Close to home: getting to net zero means decarbonising the UK’s housing stock

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Two years ago, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass a law pledging to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Achieving net zero means balancing the amount of greenhouse gases we emit with the amount we remove, and it’s a critical factor in tackling climate change by reducing global warming.

But, according to the government’s independent adviser on tackling climate change, the UK will be unable to meet the net zero target without the near-complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from 29 million homes. 

The necessity: why buildings need to be decarbonised

In 2014, emissions from domestic properties accounted for 34% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions. A combination of high energy prices and improvements in energy efficiency brought that figure closer to 19%. But those reductions have stalled, and because the UK’s building stock is one of the oldest and most energy-inefficient in Europe, the need to decarbonise is even more urgent.

The benefits: environmental, health, economic

While achieving net zero is one good reason for making our buildings more energy efficient, decarbonisation offers further dividends.

Energy efficient homes are cheaper to run, reducing the levels of fuel poverty that affect millions of households. They can also bring health benefits in the form of healthy air temperatures, lower humidity, better noise levels, and improved air quality.

In addition, a nationwide programme of decarbonising buildings could make a vital contribution to the recovery of the economy from the coronavirus pandemic. A recent inquiry by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee  (EAC) found that investing in energy efficiency alone could create 34,000 full-time jobs within the next two years. In the longer term, energy efficiency investment could support an estimated 150,000 skilled and semi-skilled jobs to 2030.

The problems: high costs, skills uncertainty and a “disastrous” insulation scheme

The UK government says the cost of decarbonising homes is between £35 billion and £65 billion. But the EAC believes that this seriously underestimates the cost of upgrading the energy efficiency of homes. With 19 million homes in England requiring energy efficiency installations, this could cost £18,000 per home, even before the installation of a heat pump.

Another area of concern is skills. Brian Berry from the Federation of Master Builders told the committee that every tradesperson in the country needs to be upskilled in retrofit techniques in order to secure overall competency in the supply chain:

“We need to upskill people in the building industry because there is a need to understand how their skills interrelate to one another. You cannot just pick out one bit of this. It has to be seen holistically, which is why I think there needs to be a national retrofit strategy, a clear political direction and a commitment to reducing carbon emissions in our homes.”

The EAC was also outspoken in its criticism of the government’s flagship home insulation scheme. The Green Homes Grant was launched in 2020 to offer £1.5bn in subsidies for insulation and low-CO2 heating. However, only 6.3% of the money has been spent, despite exceptionally high demand.

The committee said the scheme was rushed and poorly implemented, and described its administration as “nothing short of disastrous.” Just six months after its launch, the scheme has now been scrapped. Instead, energy saving upgrades and low carbon heating will be delivered to homes through local authorities in England.

The recommendations: strategies, incentives and insights from overseas

There’s no shortage of suggestions for driving decarbonisation forward. The EAC has called for a government strategy for the next decade to give industry and tradespeople time to upskill and to give households the right signals to invest in energy efficiency. The committee also recommends that VAT on the labour element of refurbishment and renovations is reduced to 5%, a measure also supported by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.

It’s also worth looking at ideas from overseas. In February, research by the University of Edinburgh reviewed the heat decarbonisations policies in nine European countries. The report highlights particular progress made by the Nordic countries in decarbonising buildings’ heat supply and in making greater use of electricity as a potential future source of low-carbon heating.

The solutions: putting promises into practice

While the challenge of decarbonising homes may be daunting, a growing number of housing providers are taking steps to cut emissions from domestic properties.

The Welsh Government has provided £20m in funding for Optimised Retrofit. Through this scheme, 28 social landlords can retrofit homes and test the ways heat and energy are produced, stored and supplied. If it’s successful, the scheme could be the model for decarbonising all of Wales’ 1.4 million homes by 2050.

Last month, Sutton Council launched an energy-efficiency programme to transform draughty properties with high energy bills into net zero carbon houses which are warmer and cheaper for residents. The programme is based on a successful Dutch initiative known as Energiesprong (energy leap). In the Netherlands, 1300 net zero energy refurbishments have been completed, and a further 500 are being built. The initiative involves insulating the external walls and roof areas, replacing windows and doors and installing new solar panels to power a new central heating and ventilation system. Sutton is the first London borough and the latest UK housing provider to adopt the programme, which has already been taken up in Nottingham and Maldon.

Many housing associations are at the start of their journey to net zero, but a National Housing Federation survey has shown that two thirds of social housing landlords have started planning to make their homes greener and warmer. Three quarters (74%) of survey respondents expect to retrofit homes in 2020-21. A similar proportion (73%) expect to retrofit homes in 2021-22. However, the survey also reported that lack of finance and continuing policy uncertainty remain major obstacles to decarbonising homes. That’s important, particularly given the cost of decarbonisation of social housing – £104bn by 2050.

The future: decarbonisation begins at home

Local authorities, housing associations, and the construction industry are all keen to transform existing homes into greener, warmer places to live in. At the same time, residents – especially those having to make the choice between heating or eating – need to be taken out of fuel poverty. And, as we’ve seen, achieving net zero will only be possible by making the nation’s housing stock more energy efficient.

