Building for 2050: Can the Government’s low-carbon housing venture deliver homes fit for the future?

With the UK housebuilding sector under the spotlight at both at a national level and in the sustainability agenda, edie caught up with Aecom's regional director to discuss how the firm's latest research project aims to help developers deliver lost-cost, low-carbon housing across the country.

Standing at the despatch box in last month’s Autumn Budget, Philip Hammond vowed to do “whatever it takes” to get developers building. The Chancellor unveiled plans to build 300,000 homes a year, as part of his grand vision to tackle the UK’s housing crisis, which has seen a lack of affordable, decent homes affecting families across the country.

On top of a chronic housing shortage, there is also an emerging climate crisis unfolding in the sector. Households are responsible for up to 20% of the UK’s total climate emissions and, unless addressed, experts warn the country is likely to fall short of its climate change targets by as much as 30% by 2025.

The Government has taken heed in recent months. The Clean Growth Strategy confirmed that all fuel-poor homes will be upgraded to EPC band C by 2030, while a sector deal with the construction industry following last week’s new Industrial Strategy saw the industry pledge to halve emissions in the built environment by 2025.

Building for 2050

The sector deal was announced alongside the launch of a £1.4m research project, funded by BEIS, which will look at how to increase the number of low-cost, low-carbon housing. The Aecom-led project will monitor three schemes in Swansea, Bristol and Manchester for 12 months, with a view to upscaling the developments on a commercial level.

“We are trying to fully understand the drivers and barriers for low-cost, low-carbon homes and seeing whether these barriers can help us to come up with recommendations to accelerate the uptake of low-carbon homes,” explained Aecom’s Alison Crompton, technical lead of the Building for 2050 project.

The homes will incorporate solutions such as PV panels and battery storage to address fuel bills, but Crompton stresses that the central focus will be to construct housing through its design rather than reliance on technology.

“What the ideal situation would be is if these homes are providing better than compliance standards, and if that performance is maintained, so that by 2050 they are still low-carbon. That means there is more emphasis on the building fabric and orientation of Passive design rather than building a standard house with a technological fix to make it perform better.”

Lack of familiarity

The project combines physical performance monitoring with observation and social research. BEIS is keen to see whether the low-carbon features will have a tangible impact on the lifestyles of house occupants, while examining how each developer has created their own definition of a low-carbon home.

“We suspect that no one development will be perfect in that sense, and that there will be lessons to be learned from the range of ones that we study,” Crompton added.

To understand the main barriers to developing low-carbon housing, the programme will draw on the observations from construction sites staff and professionals within the sector, as well as feedback from residents. Crompton believes that some of the key obstacles relate to an information gap among contractors and builders about the real cost of low-carbon developments.

“I think a lot of it is about a lack of familiarity about what you are building, and the supply chain and where you might get products from. There are issues around whether what you wanted to do is going to happen in practice, and if there is extra funding required, how easily can you access that funding.”

Looking ahead

The low-carbon housebuilding sector has been in dire need of a fresh approach since the previous Government’s axing of the zero-carbon homes policy. The decision, made on the basis that it was deemed impossible to build a cost-efficient, carbon-neutral home, was met by dismay by many in the construction and property sectors.

The scheme was scrapped in 2015, around the same time that a Cardiff University project demonstrated that, in contrast to political reasoning, it is possible to design affordable, zero-carbon housing.

There is a major concern that a proportion of new builds are not being constructed up to scratch. Last month, Lord Deben warned that the UK’s biggest housebuilders build “crap houses” that cheat the public because their energy efficiency is far lower than claimed – typically costing buyers £250-a-year extra in fuel.

Housebuilders have been warned by Deben’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) that houses constructed in the UK today may have to be expensively retrofitted with energy-saving technology within the next two decades.

Crompton said that a key part of the brief from BEIS was to examine how a low-carbon house can deliver performance now and not need a costly or disruptive intervention before 2050. She hopes that lessons will be learned for the existing housing stock.

“There is a very high proportion of the stock currently existing that will be there in 2050 and there will be plenty of challenges around the retrofit but there could be lessons learned from the new build.

“There may be technologies that come in from the back of that, which could then be translated into upgrades for existing buildings as well.”

George Ogleby

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