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Socially responsible building begins at home

November 2012

There’s a housing crisis in the UK. We must build more homes to relieve the shortage and to kickstart the economy. So investment in housing must be socially responsible, right? Well, perhaps. But think about this.

Homes last a very long time and are very expensive to put right once built. The average annual domestic gas bill in the UK was around £300 ($484, €373) at the turn of the millennium but is now considerably more than double this. The cause: continually increasing global gas prices.

We can only have any hope of meeting climate change targets – as well as keeping bills down – if we can hugely reduce the heating needs for homes and buildings. Socially responsible investors in housing need to think about not just bricks and mortar but about longer-term costs and benefits.

Here’s the problem: new homes and buildings don’t perform as they should. Every thorough study of new UK buildings for the last 20 years has found that they use more energy – sometimes a lot more energy – for heating and cooling than their designs indicate.

If we carry on building homes (and other buildings, too) in the way we do today, whatever the building codes might say and no matter how demanding regulations might seem, there will be a disastrous legacy of higher bills and potentially poorer health. The UK will be unable to meet its climate change targets, and these problems with newbuild will be magnified in work to improve the energy efficiency of the existing building stock.

There is a socially-responsible solution: build passive. No central heating needed, tiny gas bills and a much healthier environment for residents. And ... it’s the profitable long-term option.

Far-sighted developers now, indeed, realise that building passive is more cost-effective because maintenance will cost less, prices will be stronger and rental streams better protected. Broadland Housing Group, based in Norwich, is using private investment to embark on the UK’s largest passivhaus project to build more than 200 apartments close to Norwich City FC’s Carrow Road football stadium. Andrew Savage, executive director for Business Growth, has said: “All housing associations, private rental developers and savvy investors should now be thinking passive as Broadland is.”

Progress just isn’t fast enough, either in newbuilds to the passivhaus standard or in refurbishing the millions of homes and buildings that must be improved across the EU if we are to meet demanding targets to tackle climate change. The new Future Homes Commission report has got many things right, recommending a three-fold increase in the number of new homes built each year, kick-started by an independently-managed £10bn Local Housing Development Fund. It should also have declared that passive is the right way forward.

More importantly, building passive, as Broadland is pioneering, represents the socially responsible investment approach to housing. Please get on board.

Dr Bruce Tofield is an Adapt associate consultant at the University of East Anglia
email: b.tofield@uea.ac.uk




University of East Anglia | UK & NI Ireland | SRI

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