We must harness the power of net zero homes to build back better

Modular homes will increase the quality and quantity of new homes and help to save the planet, writes Mark Davis of Public Sector Plc.
A carbon neutral home built by NetZero Buildings and Public Sector Plc. Credit: Public Sector Plc

As we head into the darkness of winter with the expectation of several more months of tiered lockdowns, it is crucial that we all remain focussed on turning the devastating experience of the coronavirus crisis into something positive.

While COVID-19 has cast a shadow on all of our lives, it has shone a light on some of Britain’s biggest challenges: the housing crisis and the climate crisis.

For millions of people and families across the country the experience of lockdown has highlighted the problems caused by living in Britain’s old, cold, draughty housing stock – something which has been exacerbated by the second national lockdown in November.

We must build back better than this.

And while global carbon dioxide emissions fell by almost a fifth (17%) in April during the lockdown, they quickly recovered. At the same time, regions around the world such as California and Siberia have recorded their worst year for forest fires with millions of acres of habitat lost. Globally, between 2030 and 2050, the World Health Organisation expects climate change to cause 250,000 additional deaths per year.

We must build back better than this.

According to the UK Green Building Council the built environment contributes 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint. When it comes to housing it’s so difficult to fathom that something which provides us with protection and shelter is so damaging for the environment.

Concrete is the second most used substance on the planet after water and is responsible for 8% of global carbon emissions. If concrete was a country, it would be the third largest emitter of carbon after the US and China, releasing 2.8 billion tonnes of carbon every year. As Jonathan Watts highlighted, globally the cement industry pumps out more carbon every two years than all the carbon produced by plastic manufacturing over the past 60 years.

Current construction methods contribute significantly to carbon emissions during the construction process. And then also again during occupation as traditionally built homes require more energy to heat.

We must build back better than this. And we have the political will to do so.

In 2019 the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to global warming by 2050 and bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero.

While climate change is a global challenge the solutions to this problem are local. As of October this year, almost three-quarters (74%) of the UK’s principal authorities – county, unitary, metropolitan, borough, district – have declared a climate emergency – making it one of the fastest growing political movements of all time.

Some local authorities have gone further than this and declared dates by which they will become zero carbon. Others like Greater Manchester Combined Authority have gone further still by pledging to make all new buildings net zero carbon by 2028.

The adoption of off-site construction is crucial if we are going to help our councils and national government to reach our targets to reduce carbon emissions. Modular construction is also essential if we are going to meet the target to build 300,000 new homes a year in England.

Robert Jenrick, secretary of state for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, made it clear in October that this government will not cut its target to build 300,000 homes a year. Furthermore, this government has made it clear that modular housing is integral to meeting this target.

In September, Homes England announced that any deals signed with housing associations as part of its new £11.5 million Affordable Homes Programme must commit to modern methods of construction to build out at least 25% of their pipeline.

The housing secretary said he was making modern methods of construction (MMC) “central” to the government’s new Affordable Homes Programme in order to deliver “better and more sustainable homes” across the country. He also pledged to review that minimum requirement annually and increase it if market conditions allow.

Britain’s housing crisis is an industrial-scale problem and, as such, it requires a scalable manufacturing solution where new homes are built in factories rather than the current predominant batch production model.

Manufacturing precision engineered homes in a factory, rather than building homes in rain, wind and snow in a field, enables us to create better quality energy efficient housing and also empowers us to deliver more homes more quickly. Housing associations and councils have a key role to play in this.

Having built more than 100,000 new homes per year up until the late 1970s, over the past decade local authorities have constructed an average of just 1,500 homes a year. By taking the lead on housing development, councils can lead the charge on building back better by bringing forward much-needed housing more quickly, control the speed, type, quality and tenure mix of developments and potentially retain ownership of their land assets if they hold the housing stock for the long-term.

Carbon neutral homes also enable families to save hundreds of pounds a year on energy bills. Creating a new generation of zero carbon homes creates win-wins for housing associations, local authorities, taxpayers, local residents and the environment.

Public Sector Plc has partnerships with councils across England leading to an investment of more than £374 million in new construction projects, including the development of more than 2,300 new homes.

While the coronavirus crisis presents us with unprecedented challenges it also creates an opportunity for us all to build back better. That’s why we partnered with NetZero Buildings to develop a net zero carbon housing offer designed for our council and housing association partners.

This autumn despite the challenges of COVID-19, we started on site with our first zero carbon family housing development in Kent. Now we are working to deliver zero-carbon affordable housing developments to benefit residents in the North West in partnerships with housing associations and councils.

One of the pioneers of the Build Back Better movement, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, has said: “There is a need to reimagine town centres being residential centres, rather than retail centres. I can see a new future for our proud outlying towns that is one of modern, possibly modular, affordable housing more closely connected to public transport, and with excellent digital infrastructure.”

We must build back better like this. Let’s harness our collective experience of COVID-19 and work together to make sure that it happens.

Mark Davis is acting head of partnerships at Public Sector Plc.

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