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Low-energy volume housing

Why attach bits of kit to 30-year-old house designs? asks Alan Shingler

When asked to write about low-energy design in ‘mass housing’ I could not help reflecting on my childhood and the year 1981, when the Sinclair ZX81 personal computer was launched. This was also the year that fields near my home were lost to a new, ‘modern’ housing development. Standard mass housing was deployed, with names like Rutland, Warwick and Stafford, as if parachuted in from different parts of the country. I recall walking around the new development at the time and the housing being so uninspiring that the only thing that captured my imagination was a white Escort XR3i parked outside the double garage of a new ‘Tudor’ home.

Today, more than 30 years on, as I walk around Ecobuild in London’s Excel Exhibition Centre, I am struck by how technology has advanced into the housing sector and how little has changed in mass housing. Imagine, if technology had advanced at the same pace as volume housing design, how many ZX81s would be required to provide the equivalent processing power installed to run the technology in today’s homes.

Imagine if technology had advanced at the same pace as volume housing design

With heat pumps, photovoltaic cells, solar thermal, biomass boilers, and MVHR, it is clear ‘we have the technology’ to realise low-energy homes, but surely we shouldn’t be simply attaching bits of kit to house designs that have not changed for 30 years.

The previous government’s launch of the Code for Sustainable Homes in 2007 signalled some truly innovative housing, with volume housing developers engaging with industry to innovate. Prototype homes were built at BRE Innovation Park that were not only low-energy, but also designed to suit modern living.

Similarly English Partnerships and subsequently the Homes and Communities Agency instigated and realised some exemplary low-energy designs through the Design for Manufacture Competition and the Carbon Challenge. Unfortunately, while there have been some notable quality low-energy designs delivered in the past decade, these are the exception rather than the norm.

Last year the housing industry built approximately 98,000 new homes, whereas we need to deliver between 200,000 and 250,000 a year to meet demand. Inevitably there is pressure on government from the housing industry to release more land, rather than being forced to pay a premium for a drip-fed, constrained land supply. To meet this demand we will inevitably need to build on some fields, but we also need to accelerate development in our cities. According to New London Architecture, by 2016 up to 625 hectares of public land in London could be released for disposal.

Low-energy house design is also about masterplanning and providing infrastructure that encourages low-carbon behaviour

I hope within the next 30 years we will see the mass housing market fully engage in quality sustainable design and the pendulum will swing, providing greater variety to the consumer. Zero Carbon Hub, in consultation with industry, has defined a deliverable low-carbon trajectory for the residential sector. The last step to implement Allowable Solutions is long overdue and an essential ingredient to planning and implementing low- to zero-carbon development. Low-energy house design is also about masterplanning and providing infrastructure that encourages low-carbon behaviour.

Assuming all of the above is achieved, then all that is required from architects and the housing industry is to develop robust, flexible designs in the same way the Georgians did. We need to market new homes based on space and low-energy performance, not the number of bedrooms or en suites. Good architecture should be a prerequisite, and we should not accept 30-year-old house designs that ignore context.

We need to market new homes based on space and low-energy performance

The HCA’s Urban Design Compendium, Code for Sustainable Homes, Building for Life and the London Mayor’s Housing Design Guide have all helped lift standards in design, not just in low-energy, but also space standards, aspect, tenure mix, public realm and urban design – all elements needed to create a low-carbon community. For me, the focus needs to be on designing flexible, resilient homes that anticipate climate change and are designed for 21st-century living. Clearly they need to accommodate the latest technology in controls, monitoring and renewable energy generation. But, first and foremost, they must be highly insulated, airtight, simple and intuitive to use.

Homes should relate to their contexts: environmental, economic and social. If we are to accept new developments to spread across our neighbouring fields, I see no reason why we shouldn’t expect more from the homes we purchase, just as we do from the cars we buy.

  • Alan Shingler is a partner, head of sustainability and head of residential at Sheppard Robson

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