With so much riding on decarbonisation of domestic properties, the need for more funding as part of an ambitious policy approach is clear. As the UK prepares to host the critical climate change talks in Glasgow this year, there has to be a better understanding that tackling the climate emergency starts on our own doorstep.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange blog on housing and energy efficiency

Building sights: how offsite construction could help solve the housing shortage

“Offsite construction” by psd is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Long waiting lists, high rents, thousands sleeping rough, millions living in insecure or unsuitable homes and a generation of young people priced out of the market: these are the hallmarks of the UK’s broken housing system.

In England, the government is committed to building 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. But in 2019, the number of new homes amounted to 170,000 – fewer than half of which were affordable homes. It’s a situation that is almost certain to get worse. Housing analysts have suggested that the restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 will mean a 30% reduction in homes delivered.

Local authorities are rising to the challenge of the housing crisis. Between 1999 and 2002, councils delivered just 60 new homes as a consequence of central government housing policy. But in recent years councils have been returning to housebuilding in large numbers. A 2019 RTPI report found that:

“…more than two thirds of local authorities are now involved in directly delivering housing and local authorities are delivering homes in numbers not seen for 20 years.”

In the same year, The Guardian newspaper highlighted some examples of council housing projects:

“Bournemouth is building housing above many of its surface car parks, and has won planning awards for the results. Wigan is transforming tricky former mining sites with an exemplary programme of housing for older people. Exeter has one of Europe’s largest Passivhaus schemes underway, while Liverpool is developing rent-to-buy homes.”

Going modular

But if councils are to succeed in their efforts to deliver more affordable, low carbon housing, they will need to change the way homes are built. Increasingly, prefabricated modular construction is being seen as a way to meet some of the demand for new housing. Built offsite in factories, with fittings included, prefabricated housing offers comfortable, well-insulated homes that can be constructed more quickly than traditional building. Offsite construction can deliver a modern apartment block in half the time that it would take to build using traditional methods, which means that units for sale or rent can start making money more quickly.

An article in the 12 November 2020 issue of MJ magazine reported further benefits, noting that:

“…these homes are delivered with up to 40% less carbon, fewer defects, and less disruption to neighbourhoods where sites are located. Once completed the fact they are made in a factory is not obvious to the passer by or occupant, it is just great housing, beautifully built, with low running costs.”

A shortage of skilled labour presents another reason why the old ways of building homes need to change, as a 2016 review of the construction market highlighted:

“We will not have the labour force to deliver what the country needs by working in those ways, and those ways will not create enough added value for clients or suppliers to allow construction firms to prosper, and make those investments in our people and performance.”

The report demonstrated that prefabricated housing can make a significant difference to satisfying demand:

“Tokyo alone is able to build nearly the same number of homes per year that the UK delivers nationally. This is purely due to the reliance on a different delivery model for single family homes which benefits from the mass market cultural acceptance of pre-manufactured modular housing.”

Housing the homeless

Further evidence that modern methods of construction can work well has come from a project in Cambridge, where six modular homes were installed on a temporary site to house local homeless people. A report by the Cambridge Centre for Housing & Planning Research noted that residents were impressed with the design, space and quality of the modular units, and were keen to be involved in efforts to build a thriving community.

The Cambridge project is especially important in the light of the UK’s large number of rough sleepers and ‘hidden homeless’. In March 2020, more than 14,000 homeless people were housed in England as part of the ‘Everyone In’ initiative to take rough sleepers off the streets during the first wave of the pandemic. The programme was hailed as one of the leading successes of the government’s coronavirus response, but it ended in May and has not resumed during the current lockdown.

The future is modular?

So, could modular construction offer a solution to the UK’s housing shortage? Recent research published in the Journal of Engineering, Design and Technology set out to compare the traditional approach with modular construction, and to assess whether a shift in construction systems offers the potential to alleviate the UK’s domestic housing crisis. The study stressed that more research was needed to provide greater certainty about how modular methods could be more effectively grafted onto the current UK construction practices. However, the authors concluded that:

 “…modular construction promises strategic solutions to the lack of affordable housing currently experienced in the UK.”

In the meantime, recent developments suggest that the prefabricated housing sector seems to be going from strength to strength:

  • A 20,000 sq ft unit will be the manufacturing site for a new modular housing company in Durham, with plans to produce 1,000 modular homes a year.
  • A modular housing developer owned by Ikea has signed a 750-home deal with a housing association in the south of England.
  • Planning consent has been granted for 185 homes to be located in Bristol after they are shipped in from a factory in Yorkshire. Half of the homes will become part of the city council’s affordable housing stock.

The numbers of prefabricated homes are still too low. But if this trend continues, offsite construction might start to have a bigger impact on the UK’s housing shortage. The days of bricks and mortar could be numbered.


Further reading
More from The Knowledge Exchange blog on modern methods of housing:

Housing at the push of a button

Sometimes it takes an intractable problem to inspire an inventive solution. Faced with an ageing construction workforce and a shortage of apprentices, the Netherlands has come up with what may prove to be the makings of a housing revolution.

Collaborating with the public and private sectors, Eindhoven University of Technology has been working on a plan called Project Milestone to build five 3D printed houses in the city of Eindhoven next year.

A technology whose time has come

3D printing is a media-friendly term that’s often used as an alternate name for the wider technology of additive manufacturing (AM). The process involves the use of a computer and computer-aided design software to relay messages to a machine which “prints” material in the desired shape. The technology has been in development over the past thirty years, but recently large-scale 3D printers have emerged which can handle materials such as plastic, metal and concrete.

