The role that housing plays in our health and wellbeing often goes unreported. This week though it received some of the attention it deserves, thanks to the 70th birthday of the NHS and Labour’s launch of a consultation on ‘healthy homes zones’. In the ensuing discussions of physical and mental health, housing has taken centre stage thanks to the affects it can have on our wellbeing.
Health problems resulting from poor housing are estimated to cost the NHS £1.4bn every year and can severely affect residents’ quality of life, so a new approach to housing provision that treats homes as health-providers is paramount going forwards.
Here are five ways to help ensure healthy homes:
Break the Mould
Damp and mould can have severe health implications, and current strategies for tackling it frequently fail to get to the root of the problem. Our latest research, Breaking the Mould: should landlords be doing more?, investigated the complex, interlinked factors leading to mould issues, and provided recommendations for tackling the problem once and for all. Download it here.
A key way of tackling mould problems is to ensure that homes have adequate (and user-friendly) ventilation. This is particularly true of buildings with high levels of airtightness, including most new builds and homes built to high environmental standards.
Good ventilation can also improve indoor air quality by preventing a build-up of carbon dioxide and harmful gases released from furniture and cleaning products.
Keep it cool
As this summer has been demonstrating, the UK is not immune to searing heat. While it can make a pleasant change from the usual drizzle, heatwaves can also pose a threat to health, particularly for the elderly.
The combination of an ageing population and ever more frequent heatwaves is raising the risk of severe health implications, especially in cities owing to the urban heat island effect.
To prepare for these future changes and avoid ‘maladaptation’ (where strategies for adapting to climate changes inadvertently increase the problem), homes should be built and retrofitted now with passive cooling measures. These can include trees and plants for shading, adequate natural ventilation through building design and shutters and screens to reduce solar gains. This avoids the risk of residents overheating and reduces the need for energy intensive air conditioning.
Carefully designed urban greening and biodiversity-enhancing measures can be a fantastic way not only of increasing wildlife and reducing flood risk, but also of boosting resident wellbeing.
Greenery in urban areas can reduce noise and air pollution, provide shading, improve the aesthetics of neighbourhoods and provide calming, enjoyable spaces for residents. But planting must be thoroughly thought through if its benefits are to be maximised. Factors including species planted, proximity to homes and ongoing maintenance requirements should be considered prior to taking action; a dedicated ecological consultant can help ensure the right decisions are made.
Beyond trees and shrubs around homes, greening options include community gardens (which have a social element too), green and brown roofs, wildflower areas and wildlife-friendly schemes such as bird boxes and ‘insect hotels’. Thanks to the huge range of possibilities, greening projects can be tailored to suit any development.
While specifications are increasingly set for home energy efficiency standards, the actual composition of the new build and refurbishment materials themselves is often neglected. But many new products and materials release volatile pollutants when first installed (termed ‘off-gassing’). Residents exposed to high levels of these pollutants may experience a range of symptoms, including headaches, dizziness, itchy eyes and exacerbated asthma and allergies.
This can be avoided by setting standards for the products, finishes and fixing methods used in both new builds and refurbishments. For example, formaldehyde-free timber, low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints and cleaning products, and mechanical fixings (instead of glues) can be specified. Plenty of vegetation and good ventilation can also help to tackle pollution issues.
Build sociable homes
It is not just the physical health of residents that housing can affect. Homes can also have a significant impact on mental health, not least in the role they play in levels of loneliness.
Loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of dementia and even death. But housing providers are in a great position to help prevent loneliness, through the layout of developments and the features of the home.
Digital investment, particularly in remote rural areas, can be a great way of improving resident connectedness and reducing isolation. On a larger scale, developments should be planned around good access to communal spaces, preferably by foot but also by public transport where necessary. A layout based around green, car-free public spaces has been proven to increase neighbourhood interactions, and makes for a happier, healthier place to live.