The rise of healthy buildings

Categories: Blog

There are many words to use to describe this year, but I am sure we can all agree that it has been challenging. As we all wait to hear new announcements and restrictions, it is hard to believe how much has changed since 23rd March, when Boris Johnson first made his speech and announced a national lockdown. The worry back then was that climate change would take a back seat, at a time when we needed to drive things forward as fast as possible. Of course, tackling one global crisis whilst averting another is a challenge few would have anticipated.

Now six months on, mantras such as ‘build back better’ and the ‘green recovery’ have given us all hope that climate change will still get at least some of the attention it deserves. The reality is that the environmental crisis hasn’t gone anywhere and the solutions that were needed prior to the pandemic are still very much needed now. Carbon emissions from the built environment still make up one-third of carbon emissions in the UK, and the UK’s net-zero target depends on that figure – along with others – being reduced.  Fortunately, schemes to address energy in buildings are on the table.

Even before the health crisis hit, the Future Homes Standard was announced as part of plans to ensure that future homes are built in line with net-zero: from 2025, it is expected homes should produce 75 – 80% less carbon emissions than those built to current standards and that they will be built with ‘world-leading levels of efficiency’. Many in the industry are understandably hopeful that the new regulation around new homes, starting with the uplift to Part L and F of the Building Regulations, will help to significantly reduce carbon emissions and close the ‘performance gap’ that exists today. This shift towards improved quality and guaranteed energy performance is desperately needed considering that so many homes today do not perform as they are designed to; however, we cannot close this gap without greater standards and levels of accreditation. The New Homes Ombudsman and improving guidance on how to efficiently insulate homes therefore provide hope that things are moving in the right direction.

Of course, existing buildings must also be tackled at the same time; most of the homes that will be lived in by 2050 have already been constructed so work must be done to ensure that they are brought up to standard.

A promising move forward for existing homes came this July, with the announcement of the Green Homes Grant (GHG) which now offers vouchers to cover up to a third of the costs of home improvement measures, including insulation and low carbon heating. I have previously emphasised that maintaining high standards is imperative to the success of the scheme, particularly given that it is only due to run until March next year. I am hopeful that the requirement for installers to be both MCS accredited and TrustMark registered will ensure such improvements are delivered to the quality that industry and customers need and deserve, even if within such a short amount of time. There is hope that the decision is also taken by the Government to keep the window open beyond March, but only time will tell.

Other ambitions for transforming our homes include the commitment made in the Clean Growth Strategy to phase out the installation of high carbon fossil fuel heating in new and existing buildings off the gas grid during the 2020s;  improving the energy performance of privately rented homes in England and Wales (a consultation has just been launched) and the revised Fuel Poverty Strategy for England, which is unfortunately among the policy decisions delayed due to Covid-19.

It goes without saying that the pandemic has highlighted how important our homes are: we now spend more time inside them than we have before. However, not all homes are up to standard. For those living in fuel poor or ‘hard to heat’ properties, the prospect of a second lockdown in the coldest months of the year is a cause for great concern given the struggles endured in any normal winters season. The development of policy to mitigate unhealthy homes is correlated by an increase in research confirming the negative impacts of poor housing on mental and physical health. This research is summarised in the ‘All-Party Parliamentary Group for Healthy Homes and Buildings’ whitepaper, which I co-authored in 2018. Amongst many enlightening statistics, it is astonishing to note that the effects of poor housing cost the NHS a staggering £2.5 bn per year, with the estimated social and economic cost of leaving people in poor housing in the region of £18 bn per year. These statistics demonstrate the need for change: we need to build homes that are healthy for people and the planet.

Health and wellbeing is central to our life goals, all around the world: it is a megatrend.  Unsurprisingly, this extends well beyond exercise videos on YouTube or healthy dietary choices and means that people are becoming conscious of how critical the indoor environment is. This desire for healthier living spaces is only set to continue and whilst there is little policy in place today to address health in homes, especially in the new build sector, there are signs that it is being addressed. In 2015, NHS England launched the Healthy New Towns initiative to explore how the development of new places provides the opportunity for healthy communities. In 2020, the Environment Bill brought about actions to improve air quality; and in 2006, the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) was introduced – and has since been amended- to help local authorities identify and protect against potential risks and hazards to the health and safety of occupants in residential housing.

As this turbulent year continues, there is hope that work to improve our homes and buildings continues. There is a huge opportunity for us all to get on board with the low carbon transition and to improve the quality of life, health and wellbeing of homeowners and tenants living in all kinds of properties across the country. One thing I am sure of is that we must take a holistic approach, starting with the building fabric: we must consider air quality, acoustics, lighting, outdoor views, as well as energy efficiency. By considering these aspects of the building performance and by working together, we can improve our indoor environments and ensure that they are fit for future generations to come.