The Sustainable Housing Revolution

Climate Change
Climate Change

11th November 2021

With the backdrop of COP26 and the ongoing Insulate Britain protests, sustainability in the built environment sector has never been so pertinent. It is estimated that around 42% of the UK’s carbon emissions are produced from by built environment, with the majority arising from the operation of existing buildings, making it clear that there is an industry-wide problem that needs resolving. 

The Government is seeking to implement a number of regulations that they believe will get the sector on-track with its overarching net-zero carbon goal, a target Gordon Brown was seeking to achieve in a period of 10 years back when he was Prime Minister[1] in 2006. 15 years later not much has changed. By 2025, the Future Homes Standard[2] will be implemented, meaning that operationally, new homes will need to ensure they emit at least 75% less carbon than those built to current building regulations. To achieve the Future Homes Standard, homes will have to be heated differently, moving away from carbon emitting gas boiler systems to lower temperature heating systems such as air source heat pumps and underfloor heating. Airtightness will also be key, with better insulation coming from improved building fabric standards, such as timber panelised systems, and common practice of installing triple glazed windows. It is envisaged that the implementation of these measures working in collaboration will drastically reduce the amount of operational carbon created and emitted by houses. In short, the overall aim of the Future Homes Standard is to drastically reduce the UK’s carbon footprint.

Sustainable construction methods, sustainable heating methods and increased airtightness measures all bring with them a substantial additional cost. Financial viability remains one of the most hotly contested matters in nearly all major residential planning applications. An increase in cost, as required by the Future Homes Standard, will have major financial viability implications for developers. It is yet to be seen whether there will be a “Green Premium” in the sales values of sustainable homes to enable the cost increases to be accounted for in increased value. If the “Green Premium” does not materialise it is to be seen how developers will account for the substantial cost increases in a residential development market that is already flooded with financial viability arguments. Increased sustainable housing measures may ultimately lead to developers looking to further flex planning obligations.

The benefits of sustainable housing don’t stop with fighting the climate crisis, homeowners and occupiers will see the benefits of sustainable housing in their monthly energy bills as well. In London, City Hall not only estimated that up to 17,500 tonnes of carbon would be saved each year from implementing energy efficiency standards, but that it could also save households up to 90% on their energy bills. The potential cost savings to occupiers may encourage a “Green Premium” in sales values for sustainable housing with purchasers willing to increase their initial cash outlay with the confidence the investment will be recouped throughout the lifecycle of a property. Research Continuum have undertaken alongside Trivselhus UK has demonstrated that purchasers are now prioritising sustainability measures over other aspects of a property which may serve to drive higher sales values for net-zero carbon homes.

At this stage, given the impact of the built environment, and particularly residential development, on climate change it is imperative for the industry to move towards net-zero carbon, building sustainable homes, whilst also retrofitting existing ones (which has the added benefit of decarbonising the construction process). However, the methods required to achieve net-zero carbon or even sustainable housing are still in their infancy, and very few developers are currently building to the requisite standards and specifications. In addition, very few consultants are currently advising on the delivery of sustainable housing. Continuum have been working alongside Trivselhus UK since establishment in 2017 and during that time have developed an intrinsic and detailed understanding of what is required to build truly net-zero carbon housing and how this can be achieved. Given this experience at Continuum we are able to provide expert advice pertaining to the delivery sustainable housing. There is a long way to go to achieve operationally net-zero carbon housing, not least the decarbonisation of the grid, but certainty is that sustainable building and heating techniques will be integral in getting the sector closer to meeting its goals.

[1] Brown pledges to build 'zero carbon' homes | Environment | The Guardian

[2] The Future Homes Standard: changes to Part L and Part F of the Building Regulations for new dwellings - GOV.UK (