3D printing gets building

Dutch architects and civil engineers have been leading the way in exploring the construction possibilities of AM. In 2016, DUS Architects 3D printed an eight-square-metre cabin, and later initiated a project to build a full-scale canal house in Amsterdam. Meanwhile, in the south-eastern town of Gemert, the world’s first 3D-printed concrete bridge was opened in 2017.

Project Milestone is by far the most ambitious AM construction initiative to date. A park in Eindhoven will be the site for five homes which have been designed to resemble boulders left behind by a retreating ice sheet. Van Wijnen, the contractor for Project Milestone, explains that the building process will be a learning curve:

“The houses will be printed one after the other, which means that each can benefit from what was learned on the previous and can be adapted directly to the wishes of the residents. For example, the first house will be a single-storey structure printed off-site. The ambition is to print the fifth home on location as three layers.”

The homes of the future?

Van Wijnen and other proponents of concrete printing in 3D believe it has the potential to drastically change the future of residential construction in terms of speed, affordability, sustainability, freedom of form and choice. Company director Rudy van Gurp forecasts that by 2022, about 5% of homes will be made using a 3D printer:

“We see Milestone not as an experiment, but as a pioneering innovation that will cause a stir in the construction sector.”

Final thoughts

In the UK, as the gap between demand and supply of housing continues to widen, the need to build more homes is growing. With savings in material waste, energy and CO₂ emissions, AM presents significant benefits for the construction sector, which will be closely watching developments in Eindhoven. Recent research suggests that, far from being a here-today-gone-tomorrow fad, AM is set to transform the future of building for good:

 “The adoption of AM as an advanced technology appears to have a secure place in the future of construction, one that will most likely be unbeatable when it comes to, amongst others: shorten localised value chains and production expenses, increase resource efficiency and environmental sustainability by the inclusion of recycled materials and cutting on transportation costs.”


For further examples of innovative housing, take a look at our previous blog posts:

Old problems, old solutions? Why New Towns are back in the spotlight

New housing development, Somerset. Image: Stevekelretsu (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Theresa May, speaking in November 2017 said it was her ‘personal mission’ to solve England’s housing crisis, by ensuring that more homes get built, more quickly. The renaming of the Department for Communities and Local Government to become the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has followed, reflecting a “renewed focus to deliver more homes”. But the UK’s housing crisis is likely to remain a challenge where rhetoric is far easier than delivering actual change.

Housing policy priorities

Last autumn’s Budget included measures on stamp duty for first-time buyers, over £15 billion of additional financial support for housebuilding over the next five years, and planning reforms to ensure more land is available for housing. The aim is that “by the mid-2020s there should be an average of 300,000 homes being built every year” – the biggest annual increase in housing supply since the 1970s.

Industry commentators were lukewarm in their assessment of the announcements, however. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) summed up the measures as “too small to make a real dent in the challenge we face”. Meanwhile the Chartered Institute of Housing said that “it’s crucial the homes built are homes that people can afford” and called for more to be done to support the social housing sector. The Home Builders Federation said that “further policy interventions will be required over the coming years” if the “ambitious” target of 300,000 new homes is to be achieved, and they highlighted SME builders, retirement providers and the private rented /social sector as key.

The potential of New Towns

It is within this context that, in January 2018, a new All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) was officially launched which aims to highlight the growth opportunities, as well as the challenges, in Britain’s post-war new towns. The APPG is a cross-party group, supported by the Town and Country Planning Association.

Speaking at the launch event, Sajid Javid (Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government) highlighted that “it’s this issue of place, how to build not just more homes, but strong communities, that goes to the heart of the challenge we face as a country.”

The initial objectives of the APPG are to:

  • Change attitudes to New Towns and gain increased recognition for them.
  • Make the case for investment in the regeneration and renewal of New Town infrastructure and other issues that specifically apply to New Towns.
  • Positively help shape future government policy.

It is expected that the new APPG will consider the successes and failures of existing new towns in order to learn from past mistakes and to help shape future government policy.

Back to the future

In light of the renewed government interest in the New Towns model and New Town Development Corporations, it is worth exploring how the original New Towns were planned and delivered, and the personal experiences and reflections of those involved.

And that’s precisely what we do in our publication “Planning the New Towns – In Their Own Words” which makes publicly available, five interviews carried out in the 1980s and 1990s with those directly involved. Drawing on original archive interview material, the report offers an intriguing insight into the challenges they faced in creating communities from scratch. It also represents a historical narrative of the radical spirit that inspired those who built the New Towns.

The first-hand accounts focus on five major figures involved in creating the UK’s New Towns: Lord Campbell of Eskan; Walter Bor, CBE; Professor Derek Walker; Sir George Grenfell-Baines; and Sir David Gosling. As well as being the driving force behind specific New Town schemes, many of these individuals became major figures in the development of late 20th century architecture and town planning in the UK.

As they reflect on their experience we can sense pride, as well as a touch of bemusement at the scale of the programme that they were part of delivering. There are also mixed emotions in terms of the legacy they created and the long-term prospects for the New Towns.

