Net Zero Week, the UK’s national awareness week to highlight challenges and opportunities around tackling emissions to stop global warming, is upon us. This week we’re taking time to consider what actions we, as sector, can take to help reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050.
Discussions about how the social housing sector can drive the net-zero carbon agenda and embed environmental sustainability often focus on retrofitting. Ensuring that homes are properly insulated is a major challenge for the sector, especially since the UK has some of the oldest housing stock in the western world, the vast majority of which does not comply with energy efficiency standards.
However, when we consider the many other climate risks posed to current housing stock, from flooding to heat waves, building or retrofitting homes to be warmer will only be one part of the solution. Trends indicate that extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, are becoming increasingly frequent, while housing standards across the board are modelled on an understanding of a more temperate and predictable climate.
The overheating of homes is a real concern; so too are public spaces that become hostile in heatwaves due to their lack of shade or heat absorbing vegetation. An article in Inside Housing from 2010 shared the experience of residents living near Victoria station who were caught between high temperatures and the excess noise of the railway when they opened their windows for ventilation.
If our sector is driven solely by the ambition to reduce energy emissions, we are at risk of building housing which won’t be able to cope with the volatilities of a future climate, especially the impacts of high temperatures. We don’t want to find ourselves 10 years down the line having to choose between providing carbon costly air conditioning or seeing the health and wellbeing of our residents suffer. To avoid this, homes should be built with a long-life cycle that takes overheating into consideration at design and planning level.
Environment in local places
To create homes that are both resilient to a changing climate and prioritise the needs of residents, the social housing sector must also be sensitive to place and local environment.
While climate change threatens the collective future of the whole planetary system, certain places, regions and micro-climates will face vastly different challenges than others. So when it comes home building or retrofitting, adaptability key – a home needs to be warm and comfortable in a freezing winter as well as in a summer heat wave. As will sensitivity to the demands of geography and place: a rural social housing property in the Highlands will need to be adapted to a different environment to that of central London and urban heat islands, and design, material and construction needs to match.
As a sector, we should challenge ourselves to think beyond generic, locally insensitive designs. The Passivehaus approach which draws on millennia old building techniques that make use of passive heating and cooling, offers an alternative model of house building in relation to the local environment. For modern methods of construction, it will be important to make sure homes can be built in a way that is sympathetic to local climate rather than following a one size fits all approach.
How can we, as a sector, make climate risks a priority across the work of social housing? One way of driving progress could be simply making it easier to measure our sector’s progress on the net zero agenda.
HACT’s social value roadmap environmental value group, for example, have recently been exploring whether a social value might be created for “thermal comfort” to allow organisations to put a wellbeing measure on homes built to be habitable for a changing climate. This value would importantly centre resident wellbeing in the context of the sector’s overall journey to achieving net zero.
Another way of prioritising the net zero carbon agenda could be through examining environmental and demographic data. Since over 65's are at greater risk during extreme weather events, it will become increasingly important for social housing providers to be able to target outreach to that demographic. Being able to compare resident data against other relevant demographic indicators in a local environment through Community Insight is one way organisations can make better decisions.
At HACT we are exploring what value we can offer the sector in its journey to net-zero. Across our work in health, social value and community investment, one common thread is resident wellbeing. The UK Social Value Bank puts wellbeing at the heart of planning and decision making, and as we grapple with questions about the green transition, we will be working to centre the resident experience in decision making.