Beyond Just Housing, the UK Needs to Develop Holistic and Sustainable Communities

Fast building, as is needed in England, can often lead to poor quality structures. But with new and better, sustainable homes, smart houses are possible and affordable. According to UK National Statistics, the Department for Communities and Local Government reported an 18 per cent rise in new housing starts for the April-June 2014 quarter compared […]

Beyond Just Housing, the UK Needs to Develop Holistic and Sustainable Communities

Fast building, as is needed in England, can often lead to poor quality structures. But with new and better, sustainable homes, smart houses are possible and affordable.

According to UK National Statistics, the Department for Communities and Local Government reported an 18 per cent rise in new housing starts for the April-June 2014 quarter compared to the same three months in 2013. Looked at another way, the 36,230 house building starts in the second quarter were 112 per cent above the same quarter in 2009 (but 26 per cent below the building peak in 2007). This increase is important, good news and likely an indicator of the success of Government lending schemes as a way to loosen credit and make more people eligible and able to buy homes. This consequently leads to homebuilders increasing their productive output because a larger market has materialised.

So what might go wrong now? With so large a pent-up demand for housing in the UK, joint venture partnerships that marry investors with available land and homebuilders are actively pursuing planning authority approval to build where homes are needed most. Social housing and projects by private housing associations are also under construction to increase affordable housing and alleviate high rental and purchasing prices. But recent history shows that hasty building can sometimes birth mistakes, which can lead to poor quality and underperforming houses.

In the U.S., hasty building in the mid-naughts, particularly in the American South recovering from severe hurricanes in 2005, led to significant off-gassing problems from imported Chinese wallboard. Something in the gypsum wallboard material caused wiring to deteriorate, affecting between 60,000 and 100,000 new homes and the health of occupants.

Homes in the UK were spared those problems. But a four-year study of houses in the UK, Germany and Sweden by researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA, in Norwich) found a different problem occurred in the 1990s through 2010. Housing in these places often under-deliver in terms of energy efficiency and indoor air quality. The report attributes these under-performing homes to “poor teamwork across design and construction processes [which] leads to defects that compromise energy performance.”

So as the country proceeds with building, with a housing boom that by all accounts is needed to provide homes for a million households and a growing population, how can such problems be avoided? The UEA make a strong pitch for passivehaus (“Passive House”) building – a standard of construction that aims to dramatically reduce the need for mechanical heating and cooling, even while improving on comfort and air quality.

More than 30,000 such homes have been built around the globe since the early 1990s. As techniques and materials become more readily available, the construction costs are no longer higher than by traditional methods. Long-term, they save a great deal of money on energy costs.

But sustainable building can also include renewable energy sourcing (e.g., solar panels on roofs), low-impact landscaping (plants that reduce heat and cold exposure, and which retain natural rainfall to reduce potable water use for maintenance). For communities, the economic benefit comes when homeowners spend less on utilities that in turn allows them more money to spend locally on goods and services. When applied to social housing and by housing associations, it reduces their costs as well.

Given the weather events of recent years – which range from summer heat waves to heavy winter rains – more climate-resilient, energy-efficient housing certainly is welcome. Retrofitting existing structures with energy-efficiency measure is often affordable as well.

Individuals who participate in real asset investing should scrutinise projects for sustainability features. So too do local planning authorities when considering land use changes to accommodate residential and commercial building. Investors should also consult with an independent financial advisor to determine if the project – hyper-eco or at least built to perform well – is a fair risk relative to their overall financial goals.

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