  • Lord Campbell of Eskan –“I was really astonished how fortunate we were that we weren’t lynched in the streets with the appalling upheaval that it meant.”
  • Walter Bor, CBE – “Cities must absorb change, live with it, rather than prohibit it.”
  • Professor Derek Walker – “I am optimistic that mediocrity is not an inherent British trait.”
  • Sir George Grenfell-Baines –“One of the aspects which makes the British New Town Movement unique is the public money that was actually put into it.”
  • Sir David Gosling –“The corporate spirit of the team was legendary and it was probably its interdisciplinary structure which assisted in its radical thinking.”

The 33 New Towns planned since 1946 represent the most sustained programme of new town development undertaken anywhere in the world. Today, they are home to over three million people. As the UK continues to struggle with balancing housing supply and demand against environmental, infrastructure and market concerns, it is important to recognise the vision and skills which the planning profession can bring to place-making.


The report “Planning the New Towns – In Their Own Words” draws on interview material collected for the New Towns Record. This archive resource brought together primary and secondary research materials on the UK New Towns programme. Created in the early-1990s, it included in-depth interviews with over 80 key practitioners and academics.

Thirty-two New Towns were designated in the United Kingdom between 1946 and 1970 (plus the later abandoned Stonehouse). Of these 32 New Towns, 21 were in England, two in Wales, five in Scotland and four in Northern Ireland.

Why not read our other recent articles on planning?

Berlin Brandenburg: the airport that failed to take off

The UK has had its fair share of landmark construction projects that struggled to reach their completion targets and suffered from soaring costs. Wembley Stadium, Edinburgh’s tram network, and the Scottish Parliament are just some examples of major projects affected by delays and cost over-runs.

But the significant problems affecting these sites appear minor in comparison with the seemingly never-ending story of Berlin’s Brandenburg Airport. It has become a copybook example of flawed project management, and dented Germany’s reputation for efficiency and engineering excellence.

 The economic importance of airports

Once regarded alternately as glamorous gateways or noisy nuisances, these days it’s hard to overstate the significance of airports, not only to their locality, but to national economies.

In 2015, a study found that European airports and associated aviation activity create and facilitate a total of almost 12.5 million jobs, or 675 billion euro in gross domestic product (GDP) each year (that’s just over 4% of the entire European economy). The report noted that, aside from the economic importance of the aviation sector, wider economic activities are facilitated and supported by the connectivity that airports deliver:

“Tourists can spend money in previously unreachable locations. Businesses can produce goods to be consumed in far corners of the world. Investors can set up new offices, call centres and factories exactly where they are needed.”

In the UK, Heathrow Airport has been estimated to support 120,000 jobs and contributes £6.2 billion to the national economy, while Manchester Airport contributes £1.7bn each year to the North West’s economy.

At the same time, delays to the development of airports can have significant negative impacts on economic competitiveness.  The CBI has warned that uncertainty surrounding the construction of a new runway at Heathrow could cost the UK more than £30bn by 2030.

A new airport for a reunited city

Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) was supposed to be one of the symbols of the reunited German capital. First announced in 2006, it was intended to replace Berlin’s existing smaller airports – Tempelhof, Tegel and Schönefeld – and to handle a projected 20 million annual passengers.

But, almost from the start, the project ran into difficulties. Property speculators learned of the planned acquisition of new land by the airport authority, bought up the properties and drove up the price. As one observer noted: “The airport corporation was half a billion euros in debt before ground had even been broken.”

As the project grew, so too did the problems. The 2008 global financial crisis meant banks were reluctant to issue loans for the new airport, and private investors backed out. The planned 2011 opening of BER was pushed back to the following year.

Growing faults, soaring costs

In the spring of 2012, all seemed set for BER’s grand opening, with Chancellor Angela Merkel and 10,000 guests invited to attend. But with just a few days’ notice, the inauguration was cancelled due to a fault with fire alarms and smoke extractors.

Hundreds of staff hired by shops for the new airport had to be let go, and airlines that had moved baggage handling facilities to BER had to move them back to Tegel – their claims for damages adding further to the spiralling costs.

The cost overrun of the extraction system added half a billion euro to the budget, and noise protection demanded by nearby residents another 600 million euro. But this was just the tip of a Titanic-sized iceberg.

Hans Brandt, in a report for Deutsche Welle has described the growing list of faults with BER:

“90km of electrical cables were incorrectly installed; all 4000 doors were incorrectly numbered; the escalators were too short; the planner-in-chief was not an engineer, but an imposter; and, last but not least, the emergency line to the fire department was not installed.”

The flight not now departing…

Further scheduled opening dates – May 2013, March 2013, October 2013 – have come and gone. Gone too are some of the key figures involved in the project, including Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, whose high-profile role in the project sank his chances of challenging Angela Merkel as Chancellor of Germany. Last year, the airport’s spokesman was fired after claiming in a newspaper interview that “no one, unless he is addicted to drugs, will give you any fixed guarantees for this airport.”

The most unsurprising announcement of 2017 came in January, when BER’s project chief confirmed that the airport would not open this year – the latest hold-up: faulty wiring for 1200 doors.

In the meantime, Berlin’s popularity as a tourist and conference destination has reached stratospheric heights. Tempelhof Airport closed in 2008, but last year Tegel and Schönefeld airports handled over 30 million passengers, higher than any recorded for a single year. As a result, it’s now claimed that on the day that BER finally opens, it will already be under capacity, and will have to be extended.

