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James Parker looks at the roadmap to the homes of the future

With all of the depressing news around at present, it’s heartening (and important for your general equilibrium) to focus on some positives from time to time.

This month, let’s look at the first fruits of the new Future Homes Task Force and Future Homes Hub – set up in 2020 as a cross-industry group to initially develop a Delivery Plan to help push the industry towards our daunting 2050 net zero carbon goal.

While the words ‘Task Force’ and ‘Hub’ might strike a muffled note of disappointment in cynics’ hearts, the overall goal is so important that we need to assess this new effort on its outcomes – and the recently published delivery plan gives the first signs.

The grouping is certainly high-powered, if perhaps lacking on a few key housebuilders – Barratts are there in the form of CEO David Thomas, as is Lord Kerslake of Peabody, alongside heavy hitters like Stephen Kinsella of Homes England, Victoria Hills of the Royal Town Planning Institute, and Mike Chaldecott, chief executive of Saint-Gobain.

There are also luminaries on the Task Force like Julie Hirigoyen of the UK Green Building Council, Emma Howard Boyd of the Environment Agency, and Neil Jefferson, once of the Zero Carbon Hub, and its late lamented 2016 zero carbon housing target.

What we need now is some firm guidelines and direct financial support, and that can only come from government

James Parker James Parker Editor of Housebuilder & Developer

A living roadmap

You may have guessed – the theme of the delivery plan is collaboration across the supply chain, to encompass “all” of housebuilding – and the Task Force has produced a Road Map to deliver this necessary carbon reduction across what is a complex and often challenged sector, termed a ‘living document,’ i.e. one that’s subject to change.

Whether or not that map actually amounts to signposts and deadlines as opposed to actual ‘how to’ measures, is perhaps one of those things that is up for discussion.

The Road Map is divided into separate streams for performance in use, planning and ‘site design,’ ‘production and construction,’ and ‘sustainable business.’

The ‘production and construction’ section looks particularly interesting, and impactful, if its deliverables actually come to fruition.

Unlike the Future Homes Standard, it explicitly includes embodied carbon in products, and aims to begin a programme of introducing ‘environmental product declarations’ (EPDs) for all products on embodied carbon from next year.

It also looks at how the plan itself might clash with the FSH, which seems a sensible if not a challenging pair of requirements, to name just two.

Carrots and sticks

An alliance of trade bodies called the ‘Broadway Initiative,’ has been set to help business leaders and Government work towards carbon goals, using ‘carrots and sticks’ to ‘make sustainability mainstream.’

It appears to be an engine behind the Task Force, its co-chair being Edward Lockhart-Mummery who runs the Broadway Initiative, but is this layer cake of think tanks actually resulting in digestible, nourishing carbon ‘deliverables’ for housebuilders?

New independent land agency Walter Cooper & Co, for one, has offered warm words of welcome to the Task Force’s delivery plan, as a potential game-changer: “Its intentions are great, and I wholeheartedly hope this does mark a point of change in the industry in creating sustainable homes for all.”

This is claimed to be the first time the sector has not only produced an industry-wide plan covering sustainability, but also which offers a “clear set of delivery proposals.” So says the Task Force, anyway.

Further clarity is needed

The delivery aims are clear, but any sign of prescription for how the industry can achieve them is as yet hard to find.

Walter Cooper cautions that “further clarity is needed on whether environmentally friendly materials and methods of construction are to be offered to developers at an affordable level to avoid passing on any costly premiums to the end consumer.”

The firm believes that if housebuilders find that it’s prohibitively expensive for their profit expectations, they will likely revert back to “cheaper, more traditional methods and environmental targets will continue to not be met.”

And, if the Delivery Plan morphs into legal requirement, “then the market needs to assist developers in being able to provide these changes in an economical way.”

With the housing sector, as well as consumers, wanting to find sustainable development solutions, says Walter Cooper. The industry and government “need to find a way to make this financially viable for all without bolting on a huge premium to the consumer.”

A tokenistic move?

Despite all the positive signs, the firm’s suggestion that it could be a tokenistic “political move,” is concerning.

It poses the question of whether “implementing some of these changes to, say, three developments throughout a housebuilder’s UK-wide portfolio of schemes will be enough to tick this eco box?”

This ‘do the minimum’ approach occurred when the Code for Sustainable Homes pushed for carbon zero,” says Walter Cooper.

Part of avoiding this is for the plan to be “agile and responsive,” says the firm. The overall approach of the Task Force to producing some meaningful changes in housebuilding, namely a truly multi-disciplinary one, has to be the right one.

What we need now is some firm guidelines on implementing this within builders’ businesses, as well as direct financial support to offset the inevitable cost hikes, and that can only come from government.

To me, to you

However it seems like this may be being handed back to housebuilders. At a summit in early 2020, the Task Force agreed that only by the industry genuinely taking a collaborative approach could the essential, urgent progress be made.

But also, that developers were “best placed to understand the process of innovation and change,” and they should be the ones to “adopt a leadership position in taking the plan forward.”

The industry may well have fed into the development of the delivery plan, aided perhaps by the Covid hiatus, leading to them buying into its aims.

But currently, how involved are they in actually implementing the plan; and what does that implementation look like?

With progress needed now, I’d be delighted to hear from you, if you have any inside information!

James Parker is editor of Housebuilder & Developer