Is this the future of social housing?

Goldsmith Street: Mikhail Riches / Tim Crocker 2019

Last year, a development of 105 homes on the outskirts of Norwich became the first social housing project to win the prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize.

The Goldsmith Street estate was built by London architecture firm Mikhail Riches for Norwich City Council, and is the largest Passivhaus scheme in the UK. Passivhaus is an approach to building that provides a high level of occupant comfort while using very little energy for heating and cooling.

Goldsmith Street has been carefully thought through, and adjusted to take account of changing economic and environmental circumstances. In 2008, Norwich City Council selected Mikhail Riches to design the estate. The council had intended to sell the site to a local housing provider, but when the financial crash happened, the council decided to develop the site itself.

The architects have striven to ensure that the development acknowledges the historic context of the site:

“The design seeks to re-introduce streets and houses in an area of the city which is otherwise dominated by 20th century blocks of flats… Street widths are intentionally narrow at 14m, emulating the 19th century model.”

The homes themselves have been built to strict Passivhaus standards which include:

  • very high levels of insulation;
  • extremely high performance windows with insulated frames;
  • airtight building fabric;
  • ‘thermal bridge free’ construction;
  • a mechanical ventilation system with highly efficient heat recovery.

Passivhaus standards typically reduce heating energy consumption by up to 90% as compared to traditional housing. For residents in the Goldsmith Street development, heating bills should be about £150 a year.

Eco friendly housing

In recent years, local authorities and housing associations have been responding to the increasing demands for housing stock to have lower maintenance costs, lower energy costs and fewer emissions of carbon and other gases that can be harmful to the environment and human health.

The Passivhaus Trust has highlighted a growing number of local councils and housing associations that have been exploring Passivhaus standards as a way of tackling these issues.

One of the most ambitious social housing Passivhaus projects is Agar Grove in the London Borough of Camden. Previously a 1960s estate with an unenviable reputation, Agar Grove has been rebuilt with affordable and energy efficient homes. The first phase, involving 38 social rented homes was completed in 2018, and has already won awards for sustainability and community consultation. Once complete, the 500-home estate will be the largest Passivhaus development in the UK.

Cunningham House, Glasgow: Page\Park Architects

In Glasgow, the city’s first Passivhaus development for social rent was opened by Shettleston Housing Association in September 2019. The project provides nineteen new homes for older people in an innovative design that combines a five storey Passivhaus tower with a converted church building. All of the homes benefit from high levels of thermal insulation to augment the sandstone coat of the existing church structure. The project was named the best affordable housing development at the 2019 Inside Housing Awards.

Meanwhile, the City of York Council has released plans to build more than 600 homes across eight sites over the next five years that will be built to carbon zero standards. The council has pledged that 40% of the homes will be affordable, with 20% retained for social renting. The developments, also designed by Mikhail Riches, will have very high energy efficiency standards that exceed standard Passivhaus levels. It’s predicted that residents’ heating bills could be around £60 a year.

Homes for the future

There is a now a growing sense that housing, as well as consuming great amounts of energy, can also be a positive force for change. Energy efficient homes can make a strong contribution to climate change adaptation measures, can make housing more resilient to increasingly common extreme weather events, and can provide opportunities to improve economic development, quality of life and social equality.

In the past year, with many local councils, combined authorities, devolved administrations and the UK government declaring ‘climate emergencies’, the pressure on housing providers to lead by example has intensified. At the same time, governments are setting out plans to ensure new homes are more energy efficient.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is currently consulting on the Future Homes Standard, which includes proposals to increase energy efficiency requirements for new homes from 2025. Similarly, the Scottish Government plans to introduce new regulations to ensure all new homes use renewable or low carbon heating from 2024. A 2019 report commissioned by the Welsh Government has recommended major changes to most homes in the country, including a major programme to improve insulation and heating.

Goldsmith Street: Mikhail Riches / Tim Crocker 2019

The success and widespread publicity enjoyed by the Goldsmith Street project is likely to encourage other local authorities and housing associations to explore the possibilities of Passivhaus. But although the benefits are great, Passivhaus also presents significant challenges for housing providers.

Up-front costs are higher for Passivhaus developments, and there are additional maintenance and replacement costs. The technical requirements are strict, in order to ensure the maximum levels of airtightness and insulation. In addition, there is a shortage of skills needed to achieve the exceptional standards of construction demanded by Passivhaus (Norwich City Council has overcome this by bringing together a network of specialist contractors with the necessary expertise to work on Passivhaus projects).