Capacity problems have prompted many to call for Tegel Airport to remain open after BER eventually becomes operational. Last month, a non-binding referendum saw a majority of Berliners voting in favour of retaining Tegel. However, the airport and city authorities continue to insist that Tegel will be turned into a business park once BER opens.

A byword for ineptitude

As things stand, there is still no firm opening date for BER, and the initial cost estimate of around 2 billion euro has reached nearly 6.5 billion euro.

It’s not unknown for major projects to bounce back from failure:

  • The Scottish Parliament – three years late and ten times over budget – is now a working legislature and has won awards for its architecture, including the prestigious RIBA Stirling prize for the best building in the UK.
  • Wembley Stadium opened in 2007, after years of delay and tripling its cost. But in 2015-16 the venue posted record revenue of £370 million.
  • The Millennium Dome in London, which spent much of its early years being ridiculed as a waste of public money, is today a world-class entertainment venue.

On the other hand, Berlin’s airport authorities might be looking nervously at the experience of Montreal’s Mirabel Airport. Designed to replace the existing Dorval airport that was nearing capacity in 1975, Mirabel never managed to win the support of travellers. In the 1990s, Dorval was reopened to international traffic, while Mirabel was abandoned and eventually demolished.

There are so many lessons to be learned from the BER fiasco that perhaps it would be easier for future project managers to study BER’s entire experience as a model for how not to build an airport.

The German word for ineptitude is unbeholfenheit. But, until Berlin Brandenburg Airport is finally operational, perhaps “BER” can be used as shorthand for any major project that fails to get off the ground.


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Prefabs sprout: could factory-built homes tackle the housing crisis?

Long regarded as a relic of the past, prefabricated housing is now emerging as a potential solution for the UK’s chronic shortage of affordable homes.

Britain’s golden age of prefabricated housing happened after World War II, when the government authorised thousands of factory-built homes to replace housing destroyed by bombing raids. Intended to last for no more than ten years, many prefab homes were still occupied thirty years after construction.

For a period during the 1960s, prefab housing enjoyed a resurgence. One scheme was showcased at Montreal’s Expo 67 as a solution for high-quality housing in dense urban environments. But in Britain prefabs became associated with shoddy, damp and dysfunctional housing. The largest remaining post-war prefab estate, located in London is now facing demolition.

The prefab renaissance

In recent years, prefabricated housing has been rebranded and is now showing signs of making a comeback:

  • In Yorkshire, the Legal & General insurance firm has opened the world’s largest modular homes construction factory.
  • In Manchester, regeneration company Urban Splash is developing a 43-home scheme, with each house designed by the customer, then built offsite and shipped to the New Islington estate.
  • In Lewisham, south London, Rational House is working with AECOM to build “off-the-shelf” homes for young professionals struggling to get on the property ladder.

Renewed interest in prefab housing has been driven by the severe shortage of housing in the UK, along with the rising cost of traditional construction methods. At the same time, new materials and construction techniques have made prefab homes a more economic and attractive option. This week, leading engineering firm Laing O’Rourke has suggested that the acute lack of space in Britain’s cities could lead to the next generation of tower blocks being built almost entirely off-site.

In its 2017 housing white paper, the government proposed measures to stimulate the growth of the offsite construction sector and promote more factory built homes through the Accelerated Construction programme and the Home Builders’ Fund. The paper highlighted Creekside Wharf in Greenwich as a good example of prefab housing’s potential.

The benefits and challenges of prefab housing

The champions of prefab housing argue that it provides comfortable, well-insulated homes that can be constructed much more quickly than traditional building. Offsite construction can deliver a modern prefab apartment block in half the time that it would take to build using traditional methods, which means that units for sale or rent can start making money more quickly. Proponents also argue that offsite construction generates less noise, dust and disruption for neighbours. And although offsite costs remain higher, the margin is narrowing as prefab manufacturing achieves efficiencies of scale.

But although today’s prefab homes are a world away from their post-war forerunners, critics have argued that contemporary prefab housing is no match for a traditionally-constructed home. There have also been concerns that prefab homes could be deployed as a quick fix. The Guardian’s architecture and design critic, Oliver Wainwright commented:

“If taken up as the silver bullet to endless waiting lists, there’s a very real risk it could sow the seeds for a future of cheaply built, meanly scaled, less stable housing that can be conveniently swept away at a moment’s notice.”

Some have expressed concern that factory-built homes could end up deskilling traditional building, but others believe that prefabricated housing could plug a skills gap in the construction sector after the UK leaves the European Union.  Meanwhile, lenders to developers are still cautious about financing prefab projects until their long-term durability has been tested.

Prefab present…

Despite these reservations, prefab housing is shedding its outdated image and increasingly entering the mainstream housing sector. In some areas, factory-built housing is already being deployed to help people with urgent housing needs.

The architecture firm of Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners is internationally famous for its cutting edge projects, from Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Five to the National Assembly for Wales. But in 2015, the firm joined forces with the London Borough of Merton, the YMCA and Aecom to create Y:Cube. The first 24-home Y:Cube development is located at Mitcham in south-west London, and took just five months to build. Tenants come from YMCA hostels and Merton’s housing waiting list, finding the flats as welcome alternatives to hostels and B&B accommodation. A similar project is taking place to provide Y:Cube accommodation for local people with acute housing needs in the London borough of Lewisham.

