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Produce, Procure, Perform: Sheffield’s sustainable housing conference

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Using aerial imagery to gather neighbourhood energy data and staggering stats on television use in UK households

Footprint recently attended a conference on innovative solutions to affordable sustainable housing organised by the Sheffield School of Architecture (SSoA) and the Home Research Group. Over sixty researchers, architects, engineers, housing providers and students convened to discuss a range of issues from retrofitting to future-proofing, with a constant eye on affordability.  The seminars were structured under three broad themes:  produce, procure, and perform.

Speakers included:

John Quale started the day with examples of prefabricated housing units in Virginia, USA built for Habitat for Humanity and the Piedmont Housing Alliance over the last eight years. EcoMOD projects include post-disaster houses and modular housing, with some projects following the Passivhaus standard. Quale noted the challenge of recalibrating Passivhaus standard to suit the North American climate. When asked about the future of off-site production in the UK, Quale observed that the UK off-site production was growing by leaps and bounds compared to US.

ecoMOD South, South Boston and Abingdon, Virginia built using Passivhaus principles

ecoMOD South, South Boston and Abingdon, Virginia built using Passivhaus principles


The first session chaired by Dr. Cristina Cerulli addressed the issue of how we can build enough houses that are sustainable, affordable and resilient.

Mark Lemon and Yann Bomken stated that delivery of  affordable sustainable housing is a mindset change and a paradigm shift in the way we deliver dwellings is required.

Ash Sakula’s Richard Brown presented Hackney Wick and Fish Island (HWFI) as a model for redevelopment of a post-industrial area.  Hybrid live-work units in redundant factory sites have fostered a sense of community in the area.

A simple self-build initiative was trialled to develop a new kind of neighbourhood plan. Mobile, climate resilient, self-build ‘shacks’ of cardboard were fabricated and stationed at various points in the neighbourhood as a community gathering place. 

Pop up club made of cardboard at HWFI. Photo: Richard Brown

Pop up club made of cardboard at HWFI.

‘Harvest maps’ of the area locate resources and practitioners with specialist tools to encourage connections. Future plans involve stationing mobile units in strategic points around the Olympic Park as prototype temporary buildings.

‘The Cheap Unit’, by Richard Brown is mobile and will be stationed at points in the neighbourhood where workshops and events will be held.

‘The Cheap Unit’ is mobile and will be stationed at points in the neighbourhood where workshops and events will be held. Image: Richard Brown, Ash Sakula

‘The Cheap Unit’ by Richard Brown

Landscape architect Mark Wilding pointed out that current environmental assessment ratings do not properly address the public realm, commenting: ‘There is no such thing as a sustainable home unless it is in a sustainable neighbourhood.’  He stressed that green infrastructure should be holistically assessed for its ecological performance, social and community-building capacity and economic generation.


The Produce session chaired by Sheffields’ Lucy Jones discussed mainstreaming renewable materials, displacement vs emplacement and pre-fab construction.

Nigel Lowthorpe encouraged the use of harvested rain water systems in housing properties. Lee Crookes, University of Sheffield, said that a shift to ‘slow’ regeneration where time is spent in understanding the value of existing places to their residents is needed in an attempt to bring empty homes back into use. Martin Field explained how off-site prefabrication can be a means to improve economic sustainability as 20 per cent of activity occurs off-site. He said that economic or technical sustainability from off-site methods need assessment against ingrained UK housing market norms.


Chaired by Fionn Stevenson, the Perform session highlighted the challenges of gathering accurate performance data on housing due to underperforming modelling softwares.

Lisa Pasquale of the Institute for Sustainability compared a newbuild co-housing managed by residents to a retrofit project.  It is clear that involvement of residents in the design and procurement process increases awareness of energy use and potential savings, encouraging behavioural change.

Amit Mhalas of the Centre for Construction Innovation Research (CCIR) presented an innovative visual energy assessment tool that combines data derived from aerial imagery with an energy efficiency database to document energy consumption at the neighbourhood scale. This eliminates the need for site visits for data collection.

ArcGIS uses vector maps from Ordinance Survey, raster (aerial imagery) and street view from google. Image: Amit Mhalas

ArcGIS uses vector maps from Ordinance Survey, raster (aerial imagery) and street view from google

ArcGIS uses vector maps from Ordinance Survey maps, aerial imagery and Street view from Google.

Finally, Aurore Julien from the UCL Energy Institute  presented  research on the  crucial role of occupant behaviour in predicting energy use in buildings.  Julien shared some astonishing statistics related to television use: 

  • there are an average of 2.3 televisions per UK household
  • an average person in UK spends 5 hours in front of the TV
  • there are as many televisions in the UK as there are people

In summary, there was consensus amongst the speakers on the need for an integrated interdisciplinary approach to sustainable housing to tackle the complex range of issues.

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