Zander Muego: Why a more considered approach is key to decarbonising UK housing

Zander Muego: Why a more considered approach is key to decarbonising UK housing

Zander Muego

Zander Muego discusses the complexities of decarbonising the UK’s existing housing stock, particularly social housing, in the pursuit of net zero targets while addressing fuel poverty and ensuring wider community benefits.

The importance of decarbonisation is becoming increasingly well understood. As all industries look at how they can reach net zero targets set by UK and devolved governments, the construction industry has a particular challenge. Not only are operational efficiencies required, but there is a need to drive down the carbon consumption of the existing property estate across the UK – 80% of the built environment we’ll have in 2050 already exists, according to UKGBC.

Underlining this are a number of government policies. The UK ‘Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener’ sets out measures for decarbonising the UK economy to achieve the net zero target by 2050. The vast majority of councils have set their own net zero ambitions, as have the devolved nations, with the Scottish Government committing to reaching net zero by 2045 – albeit, 2030’s interim target of 75% was recently scrapped.

Housing will be critical to reaching these targets: the UK’s 29 million homes account for 16% of total carbon emissions and our housing stock is widely considered to be the oldest in Europe. With that in mind, the UK Climate Change Committee wants all social homes to reach EPC band C by 2028, while the Scottish Government has also established an Energy Efficiency Standard for Social Housing (EESSH), for which the second milestone (EESSH2) is all social housing meeting EPC band B by 2033.

The scale of the challenge is huge. However, there are further complexities beyond the sheer number of homes that need to be improved. The recent increases in energy prices have intensified fuel poverty concerns: almost 30% of households in England and an estimated 39% of households in Scotland are now considered to be in fuel poverty. This means that introducing ‘clean’ technologies to enhance EPC ratings for existing housing stock is insufficient – we also need to get people out of fuel poverty by helping them to drive down energy consumption.

To achieve this, design solutions typically follow a ‘fabric first’ approach. This involves enhancing the u-value of the properties through external wall lining, windows, doors and roof/cavity insulation. Our experience suggests this will take a house most, if not all, of the way to an EPC band B rating, depending on the condition and construction of the existing building.

A fabric first approach achieves the dual objective of driving down energy costs for the occupant and reducing impact on the environment. But it is no panacea in itself – although a meaningful step forward, it does not result in a net zero position. Further interventions will still be required, either in the form of renewable technologies or more disruptive building modifications.

We have supported ambitious plans to turn the roll-out of whole-house retrofit works into more considered, area-based regeneration. This recognises that, along with the visual improvement of the buildings, wider placemaking and landscaping interventions can significantly enhance what are often tired and run-down housing estates. Social landlords can then capitalise on the opportunity to improve the living standards of an entire district and wrap wider community engagement into the project.

There are, inevitably, practical challenges that also need to be considered with this approach. The phasing and related logistics of undertaking significant works to a live development needs careful planning and control, while the mixed tenure nature of many social housing estates creates legal, funding and governance complexities.

The introduction of this ambitious requirement for whole-house retrofit works also has considerable supply chain implications. The scale of the works that will be required to achieve the policy objectives stretch beyond existing market capacity for material supplies, installation teams and suitably experienced contractors.

The drive towards net zero has created a substantial challenge to which the construction and housing sectors need to respond. Taking the right approach is going to be critical to untangling what is an incredibly complex area – one that is critical to not only achieving policy objectives, but improving the lives of tenants across the country too.

Zander Muego is partner at Thomas & Adamson

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