, as it saves valuable time and resource that can be employed elsewhere.

Sustainability also need not mean sacrificing revenue. Ultimately if we invest in future-proofed energy methods such as ground source heat pumps, in the short term this will save customers money on energy bills and it ensures an enduring thermal efficiency that will make the property environmentally viable for years to come.