Beyond the capital, further prefab housing developments are in the making:

  • Manchester City Council has been leading an offsite construction consortium of 17 housing associations with the aim of building hundreds of new homes in the north of England.
  • In December 2016, Your Housing Group announced a partnership with a Chinese construction firm to deliver 25,000 prefabricated homes over the next five years.
  • Swan Housing Association is building an 18,000 sq ft factory to deliver new homes for the regeneration of Basildon’s Craylands estate.

…and prefab future?

While prefab housing is gathering pace, one entrepreneur is taking the concept to the next level. Alastair Parvin, a graduate of Sheffield University’s school of architecture, believes that harnessing the possibilities offered by technology can make building a house more straightforward.

The idea behind Parvin’s “WikiHouse” is to enable users to draw up plans for their new home online. But instead of the house then being constructed at one offsite location, the components will be manufactured by a network of small business and community spaces – known as maker-spaces.

We’ve come a long way from the prefab housing of the post-war years, and perhaps there’s some way to go before the vision of the WikiHouse is realised. In the meantime, prefabricated housing could offer a much-needed boost to tackling the nation’s existing housing shortfall.


If you liked this post, you may also be interested in our other blog posts on suggestions for tackling the UK housing crisis:

BIM: the digitisation of the built environment

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by Stacey Dingwall

Last month, the Department of Architecture at the University of Strathclyde hosted a seminar on the digitisation of the built environment and how digital is disrupting the construction sector. The event focused on the use of Building Information Modelling (BIM), and its use in Scotland in particular.

What is BIM?

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As defined in the UK government’s industrial strategy, BIM is “a collaborative way of working, underpinned by the digital technologies which unlock more efficient methods of designing, creating and maintaining our assets”. Specifically, it embeds key product and asset data, and a 3D computer model that manages information throughout a project’s lifecycle. BIM has been described as a “game changer” for the construction industry, and can be used in the construction of new buildings as well as retrofitting and refurbishment.

Speaker: David Philp, AECOM

The first presentation came from David Philp, Global BIM/MIC Consulting Director of AECOM and the Chair of the Scottish Futures Trust’s BIM Delivery Group. The Group was established on the recommendation of the Scottish Government’s 2013 Review of Scottish Public Sector Procurement in Construction, and tasked with delivering a BIM implementation plan for the country, which was published in September 2015.

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David focused on the pathway set out in the implementation plan for Scottish public sector projects worth over £4.32m to adopt Level 2 BIM by 2017, as recommended by the 2013 review. In England, the industry was required to have adopted Level 2 by April of this year; a recent survey carried out by Construction News found that almost 70% of main contractors, consultants, professional services and clients had either fully embedded the Level 2 standards into their systems, or were using Level 2 when it suited the project.

The suitability of different levels was something that David stated was important to consider on a case by case basis – while the goal is to be Level 2 capable, sometimes Level 1 may be more appropriate. This is different to the approach taken in England, where the government has mandated that only Level 2 should be used from now on. As highlighted by David, the Chancellor’s latest Budget also included a commitment to “develop the next digital standard for the construction sector – Building Information Modelling 3 – to save owners of built assets billions of pounds a year in unnecessary costs, and maintain the UK’s global leadership in digital construction”.

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David also described the benefits of using BIM, particularly Level 2, in construction projects, in terms of efficiency, reducing risk and the creation of more sustainable and intelligent infrastructure. He also touched on the use of BIM in the construction of the High Speed rail link between London and Birmingham (HS2), due to begin in 2017. BIM has been described as the “backbone” of the HS2 project, which will be the largest BIM project undertaken in Europe so far.

Speaker: Professor Bimal Kumar, Glasgow Caledonian University

The seminar concluded with a presentation by Professor Kumar, Head of BIM at GCU’s School of Engineering and Built Environment. Professor Kumar, who works with David Philp as part of the BIM 4 Academia Working Group spoke about his department’s work in embedding BIM into the taught curriculum of the courses they offer, as well as his work in developing a BIM strategy for NHS Scotland, which involved mapping their existing processes to BIM processes.

Professor Kumar also shared some of his personal opinions on the adoption of BIM in Scotland, stating his belief that it will take another 30 years before Level 3 is fully adopted. He emphasised the need to ‘demistify’ BIM, as too many organisations still think that it will cost them too much in terms of effort and money to comply with the standards.

Overall, the seminar offered a good opportunity to find out more about something that, while mystifying to most, is set to transform the global construction industry.


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New ideas for housing in London

Houses-on-coins-by-Images-Money

2015 was the year London’s population reached 8.6 million, a peak figure last reached in 1939. The capital’s population is set to rise by a further 1.6 million over the next 20 years, and by 2050 may have reached 11 million, more than the current combined populations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The rising numbers will add exacerbate the shortage of housing in the capital, which the head of the London Housing Commission has described as “one of the biggest public policy failures of the last 50 years.”

A showcase for new ideas
A major exhibition highlighting new thinking on solving London’s housing crisis is currently taking place. Organised by New London Architects (NLA), “New Ideas for Housing” highlights more than 100 ways in which London’s shortage of housing might be addressed.

Ten of the 100 shortlisted ideas were selected as winning entries from a competition that attracted ideas from architects, contractors, manufacturers, economists and house builders.

Among the winners were:

The Urban Darning Project
Employing the sewing technique for repairing holes or worn areas in fabric, the project aims to encourage small residential developments in central London to ‘fill-in the gaps’ of the urban fabric.

