As part of our HJ Housing Week 2022, we sat down with Lucy Pedler, co-director of The Green Register, to discuss the work her not-for-profit organisation is doing with the sector and her observations about the current decarbonisation landscape.
Since 2000, The Green Register has trained thousands of construction professionals from all disciplines of the industry to build better, more sustainable buildings.
Through their training, The Green Register supports organisations to reduce the environmental impact of their buildings and to raise awareness of sustainable building practices. Topics of interest to the housing sector include healthy buildings, natural materials, energy-saving methodologies including Passivhaus, retrofit for older buildings and – key to optimal building performance – the management of heat, moisture and airtightness. Having recently collaborated with Pobl Housing Association and admired the “really impressive” approach to providing quality affordable homes of the future, Lucy and her colleagues have been struck by the proactive approach seen in the social housing sector.
Having worked closely with housing associations, do you feel that the sector is leading the way in the low carbon approach?
The most recent housing association we have worked with is Pobl – we delivered four and a half days of customised training, which has been an absolute delight. Housing associations are not for profit and they’re charged with providing housing for people where their income will need extra support. They’re not really obliged to build low carbon housing, but yet they are, it’s absolutely brilliant. Pobl are going way beyond where they really need to go.
But, I think that in a civil society, those in need should not only be provided with affordable housing, but good quality housing and I think that’s where housing associations really rise to the challenge. They’re not just providing minimum standard housing they are providing good quality homes that take account of people’s needs as well as the infrastructure of community services around it.
And of course, affordable means manageable energy bills as well, not just affordable rent. If you’re building to low carbon principles, you are inevitably going to have lower fuel bills which is such a significant issue right now with higher energy costs and the cost-of-living crisis.
Which internal teams at the Housing Association or similar organisations need to understand low carbon principles to ensure that they are implemented successfully?
The answer to that is literally all the teams need to understand this. At The Green Register we talk about the fact that you’re much more likely to achieve a low carbon dwelling if the principles are integrated right at the beginning of the design/briefing stage. The example I give is that you can design in really good levels of super insulation right at the beginning with minimal cost because at that stage the design hasn’t been developed. If you try and do that further down the line, it’s more expensive – many decisions have been made. Later on, this measure might not even be possible or much more expensive, bolt-on low carbon technology would be used so it’s really important to apply low carbon principles at the earliest possible design stage.
Any housing association teams that are involved in the brief and the development of the low carbon principles need to be aware of these issues from the beginning but also throughout the design development stage.
I guess if I had to choose one team in housing or in any construction where it would be absolutely crucial that they need to understand sustainable building practices, it would be site managers and project quality staff because the most common stage where design targets are missed is during construction – the conversion from design targets into as-builts.
As an architect, you can design the most beautiful, low carbon home possible. But if the workforce on site don’t understand low carbon principles and don’t interpret the design correctly, you get what is commonly referred to as a performance gap. In other words, the difference between the design targets and the as-built targets – the performance gap can be as much as 200-300% worse.
So, if I had to pick one area, one team within the housing association, it would be the site managers and project quality staff.
What can we learn from other countries successes or failures?
In January 2023 the city of Berlin in Germany is making solar panels – both solar thermal and photovoltaics – mandatory for all new buildings and any existing building where the roof is being renovated and they’ve already been subsidising private individuals and companies for solar power batteries.
In the UK, you can predict the response to this would be that we can’t afford that type of approach but it’s a false economy. If we don’t try and achieve some of these low carbon principles, the fallout is huge. We will continue to remain dependent on other countries for energy, and we have seen how that plays out recently in Europe.
People’s fuel bills continue to rise to unaffordable levels with all the kind of associated social impacts that has and that results in an increased welfare burden on local authorities and the Government. There’s a cost associated with that…plus the UK will miss its legally binding targets of net zero by 2050. So, to say we can’t afford it is very short-term thinking. If we don’t invest now in decarbonising the grid, we will be in real trouble.
China is another really interesting example. On the one hand, they’re still building coal fired power stations and coal is absolutely the dirtiest fuel in terms of energy generation. But the Chinese government’s argument is that they are doing this as a temporary measure in order to generate the energy to make the green technologies and build the buildings that will be zero carbon in the future. However, it’s not clear if that is actually the reality.
And then there are our Scandinavian neighbours whose building standards have been ahead of ours for decades. The UK’s building standards are more like the building standards in most Scandinavian countries in the 1950s. We could learn from Scandinavia where they have employed many low carbon solutions without ruining the economy – often a reason given by some for not fully committing to renewable energy generation.
In terms of failures, sadly the UK springs to mind – the government’s Green Deal was a catastrophic failure. The Green Register has worked on a government funded scheme and it was obvious that the government is ill-advised about what works and what doesn’t work in reality. I wish they would consult those in the construction industry who have practical knowledge of how to scale up low carbon design – contacting some of The Green Register’s members would be a good start!
What lessons have you learned in working with the housing sector in the UK?
UK wide we’ve got a chronic mismatch between supply and demand – there is way more demand for housing than there is supply. So very poor-quality housing continues to be built, missing building regulations targets which are fairly modest by other countries’ standards. People will continue to buy or rent them as there are not enough good quality affordable options available. We need to make poor quality housing the exception rather than the rule.
Housing associations are a bit different – they’re more constrained by standards. As I understand it housing associations are housing six million people in the UK. They are a really welcome exception and build to high standards, particularly in Wales and Scotland. The Pobl Group in South Wales are going way beyond what they are required to do at more cost, time and effort. So what I’ve learned is that housing associations are the future in terms of having good quality, low carbon, affordable housing.