True grit needed to meet housing challenge
Posted: 12th October 2021
Policy & Public Affairs Executive
Construction Industry Council
You get to see the good, the bad and the ugly of the British construction industry living in London. It might be the ‘good’ of the ambitious and well-sculpted revival of Kings Cross.
It could be the ugly of watching the area near where I live being carved up in preparation for HS2. This infrastructure project may be part of a gleaming future – no judgement here – but for the foreseeable it’s all portakabins, high-viz jackets and demolition work opening up the Camden skyline.
Then there’s the bad. Playing 5-a-side football under the Westway in the shadow of Grenfell Tower, in the midst of a community united yet still scarred by the tragic events of 14th June 2017.
Not far from Grenfell Tower is Erno Goldfinger’s brutalist Trellick Tower, a 31 floor housing block which could fit easily into each category depending on your perspective. Referenced by the band Blur in their doleful song ‘Best Days’, the building is said to have inspired JG Ballard's novel, ‘High Rise’, in which the building’s residents collapse into debauchery and civil war.
I haven’t read the book, but given the 2015 film’s opening scene features Tom Hiddlestone spit roasting the leg of a dog outside his derelict apartment, it’s safe to say that it isn’t a ringing endorsement of high rise life.
Despite the clichéd theme of a detached, sociopathic architect plotting a doomed grand vision, ‘High Rise’ is more an allegorical tale of class war – like ‘Snowpiercer’ set at 90 degrees up or ‘Animal Farm’ - than a comment on the quality of housing provision. Of course there’s nothing intrinsically bad about high-rise buildings, or any sort of ambition to improve society. The devil, as always, is in the detail.
A design for living
I mention Trellick Tower and the book it allegedly inspired because it is important - in the now and with a clear head - to ask the whether we are building the new homes we need given that these homes will be inhabited for generations to come. This was a question recently posed by the House of Lords Built Environment Committee when looking at how to meet the UK’s housing demand.
Over the last couple of years, the rules of the game have changed and it is now clear that the homes we need are those that are safe, but also future-proofed to ensure they meet the demands of the climate emergency and post-pandemic living.
The pandemic has changed the way we work and exposed future needs such as the growing demand for separate household spaces for remote working. Research from McKinsey has indicated that more than 20% of the workforce could work remotely three to five days a week as effectively as they could if working from an office. This would mean 3 or 4 times as many people working from home as before the pandemic.
Covid-19 has also revealed inadequate and unequal access to high quality green spaces which has implications for physical and mental health. Research from the University of the Highlands & Islands and the University of Aberdeen has found that people without patios and gardens experienced greater mental health challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic than those who have access to their own outdoor space.
Running parallel to this is a recent report on Infection Resilient Environments by the Royal Academy of Engineering and National Engineering Policy Centre – at the request of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser – which “revealed flaws in the way in which we design, manage and operate buildings that, if left unchecked, will disrupt management of this and other pandemics, impose high financial and health costs on society, and constrain our ability to address other challenges such as climate change.”
So in order to keep people safe and also protect their mental health during this and potential future pandemics, it is clear that an analysis of housing and the built environment as it relates to transmission, mental and physical health during the pandemic should form a strand of our Covid-19 investigations. Recommendations made on the basis of these findings could have a positive influence on how we build and convert houses, but also have implications for hospitals, care homes and offices.
Will we leave a low carbon housing legacy?
Like the pandemic, the implications of a changing climate seem to have crept up suddenly and unavoidably over the last couple of years. There is some crossover, with strong evidence that in an urban context, the green space we need to improve our mental health is associated with heat reduction which could help with climate change adaptation. Infrastructure within housing developments to encourage the use of bicycles or electric vehicles may also lead to healthier changes in behaviour.
The Future Homes Standard is a major part of government’s plans to build homes that are zero-carbon ready. Unfortunately, a full technical specification for the Standard will not be consulted on until 2023 and Government intends to introduce the necessary legislation in 2024, ahead of implementation in 2025.
There are some technical challenges to address but given the widespread changes being imposed on the construction industry through the Building Safety Bill in a much shorter timeframe, the pace of change appears to be unnecessarily slow here. If the Government is to consistently reach its target of 300,000 homes per year, this will mean that 1 million homes are likely to have been built before the Future Homes Standard is fully implemented.
In addition to this, Building Regulations do not yet account for the reduction or even measurement of embodied carbon, which could make up 70% of a new home’s whole-life carbon. Plus there is also the possibility that if the standard is perceived by housebuilders as increasing build costs, then plans may be rushed through to beat the legislation.
Adapting to the ‘new normal’
Reducing carbon emissions is only one part of the solution and ensuring all new homes are future-proofed for adaptation is also a major challenge. New research published in the journal Science suggested that, the children born in Europe and central Asia between 2016 and 2020 will experience about four times more extreme climate-linked events in their lifetimes under current emissions pledges, with those of the same age in sub-Saharan Africa facing 5.7 times more extreme events.
In its latest Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk, the UK’s independent adviser on tackling climate change – the Committee for Climate Change – reported high and immediate risk to human health, wellbeing and productivity from increased exposure to heat in homes and other buildings. Unprecedented rainfall this summer has already led to severe flooding in areas containing new housing as infrastructure such as storm drains get overwhelmed. The coming years will see new precedents in terms of weather events in the UK and this likelihood needs to be built in to local and national plans immediately.
The road ahead
As you can see, there are some hefty challenges to address and ones which require immediate action from both government and industry. We can’t be gun-shy in aiming to meet these obligations, especially where there is a chance to make a transformational change in how we design and manage buildings. It’s a great opportunity to tell a more positive story, and for today’s professionals and developers to leave a legacy of good, healthy and sustainable environments for those who use their buildings.
And after all, even the once-dystopian Trellick Tower escaped its seemingly-certain fate. Far from descending into further chaos, the iconic building was Grade II* listed in 1998, heralding more harmonious times for the residents and - with a split level apartment in the building costing in excess of £700,000 – accommodation much in demand due to the fickle nature of the property market.
Policy & Public Affairs Executive
Construction Industry Council
Matt is the CIC Policy and Public Affairs Executive. His responsibilities include fostering political engagement and carrying out policy work on areas such as Climate Change and Building Safety.
He brings a wealth of previous experience in policy areas such as environmental strategy, construction and responsible sourcing and has worked within the civil service at MHCLG and DEFRA.
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