Sustainable, healthy and warm: how can social housing help deliver the homes people deserve? [Part 2]

March 30, 2015

Sustainable, healthy and warm: how can social housing help deliver the homes that people deserve? Report of Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Sustainable Homes roundtable 12 March 2015.

JRF-Roundtable-2015The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Sustainable Homes hosted a roundtable on 12 March with some of the social housing sector’s leading professionals on how social housing can help deliver warm, sustainable and affordable homes. This is part two of two, in the series looking at the topics raised in the discussion.

Understanding the relative quality of housing stock relies on SAP ratings. However, since SAP scores are developed using different reporting methods, this data is often not directly comparable. Developing a new metric, or ‘common language’, was suggested in order to allow for more accurate comparisons between stocks.

The topic of innovation was also discussed. Often, innovation is seen as a dirty word in the social housing sector, and those trying new things can risk damage to their reputation as well as finances if things go wrong. There tends to be aversion to technological innovation in the sector as there is a recognition that any technology used in homes needs to be maintained, so increasing running costs, and residents may not always be familiar with how to operate complex systems. Modern methods of construction are becoming more common and could potentially help, but are still not widely used.

As there is no clear specification for what house builders should be aiming to achieve, it is sometimes hard to make the business case for sustainability. It also creates ambiguity and a lack of uniformity in approaches across the private and social stock. Further to this, there is little in the way of pre-made solutions, or examples of the best way to achieve sustainable homes. This means individual housing associations or developers are trying to find solutions independently of each other. Seeing great exemplar schemes can, however, help convince boards of the need to act.

There was a clear call from those attending for greater collaboration throughout the sector, both within social housing and with the private sector. This would allow for better sharing of experiences and solutions, as well as spreading the risk of innovation. LEPS could be a useful channel for supporting collaboration. In addition, a clear set of specifications should be developed for achieving sustainable solutions in both new build and retrofit for what is expected in 5 years time, to give housing associations and contractors solutions that can be tried and tested, shared and replicated.

So far, participants at the meeting felt that in general we have failed to make the case sufficiently for investing in existing homes, with current programmes and investment focusing largely on new developments. There was a concern too of the need to achieve scaleable retrofit solutions. It was recommended that developers should build new homes to a decent standard, say Code level 4, and then use further investment and allowable solutions to bring the existing housing stock up to standard. However there was also a view that innovation is needed to drive up standards through new build so that the market progresses and the supply chain and skills are developed. Social housing providers can generate scale which is important as a signal to the building industry. There are already some examples emerging suggesting that investments may be helping to reduce rent arrears, particularly where building to Passivehaus standards.

A key concern outlined on the day was the future risks of overheating. This issue is often neglected in national discourse concerning health and housing. It is also of increasing concern as our summers continue to break records and climate change is likely to increase the problem. A national standard to prevent overheating should be developed to help landlords deal with this issue.

There was also a general call for the health and housing sectors to work better together. Funding should be made available to develop housing that better supports the health of residents, which would in turn reduce pressure and costs on the health service. This may be an opportunity going forward as the public health function has moved into local government. Innovative schemes such as the work in Oldham across health and housing providers to tackle cold homes and fuel poverty were important exemplars, with indications that this could reduce A&E admissions. JRF will be investigating progress on public health responses to climate change in further research in 2015.

Read the first part of this blog here


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