Karen Fletcher looks at achieving sustainable housing that meets our zero carbon needs

Housing is a big political issue. And it's usually somewhere on the list of pre-election promises offered by all of the main parties.

According to government figures, the UK has been facing a housing shortage for some time.

A BBC Housing Briefing estimates that we're about 1 million homes short of what's needed to get families off council-housing waiting lists or to allow young people to buy their own first home.

The problems of 2020 have also highlighted the need for better quality homes.

With the warning to stay at home to stay safe, many people found themselves stuck in poor housing with little access to outdoor spaces. And with winter approaching, heating costs will be an added burden for many householders.

It's going to be easier to get to 19 million heat pumps if we start sooner

Karen Fletcher Karen Fletcher Content Director of Rocket Content

Build back better

Speaking at a Chartered Institute of Housing event in September 2020, housing minister Robert Jenrick said: "We are absolutely determined to build back better and to deliver the homes we need with a comprehensive plan for a brighter future."

Progress towards the number of homes required has been slow. Between 2010 and 2019, 1.5 million homes were built; with 241,000 delivered in 2019. The reasons for slow delivery have been covered in numerous reports: lack of land; problems with planning; slow construction process.

So the government has set out an Affordable Homes Programme (with £12 billion to fund it). The aim is to deliver 180,000 affordable homes between 2021 and 2026.

A vital part of this delivery is that it includes a minimum target for the use of MMC – modern methods of construction. The hope is that this leads to faster, better delivery and helps to build skills in these new construction technologies.

The road to net zero

Of course, all of this is happening against a backdrop of the 2050 net-zero carbon emissions target.

Again, many reports have pointed to domestic heating as a significant contributor to CO2 emissions in the UK. And the government has been working on its Future Homes plan, which looks set to include the rule preventing new homes from connecting to the gas grid by 2025– driving a switch to electric heating.

The dates on those two policies demonstrate a lack of joined-up thinking.

All of those 180,000 new affordable homes targeted for 2026 could make use of modern electric heating systems such as heat pumps. Not only would this deliver an immediate dent in carbon emissions, but it would also make construction faster (no connection to the gas grid required).

What's more, using heat pumps has been shown to reduce energy costs for householders – a trifecta of benefits.

19 million heat pumps

According to the UK Heat Pump Association's 'Delivering Net Zero' report, the Committee on Climate Change says that, if we are to reduce our emissions from heating, we need to be aiming for the installation of around 19 million heat pumps between now and 2050. 

It's a mind-boggling number. And it's going to be easier to get there if we start sooner.

There are other options for low-carbon heating. Other countries in Europe use community or network heating schemes successfully.

For projects where housing may be in the form of apartments or mixed-use areas, they're particularly appropriate. But they require pre-planning and a coordinated approach, which seems sadly lacking.

The government is enticing householders with incentives to switch to low carbon heating.

That's great, of course. But a significant proportion of our older housing stock (and we have the oldest in Europe) needs better insulation (walls, roof, windows) before it's practical to apply tech such as heat pumps.

No excuses for new homes

New homes, however, are an easy win. With the government pushing for modern methods of construction such as offsite and modular, new approaches to heating are an even better option.

Much of the technology could be fitted in-factory, ready for site delivery with only electricity and water connections required.

The government views local authorities as crucial for delivering new homes. In his speech, Jenrick addressed them directly: "I urge you to seize the opportunities now at hand to help your communities recover from the pandemic by delivering not just homes, but more beautiful, sustainable, better quality homes in all parts of the country."

The sustainable element of this requires more than vision and wishful thinking.

Decarbonisation of heating needs a coordinated approach to housing and the environment - with robust legislation to ensure delivery.

Karen Fletcher is former editor of Modern Building Services and CIBSE Journal