Supurbia
This idea has twofold approach: redeveloping local main streets and parades as mixed-use places with increased housing and amenity provision; and allowing owner-occupiers of semi-detached homes to develop their land, creating rich diversities of housing.

Investing in London’s Future by Learning from its Past
Drawing on London’s former leasehold system, this idea suggests that separating the cost of housing as a physical product from land costs would make it more affordable to build and buy houses.

MegaPlan for a MegaCity
The originators of this idea suggest that in order to meet the shortfall in housing by 2050, less than 4% of ‘edge land’ (the inner belt running from the inner London Green Belt to the M25) would need to be released from the Green Belt.

Wood Blocks
This idea proposes scaling up the growing appetite for self-build homes. A structural, weatherproof, thermally- and acoustically-insulated shell would be built by a developer / housebuilder, which could then be partitioned and fitted-out by new owners, delivering faster and cheaper housing.

The ideas are described in greater detail in a publication accompanying the exhibition. The NLA Insight Study also examines the current state of play in London’s housing supply, addressing the barriers around planning, land, funding, construction, procurement and design.


New Ideas for Housing
Exhibition dates: Thursday 15 October – Thursday 17 December 2015. Opening time: Monday to Friday: 9.30 am – 6.00 pm; Saturday: 10.00 am – 5.00 pm.
Address: NLA, The Building Centre, 26 Store Street, London WC1E 7BT
http://newlondonarchitecture.org/

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PassivHaus … a home for all seasons?

Passivhaus

Image by Pichler Haus, released under a standard Creative Commons Licence

By James Carson

This week, eight contenders are waiting expectantly for the results of the 2015 UK PassivHaus Awards. The awards celebrate sustainability and good building design, with the focus on the PassivHaus concept.

What is PassivHaus?

PassivHaus is an approach to building that is designed to eliminate the need for traditional central heating systems by combining:

  • excellent levels of insulation
  • passive solar gains and internal heat sources
  • excellent level of airtightness
  • good indoor air quality, provided by a whole house mechanical ventilation system with highly efficient heat recovery.

Since its small beginnings as a German-Swedish collaboration in the 1980s, over 30,000 buildings around the world have been built using the PassivHaus approach.

The benefits of PassivHaus

Energy efficiency lies at the heart of a PassivHaus building. The PassivHaus Institut, which plays a leading role in promoting the concept, has claimed that these buildings can achieve energy savings of up to 75% compared to average new builds.  PassivHaus proponents also claim that the buildings have significantly better levels of air quality, and greatly reduce carbon emissions.

Practical issues

While the long-term energy savings are impressive, PassivHaus buildings are not without their critics. Among their concerns:

  • Cost: The higher standards of PassivHaus buildings, including triple-glazed windows, mechanical ventilation systems and vacuum insulation, all add to the costs of PassivHaus construction. The consensus seems to be that PassivHaus will increase build costs by 15% to 25%, and it’s believed that the higher costs have limited the concept’s application to a handful of private housing developments in the UK.
  • Construction time: Because of the optimum performance demanded of them, PassivHaus buildings can take longer to install. In the Republic of Ireland, concerns about slower construction times during a serious housing shortage has prompted the government to oppose plans by local authorities in Dublin to make the PassivHaus standard mandatory for new homes.  PassivHaus proponents in Ireland have condemned the moves as short-sighted, and claim that PassivHauses won’t slow down construction.
  • Adaptability: Another criticism of the PassivHaus concept is that it’s not readily adaptable, and that structural alterations may interfere with the integrity of a PassivHaus building.

A building or a lifestyle?

There have also been claims that residents may themselves have to adapt to PassivHaus living.

“Building a house to this standard means agreeing to live a certain lifestyle, which if lived to the book can work very well, and has been proven to do so time and time again. You must appreciate, however, that building such a home is a lot of trouble to go to if ultimately you do not want to live the PassivHaus lifestyle.” (The Green Home)

However, PassivHaus supporters dismiss the idea that these buildings are too complicated to maintain:

“The ventilation system, not common in conventional buildings, is user-friendly and easy to operate with fewer controls than a normal television.” 

PassivHaus in the UK

The PassivHaus concept was slow to take off in Britain, but more and more UK architects have become interested in PassivHaus since 2013, when the government committed to implementing zero carbon homes from 2016. The zero carbon homes standard will require house builders to decrease all carbon emissions from energy arising from fixed heating and lighting, hot water and other fixed building services, such as ventilation, in new homes. It’s worth noting, however, that the zero carbon standard is less strict than PassivHaus.

The PassivHaus approach is not limited to residential properties. Among the buildings shortlisted for the UK PassivHaus awards this year are a primary school, an office and an education centre.

Elsewhere, the University of Leicester’s Centre for Medicine is currently under construction, and is set to be the UK’s largest PassivHaus building. It’s estimated that the high levels of insulation and a state-of-the-art heating, cooling and ventilation system will reduce the university’s energy bill for its new teaching and research facility by 80%, compared to the previous building.

PassivHaus may also be able to contribute to alleviating Britain’s housing crisis. A social housing project currently under construction in Rainham, east London, aims to demonstrate that PassivHaus is a commercially viable solution to the UK’s shortage of affordable homes. The builders of the 51-home project claim that this will be the first PassivHaus development to be let entirely at affordable rents.

