The UK desperately needs more homes and nowhere more so than in affordable housing.
So should the social housing sector readily embrace the government’s August planning reforms – billed as the biggest shake-up of planning for decades are designed to push through the construction of more than 300,000 houses a year?
The proposals would see planning applications that match pre-approved “design codes” getting an automatic green light and thereby cutting out any need for local oversight in pre-designated zones.
Whilst the Government has promised that the green belt and any areas of outstanding natural beauty would remain protected, what has not been discussed, is the quality of housing to be built.
And this is exactly one of the areas that a new podcast with architect and TV presenter George Clarke focuses on, as the outspoken celebrity lets his views be known about the quality, or lack of it, in many of today’s modern houses.
In George’s own words: “It all seems bonkers to me!”
Modern construction methods
George has been a strong advocate of heat pumps for a few years now and we’ve made a series of podcasts which focus on the need for sustainable methods of construction and better design for UK homes.
In the podcasts, I talk openly with George about housing, design, Modern Methods of Construction and the future of energy-efficient and sustainable homes for social housing.
I hope you find them easy listening and as anyone who has seen George’s TV shows will know, he’s a natural conversationalist.
What also helps is how candid he can be about the current methods of housebuilding in the UK – how archaic and backward it is, and how it’s time for change.
A wet history
The way homes have been built over the last two thousand years shows clearly why building materials are used the way they are and why we still have so many wet trades.
Very early building materials were essentially natural but perishable, such as leaves, branches and soil. Later, materials were still taken from the land, but these became more durable with the use of stone, clay and bricks.
Most of these either needed water to be manufactured in the first place or they required wet bonding materials, such as mortar, to join them together.
Wet trades have been used to the benefit of construction for thousands of years. Even the Romans created new forms of architecture because of their advancements in very early cement and concrete technology.
But what is amazing here at the beginning of the 21st Century is that the basic process has hardly changed a lot since those Roman days.
The process of how we build new homes, and the number of wet trades we still use, make the whole process unbelievably slow and inefficient.
Slow and slower
If you stop and think about it for a moment and look at the processes involved, you can see just how ridiculous it is.
First, we dig a trench and we pour concrete foundations that takes a lot of water and drying time.
We then lay blocks and bricks to build walls up to eaves height. This takes a lot of sand and cement and a lot of water and drying time.
Only when we get these walls up can we put the roof on. In this country, with our weather, we need to get the roof on as quickly as possible. But, it takes ages.
Even then we aren’t wind and water tight yet because we are waiting for the windows to arrive on site.
And then the wet trades continue...
Wet, wet, wet
Concrete floor slabs are poured after the foundation walls pop up past ground level.
Wet sand and cement screeds are poured onto the slabs when the roof is on.
We plaster walls after first fix plumbing and electrics trying to get the walls to look as smooth as a manufactured board.
We bond tiles in bathrooms and wet grout them together.
We get painters and decorators to put multiple coats of paint on walls and ceilings, while there is still dust in the air from all the other work going on around them – multiple traders on top of each other all trying to do lots of things at the same time in the rush and panic to get a house built and sold as quickly as possible to meet the demand.
Every wet trade taking a lot of time to finish and dry.
All happening on a messy building site in the Great British outdoors where you can have four seasons in one day!
Add in the fact that there is a massive skills shortage in the construction industry at the moment and we literally don’t have the number of skilled trades to build the number and quality of homes we need.
As George Clarke has said many times: “It all seems bonkers to me!”
A better way
We need to build new social housing that will last 100 years or more and we need to do it in a new zero carbon way. So let’s imagine a different way of building a house.
Let’s imagine there is a beautiful factory where homes can be built in a very safe, clean, tidy and protected environment.
Let’s imagine a fantastically efficient supply chain where all of the products needed to put a house together arrive bang on time when you need them.
Imagine a home that is designed and engineered to the highest possible manufacturing standards after a rigorous period of research, development and testing.
Imagine homes that are life transforming and make us feel healthy and happy.
Imagine homes that a super eco-friendly, zero carbon, insulated way beyond the current building regulations and have the very best renewable energy products integrated into them and not just bolted on as an afterthought.
Imagine a factory floor full of highly skilled operatives and engineers of all ages, sexes, abilities and disabilities brilliantly working together on a carefully co-ordinated production line.
Imagine 3 x 8 hour shifts so the factory was working at capacity 24 hours a day to meet the nation’s demand for the very best homes.
Imagine a fully finished home rolling off the end of the production line with no defects or snags whatsoever. The highest quality home, in all respects, that the UK Advanced Manufacturing industry has built in the most efficient and productive way imaginable.
Renewable and sustainable
Now imagine those homes turning up on site with renewable heat pumps already built-in, able to quickly be plumbed in so that the sustainable heating can be switched on as soon as the electrics are connected.
Imagine the PV panels on the factory-built roof, ready to power the home as soon as the individual modules are connected together. Imagine these linking with home battery storage units to help charge our electric cars and heating.
Imagine the home built to factory-guaranteed standards and imagine all of these new build homes being zero carbon and zero net energy homes
Imagine each house going up in weeks instead of months, so that whole streets can spring up quickly in sustainable neighbourhoods that are well designed around people and the environment, rather than the gas, guzzling car.
That’s part of the vision this series of podcasts where George Clarke reminisces about growing up in a beautifully designed council estate in the North and berates the sale of council houses without allowing for their replacement as the biggest disaster and national scandal in the history of the British housing system.
Max Halliwell is communications manager for Heating and Ventilation