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Ecobuild: 'No eco-frenzy but a welcome focus on housing'

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The AJ’s Hattie Hartman reports from the Ecobuild - the trade fair for sustainable construction - where experts were unpicking the nation’s housing crisis - and suggesting some solutions

Hattie Hartman

Hattie Hartman

Ecobuild is quieter than ever this year. This may be partly down to sustainability fatigue, but also is certainly a reflection of what Levitt Bernstein’s head of sustainability Clare Murray terms the government’s ‘bonfire of sustainability regulations’. Occupying ExCel’s north hall only and with a restricted seminar programme, the usual buzz and eco-frenzy are noticeably absent.

Tuesday was housing day. Panelists Tony Pidgley of the Berkeley Group, Rowan Moore of The Observer and David Sheridan of Keepmoat agreed that solving London’s housing crisis requires strategic vision and government intervention due to the capital’s high land values and lengthy planning process. To deliver more affordable housing, Pidgley advocates clarity from government - such as a requirement for 30 per cent affordable housing for every development – with rents linked to average wages in the area. Moore noted that if the government can proceed with HS2 despite all the uproar, it should be able to take a bold approach to housing.

David Sheridan of Keepmoat highlighted the enormous price differential between building inside the M25 at £200/ft² versus £150/ft² in Cambridge or £90/ft² in Middlesbrough. Sheridan reiterated that the development process in northern cities - particularly Manchester with its ‘good devolution agenda’ – was much more straightforward than London with the GLA and its 33 boroughs.

Densifying the outer boroughs – an approach also presented on another panel by HTA’s Ben Derbyshire – by creating ‘destination communities’ in places like Hounslow which are served by good transport is another potential strategy, as is building on the green belt. ‘The Green Belt is not raising the quality of life of Londoners because most Londoners never go there,’ said Moore.

Queried on Brexit, Pidgley responded: ‘I believe in Britain but I currently employ 14,000 subbies with 50 per cent of my labour force from outside the UK.’

Berkeley, he added, had 100 sites under construction and Pidgeon visits every one monthly.

Branding its Ecobuild seminars as ‘leadership insight,’ the UKGBC’s Julie Hirigoyen also focused on leadership as the key challenge in a panel on sustainable housing. Debbie Hobbes of Legal & General Property (L&G) described the company’s recent move into the build-to-rent market with the construction of ‘Europe’s largest modular house building factory’ in Leeds set to deliver 3,000 homes using cross-laminated timber.

Because L&G will own and manage the properties, longer paybacks are possible and the company is exploring technologies such as battery storage for PVs.

Igloo Regeneration’s Chris Brown sees custom build as the way forward, an approach he’s ‘stolen from Holland.’ Noting that 75 per cent of UK house buyers will not buy from a volume builder and half want to build their own home, Brown sees strong potential for custom build in the UK with a first project on site near Redruth in Cornwall.

As part of a masterplan for 50 units by HTA being developed by Carillion-Igloo in partnership with the Homes and Communities Agency, house types by six different architects (Mae, Ash Sakula, AOC , Dwelle, HTA and White Design) are on site as proof of concept. Igloo has four more custom build sites in the pipeline, including floating houses on Royal Victoria Dock.

Adamant that sustainability does not have to cost more if designed in from the outset, Clare Murray of Levitt Bernstein lambasted government’s backsliding on regulations which has created a ‘complete free-for-all and left industry totally confused.’ With planners now stripped of any sustainability remit, Murray says it is up to designers to fill the gap. ‘Building regulations are crude minimum standards,’ she said.

Flanagan Lawrence’s Dave Lawrence countered that awareness of sustainability has increased significantly and that it is designed into projects with ‘a much higher degree of sophistication’. Lawrence highlighted the need for flexibility so that people can tailor their homes to their needs just as they ‘order groceries on their phone to be delivered at a time that suits.’ Advocating a scale reminiscent of London’s mansion blocks in their work for Quintain at Wembley, the practice is designing 1,000 units (of the 4,000 new homes Quintain has outline planning for at Wembley) which will go on site within the next year.

Glenn Howells Architects’ almost complete treetop walkway at Westonbirt Arboretum, WaughThistleton’s 10-storey Dalston Lane due in spring 2017 and Mole’s K1 co-housing in Cambridge which will go on site later this year were among the other projects presented over the course of the day.

Despairing at the housing produce by the UK’s ‘market-led’ housing system, Meredith Bowles of Mole said, ‘We need a revolution here. Generation Y needs to get up and start shouting.’

Rather than living with their parents or being shoe-horned into substandard rental housing, millennials need new solutions. White Arkitekter’s Geoff Denton noted that some progressive developers are finding ways to rethink terraced housing and others are looking to European precedents. To address the millennials market, Bill Dunster is proposing housing pods built on stilts over supermarket and hospital carparks.

To crack the housing crisis, we need all of these approaches and more.

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