Despite the challenges, Passivhaus seems to be offering a compelling answer to the significant problems of fuel poverty, climate change and the demand for high quality, affordable housing. As more local authorities and housing associations demonstrate its affordability, Passivhaus is breaking away from its image as a resource for the privileged and moving into the mainstream of social housing.


Further reading: blog posts from The Knowledge Exchange on energy efficiency at home

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A home for life? Developing lifetime neighbourhoods to support ageing well in place

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The UK population is ageing. A 2019 report from AgeUK using data from the ONS highlighted that there are nearly 12 million (11,989,322) people aged 65 and above in the UK of which: 5.4 million people are aged 75+, 1.6 million are aged 85+, over 500,000 people are 90+ (579,776) and 14,430 are centenarians. By 2030, one in five people in the UK (21.8%) will be aged 65 or over, 6.8% will be aged 75+ and 3.2% will be aged 85+.

Allowing people to live well in old age in their own homes is something which housebuilders and planners are giving increasing thought to, both from a wellbeing perspective for residents, and a financial perspective for services, including the NHS and social care. The creation of “lifetime neighbourhoods” – spaces where people can live well from birth to retirement – brings together a number of elements: providing easy access to services; creating physical spaces which are suitable for people with disabilities and mobility issues to navigate; and allowing people to maintain those social and community ties which are associated with wellbeing, which can sometimes be lost with forced moves to residential care or a prolonged stay in hospital.

Homes for life

Building homes that are suitable for an ageing population is an important first step in creating lifetime neighbourhoods. However, planners and developers are starting to realise that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all when it comes to housing for older people. As with the general population, older people are not a homogenous group, and while some may need the support provided by extra care or sheltered housing projects, or may need single-storey open plan living to accommodate mobility aids or telecare packages, others simply want to live in a space which enables them to live comfortably in a community which suits their needs in terms of location and availability of services.

Designing and building a range of different housing types, which includes single-storey homes, extra care and sheltered housing, as well as stock which is suitable for people looking to downsize, is a key part of the development of effective lifetime neighbourhoods. This can free up larger family homes for people with children to move into and ensure that people are not kept unnecessarily in hospital because housing cannot be adapted to meet changing needs. A 2014 Age UK report showed that the scarcity of suitable and affordable retirement housing is a barrier to downsizing, highlighting that retirement housing makes up just 5-6% of all older people’s housing. Now groups like the Housing Made for Everyone coalition (HoME) are calling on the government to make all new homes accessible and adaptable as standard to help meet growing need in the future.

Social infrastructure such as libraries, community centres, local shops and good transport links are also a key aspect to planning effective lifetime neighbourhoods, as is ensuring accessibility of services such as GP appointments. Effective infrastructure planning can help enable the whole community, not just older people to feel connected to their local area, both physically and socially which can really help to support the idea of lifetime neighbourhoods and enable people to live well regardless of age.

Preventing loneliness and isolation in older age

Preventing loneliness and isolation in old age by creating spaces which facilitate engagement and encourage people to have positive social interactions is important to ensure that everyone within the community feels respected, involved and appreciated. However, the challenges are different depending on the nature of the community in question. In rural areas, social isolation can be compounded by a lack of appropriate transport infrastructure or the removal of key services at a local level in favour of “hubs” which are often located in towns and cities; in urban areas, loneliness can be exacerbated by the chaotic, hostile or intimidating environment that living in a densely populated area can have, a flip side to the benefits of density.

Ambition for ageing is a programme which aims to discover what works in reducing social isolation by taking an asset based approach to creating age friendly communities. Asset based approaches seek to identify the strengths and the abilities of people and communities, rather than their deficits. The asset based approach to creating age friendly neighbourhoods also seeks to use the experiences and  attributes that all members of the community have to help make the community better. To create effective age friendly neighbourhoods older people need to have opportunities to participate and feel that they are making a positive contribution.

A space for all ages

While much of the research and literature on lifetime neighbourhoods focuses on older people, it is also important to ensure that spaces meet the needs of all groups in the community, including children and young people and people with disabilities. Creating places which balance the needs of all groups within the community is an important consideration for planners.

