Build, Build, Build!

In his attempt to kickstart the economy in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK Prime Minister urged us to “Build, Build, Build!” . If this is going to happen, how can we make sure the new houses we need also coincide with our goals for a zero-carbon Britain?

In 2019, 178,800 new houses were completed, an increase of 9% on the previous year.  In 2014, Dr Alan Holmans, a housing expert at the University of Cambridge, produced estimates of the housing gap based on 2011 data but taking housing conversions, second homes and vacancies into account.  His analysis suggested we need to build about 170,000 additional private sector houses and 75,000 social sector houses each year.  This is a total of an extra 240,000 to 250,000 new houses each year, excluding any reductions in existing housing stock.

There is debate about whether we need this number of new houses or whether a smaller number is more appropriate.  Writing in The Guardian in January 2018, Ann Pettifor, director of Policy Research in Macroeconomics and a fellow of the New Economics Foundation argued that there were enough houses in the UK for the number of households but that the price of houses keeps rising due to speculation in the property market.  She suggests that this speculation is fuelling house price rises rather than shortage of supply.

Whatever the cause, the increasing price of houses, which means that the people in most need of housing cannot afford to step onto the property ladder, is exacerbated by some house builders constructing the wrong houses in the wrong places.  If you consider that many of the houses we now occupy are more than 100 years old, the housing stock currently being constructed should still be serviceable well into the 2100s.  But the design of the houses and the quality of the construction means that these houses are likely to become uneconomic to live in and to maintain significantly earlier than that.  Nor do many of these new houses use the most up to date technologies to make sure they are energy efficient, pleasant places to live in.

The Passivhaus idea began in Sweden and Germany in the 1980s but with the exception of a small number of specialist builders, the full range of techniques and ideas used in Passivhaus construction have not been adopted in the UK.  We know how to build thermally efficient homes that are cheap to run and which make the most of passive solar gain for heating and lighting yet we continually fail to do so.  We know how to capture rainwater and use it to supplement tap water for flushing lavatories and watering gardens but we fail to install it in new houses.  Many existing homeowners are installing solar panels to heat water and generate electricity but at present, few new homes are equipped with this technology when they are built.

With the knowledge we have about how to build thermally efficient houses which result in few emissions of greenhouse gases and which can contribute to our energy requirements, it seems to be verging on the criminal that few builders think about the full life-cycle of the houses they build.

All new houses should be built using the latest technology to minimise emissions at all stages of their life-cycle, from the production of the bricks, blocks, timber and other components, to the way they are constructed and, importantly, how they function through their life as homes for families.  Well-built houses can, and do, last many decades and over this period, the environmental impact can be significantly greater than that from the initial construction.  Builders must take some responsibility for the use phase of the life cycle of our houses when constructing them rather than abdicating all responsibility the minute they hand over the keys – relying on the NHBC to pick up the pieces when houses do not perform as promised.

Housebuilders tell us they’re building the houses their customers want but it is difficult to see how they are providing any sort of service to their customers.  Many of the houses being built today are unaffordable and many are not fit for purpose.  There have been several recent reports about the use of sub-standard materials in new build houses and significant problems with the construction and finish of the buildings.  It could be argued that this is a failing of government policy but an ethical house building company should be identifying how they can provide affordable housing that meets the highest standards for as many people as possible and this may necessitate a fundamental rethink of the housebuilding model.

In this context, is the idea of “Build, Build, Build!” as championed by the Prime Minister really valid?  Should we aim for a smaller number of houses to be built each year but make sure that each one is high quality and that a bigger proportion of those built are affordable?  “Affordable” in this context should mean more than just the price to buy the house.  It should also take into account the cost of running and maintaining the building for the next 100 years or more, no matter how many families get to call it “home” in that time.

Images by Capri23auto and annca from Pixabay