Creating zero-carbon social homes that are fit for purpose

Creating zero-carbon social homes that are fit for purpose

Creating zero-carbon social homes that are fit for purpose

Posted: 23/07/2021

The journey of UK social housing has not always been straightforward. It’s been up and down since the 1980s. But with the UK’s zero-carbon targets looming – including all new builds by 2025, and the rest by 2050 – there are even more challenges to consider aside from the logistics of creating enough social housing to meet increased demand.

Developing net-zero housing across all new builds is one thing. But what about all the social housing that already exists, stemming back to the 1980s? How do we start this mammoth task of ensuring all these existing buildings are fit for purpose and compliant with future targets, all while keeping them affordable for the tenants who need them most?

The problem

Those dealing with social housing – namely housing associations – face a very particular challenge. They have a large number of traditionally built homes, complete with gas central heating, leaky old windows, inefficient appliances, and tenants without masses of disposable income. Irwell Valley Homes, for example, has over 600 homes in Sale, Greater Manchester.

Somehow, they have to ensure these comply with net-zero targets. All social housing associations have the specific target of achieving EPC ratings of C or above by 2035. Also, existing building stock doesn’t meet the Passivhaus standard, instead having their own version EnerPHit, which relaxes some criteria but is still complex and expensive to meet in older buildings.

Housing associations find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place, trying to meet urgent standards with limited resources, juggling environmental impact and rental costs to keep social housing accessible and fit for purpose.

A (brief) history of social housing

Most of the UK’s existing social housing stock was built before the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher’s government enabled tenants to buy their social homes at a discount through the Right to Buy scheme. Simultaneously, local authorities faced mounting restrictions when it came to the power and resources to build and manage new housing. These restrictions have continued to severely limit the amount of housing produced ever since.

The statistics say it all. 4.4 million social homes were built by local authorities and housing associations in the 35 years following WW2. 94,140 homes were built in 1980. By 1983, this had halved to just 44,240. And by 2018/19, just 6,287 new social homes were built – compared to the 1.1 million people on the waiting list.

Social homes are being sold off faster than they are being replaced. Local authorities still lack the power to increase the number of new builds, and rising land costs mean any existing investments struggle to have as much of an impact.

Creating livable environments

So where do we go from here? How do we retrofit old housing stock to minimise their environmental impact and create liveable environments for tenants long-term?

A big worry is that because the cost of retrofitting is so great, homes will become unaffordable to those on lower incomes. No one wants to succeed at getting social housing to meet the mark, at the expense of those tenants who need it most. Different builds will need different solutions, but here are our top tips for tackling this challenge:

  1. Know what you’ve got
    How many homes? When were they built? What kind of windows, insulation, roofing, building services, or boilers do they have? Carry out surveys and maintain databases to get the full picture.
  2. Fabric first
    When you know what you’ve got to work with, step one should be about the fabric of the building. This includes replacing the windows, insulating the walls and roofs, and plugging the leaks. The bare essentials that keep a property going.
  3. What is your energy strategy?
    We know the costs of fossil fuels are going to continue to increase. Will you opt for gas, hydrogen ready, air source heat pumps or solar panels? Will you consider district heating systems? Major asset owners like housing associations can think big here.
  4. How can your tenants manage their energy use?
    This one is all about good controls. For example, heating and cooling that are more evenly distributed and not left on.
  5. Innovation
    Make sure you’re leaving room for everything that’s yet to come. For example, building services that are accessible or ducting for new pipes and wires. The housing landscape moves fast and there will be plenty of innovation and opportunity on the horizon.

Retrofitting existing building stock will be no easy task. Especially when it comes to large supplies of social housing that are massively inefficient and have tenants who can’t afford to improve the property’s energy efficiency themselves. But hitting the upcoming zero carbon targets is possible. Our main advice is to start with the basics, the essential jobs you can do right now. And always remain flexible and open-minded to all the innovations that will turn up over the coming years and offer new ways of solving this problem.

At GLD Technical Consulting, our building services create spaces that are safe and fit for purpose, while being comfortable and accessible. To find out more, get in touch on 01942 889 535.