The physical environment can be as important as the built environment and infrastructure development when it comes to developing lifetime neighbourhoods. Spaces which make use of natural and green infrastructure with lots of green and open public spaces have been shown to help improve mental health and wellbeing, as well as encouraging people of all ages to be more active. A number of design factors such as good paving, effective street lighting and easy access to seating and public toilets make neighbourhoods accessible to older people and people with impairments. Poor design can ‘disable’ people in their immediate environment and act as a barrier to participation in local activities.

adult affection baby child

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Final thoughts

For lifetime neighbourhoods to be successful, it is necessary that there is access to a range of appropriate housing options. In addition, the planning of public, open and green spaces, availability of transport links and local community infrastructure like libraries, police stations and local shops are all vitally important to ensure communities can thrive.

It is clear that while there is demand for more suitable housing for people in older age, the location and type of housing being built must also meet the needs and expectations of older residents, including good connections to local infrastructure, and safe accommodation. Projects which bring a range of ages together can be effective in strengthening community cohesion, can help challenge stereotypes and can reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. Collectively these different elements feed into the creation of lifetime neighbourhoods which can support people to live well into retirement and beyond.


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ReGen Villages: is this the future of sustainable living? 

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‘Illustration © EFFEKT’

The Netherlands covers an area of 41,543 km², and has a population of 17 million people. That works out at 488 people per square kilometre, making Holland the most densely populated country in the European Union. By comparison, the UK has a population density of 413 people per sq km, while the figure for Scotland is just 68 people per sq km

Statistics like that matter when it comes to waste management. Lack of space in the Netherlands has prompted successive governments to divert waste from landfill, and encourage more recycling. The waste management movement was strongly influenced by Ad Lansink, a chemistry lecturer turned politician, who developed “Lansink’s Ladder”. This tool has six “rungs”, with disposal on the bottom, then recovery, recycling, reuse and on the top rung prevention.

The Dutch approach has reaped impressive benefits, with high rates of recycling and most of the remainder being incinerated to generate electricity and heat.

However, there is a growing sense that recycling in the Netherlands may be close to its limit. In 2015, Green Growth in the Netherlands reported that since 2000, the percentage of recycled waste has remained more or less constant.

“Recycled material reached 81% in 2012, a high share that has been fairly constant over the years. This may indicate that the recycling percentages are close to their achievable maximum.”

The Dutch are now looking for further ways to create more value from recycled waste.

ReGen Villages

One such idea is the development of  “regenerative villages” (ReGen). These self-reliant communities will produce their own food, generate their own energy and recycle their own waste.

The ReGen model is the brainchild of California-based ReGen Villages, which is partnering with EFFEKT, a Danish architecture practice, to launch a pilot version in the Netherlands this year. 

Each ReGen community will contain a variety of homes, greenhouses and public buildings, with built-in sustainable features, such as solar power, communal fruit and vegetable gardens and shared water and waste management systems.  The five principles underpinning the concept are:

  • energy positive homes,
  • door-step high-yield organic food production,
  • mixed renewable energy and storage,
  • water and waste recycling,
  • empowerment of local communities

The first 25 pilot prefabricated homes will be located at Almere in the west of Holland. Almere has experienced exponential growth, rising from farmland in the 1970s to become the seventh largest city in the Netherlands.

Waste management is a key element in the ReGen villages, which will have  ‘closed-loop’ waste-to-resource systems that turn waste into energy.

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‘Illustration © EFFEKT’

Prospects and problems

There are plans to roll out the model in other communities, in Europe, North America and the Middle East. Off-grid communities are not a new idea. But the necessary technology, falling costs and consumer demand have reached a point where the ReGen approach may become truly sustainable. The idea offers the promise of meeting the challenges of rising populations making unprecedented demands on limited resources.

Interviewed in The Guardian, Frank Suurenbroek, professor of urban transformation at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, acknowledged the need for such projects, but also highlighted potential problems:

“A possible field of tension is how the technological demands of sustainability and circularity [interact with] spatial configurations needed to create attractive places and the desire to create new houses fast. Both worlds have to learn how to connect. Experiments with new sustainable quarters are interesting and needed, but a major issue is how to do this within existing built areas.”

All eyes on Almere

Once the first 25 homes are built, a further 75 will complete the village. It will take a lot of time, money, skill and muscle to make the project a success . We’ll be watching with interest to see if the vision can be turned into reality.

Our thanks to EFFEKT in Copenhagen for their permission to reproduce the images in this blog post.


If you’ve found this blog post interesting, you may also like our previous posts on recycling and the circular economy: