For this year’s World Green Building Week the focus has been on housing. Comprising 40% of our total energy use, we know that our homes are a vital area to tackle if we are to transition to a low-carbon economy. But our houses are not just an emission problem to be solved. They also have the potential to generate our energy, improve our health and wellbeing, increase our resilience to climate change and support sustainable transport options.
Sustainable Homes is investigating these vast and growing opportunities for housing as part of our Housing 2050 research. Focusing particularly on social housing providers, we are exploring the current trajectory of retrofitting and home improvements, predicting where the sector needs to be by 2050 to align with national sustainability targets, and suggesting practical steps for housing providers to take over the next three decades.
When it comes to climate change, we see five key areas in which housing can play a key role:
To gain a deeper understanding of the current situation, the challenges and the solutions, Sustainable Homes has been holding roundtables and interviews with key sector stakeholders. From the research so far, the following picture has been emerging of the sector’s approach:
1. Energy efficiency – This is an important place to start, because fabric improvements are a vital first step for reducing emissions and decreasing the likelihood of fuel poverty. There is still plenty of scope to increase external wall insulation in particular.
2. Low carbon heat – Many organisations are replacing oil and solid fuel heating systems with cleaner options such as heat pumps, which is an important transition. But to date there is minimal consideration of how a post-gas heating system can be brought about on a large scale.
3. Low carbon electricity – Installations of renewables such as PV panels are ongoing, but funding shortages have limited uptake. Battery storage offers a potential route forward in future, once pilot studies have confirmed its viability.
4. Electric vehicles – As interest in EVs continues to rise, many housing providers are responding by installing office and home charging points and bringing in EV fleets. Optimal solutions are still being worked out, to ensure the best value for money and maximum uptake.
5. Climate resilience – There is a recognition that climate change will continue to occur no matter how quickly we curb emissions, and the heatwaves of the summer made this abundantly clear. Flood and overheating risk assessments have been conducted by some housing providers. Going forward, proactive steps are needed to mitigate the risk and boost housing resilience, to adapt to increasingly extreme weather over the coming decades.
Clearly significant action is required to ensure that homes are efficient, sustainable and resilient. There are of course major barriers to overcome in order to deliver, not least in terms of (a lack of) funding and legislation. Yet all housing providers engaged in the roundtables and interviews displayed examples of ingenuity and proactivity, which shows that progress is undoubtedly possible even within a challenging landscape.
So what should housing providers be doing to drive these changes? The following 5 top actions emerged from the roundtables:
1. Get your data into shape
To know how much work is required, it is valuable to understand where your organisation stands at present. Having records of EPCs, renewables installations and other home improvements that are complete and up to date enables a targeted approach that tackles the worst-performing homes first. Also it helps with ongoing monitoring of performance, which can inform future decision-making on installations.
2. Align short-term targets with long-term strategic aims
Consider establishing a vision for the organisation over the coming decades, which sets out a target of where to be by 2050 in terms of energy efficiency and renewables. Short term and interim targets can then be set to align with this vision, to ensure the organisation is on track. It is helpful for these short term goals to be focused, with clear objectives, KPIs and individuals responsible. If all maintenance and refurbishment works are aligned with a longer-term goal, this can potentially overcome the challenge of reconciling day-to-day activity with longer-term targets.
Both internal and external collaboration can be an important way of sharing ideas and learning experiences, and driving action. Buy-in from across the organisation is vital, especially from the executive and finance teams. Externally, sharing of successes and failures can ensure housing providers learn from each other and avoid the need to reinvent the wheel. Collaboration and sharing is not just a nice-to-have; by learning in advance what approaches work and what don’t, housing providers can save time, resources and money on projects with emerging technologies.
4. Take a holistic approach
An integrated approach for new builds and retrofits can tackle issues of climate change mitigation and resilience, health and wellbeing, and air quality simultaneously. Such an approach can be cheaper and less disruptive. It also ensures that one solution doesn’t cause other unforeseen problems (such as raising overheating risks when installing insulation, or increasing winter energy load when putting in passive cooling measures).
5. Skill up
At present there is a sustainability skills shortage across the entire supply chain. An increase in skilled and knowledgeable professionals can help to guarantee that installations are appropriate and correctly carried out, that progress is continually made and that performance is monitored and learnt from. This in turn should save money, reduce risk and maintain organisational reputation. In-house expertise is preferable, but professional advice should always be sought for projects, whether internal or external.
Research for Housing 2050 is ongoing and the report, with full recommendations and a road map for action, will be launched in February 2019.