Future prospects

Inadequate heating, poor insulation and high energy costs have become significant factors in the rise of fuel poverty among households in the UK. At the same time, there is a pressing need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. So, it may be that the buildings being showcased at this year’s PassivHaus awards may come to be seen as ahead of their time.


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on housing; to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading*

 Footprint: three Passivhaus projects, IN Architects’ Journal

Lancaster co-housing (a Passivhaus development), IN Products in Practice

First look: only way is social for Essex Passivhaus homes (energy efficient social housing), IN Property Week

Keeping cosy in Rainham (affordable housing scheme built to Passivhaus standards), IN RIBA Journal

Lessons from Germany’s Passivhaus experience 

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

Loosening the belt: the debate over building on green belt land

By James Carson

“The green belt has been exalted as sacrosanct in a way in which almost no other policy area has been indulged, and any attempts to have a serious conversation about its development have been swiftly stifled with the same kind of force as would usually be reserved for suggestions to entirely dismantle the NHS.”

So said Andrew Carter, the Acting Chief Executive of Centre for Cities, writing on the Conservative Home website earlier this month. It’s true that green belts have long been regarded as untouchable. But there are signs that the bulletproof shield protecting them could be breaking down.

In September, the Wolfson Economics Prize went to regeneration consultancy Urbed for its proposal to create a city of 400,000 people by doubling the size of an existing town and building on the surrounding green belt. The following month, Rowan Moore, The Observer’s architecture critic, considered the arguments for and against green belts and concluded:

“…it is no longer good enough to insist that green belts must, at all costs, never change.”

Meanwhile, defenders of green belts have been voicing their concerns. “A weakening of protection for green belts would lead to urban sprawl over precious countryside and farmland,” said the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), launching its campaign for a stronger commitment from government to review the latest threats to the green belt. And after the Wolfson prize winner was announced, architect Richard Rogers spoke out against Urbed’s proposal to take a bite out of the green belt, calling it “a ridiculous concept.”

The idea of curbing urbanisation is not new. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a three-mile wide belt around London was proposed in order to stop the spread of the plague. More recently, the garden city movement’s ideas about urban and rural areas, led to the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, which allowed local authorities to include green belts in their town plans.

Today, there are 14 green belts in England, 10 in Scotland, 30 in Northern Ireland and one in Wales. They exist as buffers between towns and countryside, and successive governments have ensured that they are maintained. The UK government’s latest National Planning Policy Framework sets out the green belt’s five purposes:

  • to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
  • to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
  • to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
  • to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
  • to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.

Historically, green belts have been regarded as one of Britain’s great planning successes. But there has been growing criticism of the costs of the green belt, typified by Rowan Moore’s observation:

“It stops cities expanding, which had previously done so for centuries. It contributes to the scarcity and cost of decent homes in large parts of the country. It encourages bizarre and wasteful patterns of commuting. It often fails in its original aim of providing accessible recreational space for city dwellers. It is enforced with a rigidity that makes little sense, except as a sign of mistrust.”

Britain’s housing crisis has amplified calls for the green belt to be breached.  Government projections suggest that the UK needs six million new homes in the next 30 years. Proponents of building on green land contend that existing urban and brownfield areas alone cannot cater for the housing demand, an argument underlined by Urbed in its submission to the Wolfson competition.

Centre for Cities has claimed that building on 5.2% of green belt land within and around Britain’s least affordable cities would deliver 1.4 million new homes.

Their opponents disagree. This month, the CPRE reported that a minimum of 976,000 new homes could be built on identified brownfield sites in England, and that the supply of these sites is steadily increasing. The organisation has also suggested that housebuilders are “sitting on huge areas of land with planning permission which could provide over 280,000 new homes.”

With a general election on the horizon, the main political parties have been drawing up their battle lines. The Labour Party is showing signs of greater flexibility on the green belt issue. In October, Sir Michael Lyons published the final report of his independent review of housing for the Labour Party. One of his recommendations included allowing more homes to be built on parts of the protected green belt if the land has little “environmental or amenity value”. In response, the Conservative Party has reiterated its commitment to protecting the green belt.

Perhaps most interestingly, it’s at the local level that changing policies on green belts can be most clearly seen. Councils in England are responding to the housing crisis by using localism powers granted to them by the coalition government to de-designate or swap greenbelt land in the context of making a local plan. Figures published in August by Glenigan planning and construction consultants revealed that 5,600 new homes were approved to be built on green belt land last year, a 148% increase on the 2,260 green belt homes in 2009/10.

The debate now seems to be moving towards a recognition that some infringement of green belt land is inevitable, which is perhaps why a recent commentary on the subject by an academic from the London School of Economics was not titled, “Why should we build on the green belt?” Instead, it was headlined: “Where should we build on the green belt?”.


Further reading

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on planning. Items we’ve recently summarised for our database include:

Delivering change: building homes where we need them

Utopias that work: how to create tomorrow’s garden city

Removing obstacles to brownfield development: how government can work with communities to facilitate the re-use of previously developed land (Foresight paper no 2)

Uxcester garden city (second stage submission for the Wolfson Economics Prize 2014)

Greenbelt under development: special report

Green belts: a local way forward for the twenty first century

N.B. Abstracts and access to subscription journal articles are only available to members of the Idox Information Service.