Editor of Refurb Projects, Carole Titmuss reports on a seminar that saw TV presenter George Clarke call for a radical change in the way we build homes.

Last month, I joined around 200 other delegates at Mitsubishi Electric’s Hatfield headquarters to listen to architect and TV presenter George Clarke explain why he thinks we simply have to change the way we build homes here in the UK.

And with news headlines on a recent report from Housing charity Shelter, calling for 3 million new social homes over the next 20 years to solve the "housing crisis", then Mr Clarke’s call for change seems especially timely.

Construction has remained the same for centuries

Carole Titmuss Refurb projects Carole Titmuss Editor of Refurb Projects magazine

The need for change

Under the heading of ‘Transforming the Housing Technology Mindset’, the conference saw industry experts argue for a revolution in the housebuilding sector, with Mr Clarke calling for a change in building regulations so that: “every single new build house comes with a heat pump as standard, and everyone has triple glazing, as standard.”

He treated the room to a brief history of why he is so passionate about high quality homes, both in terms of design and energy efficiency and railed against the traditional way that we build the majority of homes in the UK.

Construction methods have fundamentally remained the same for centuries with Mr Clarke describing modern house building as still being done ‘like the Romans’.

He referred to the government report released in 1997 which was called ‘modernise or die’ and highlighted how almost all other aspects of our life have seen such as dramatic pace of change and revolution.

“Unfortunately, the housing technology market has made very little progress since 1997. We need systematic change at a global, national, local and personal level to get houses to a standard they should be. It’s time for the housing revolution.

“Innovative, off-site construction of houses could deliver more quality homes, with less embedded carbon at a faster rate. Such homes would be ideal for the use of renewable technologies”, he added.

Quality as well as quantity

He was joined on the panel by founder of Buildoffsite, Nick Whitehouse, along with Mitsubishi Electric’s own experts, who gave presentations to the packed out audience comprised of housebuilders, architects, housing associations and specifiers.

Mr Whitehouse spoke about the background to Buildoffsite and focused on the high quality and speed that can be achieved with this ‘factory’ form of modular construction. 

This was echoed by George Clarke who questioned why we still build houses ‘out in the field’, when modern methods of construction could see a dramatic increase in the quality and efficiency of new homes. 

“You don't build a car outdoors in a field in the pouring rain and you don't plaster the inside of it and render the outside of,” he explained.

The time is now

Head of Sustainability at Mitsubishi Electric, Martin Fahey, spoke about the ‘greening’ of the national grid and how this makes the case for renewable heating through heat pumps much, much stronger.

“About a third of all UK carbon emissions comes from our demand for heat and produces about half of all greenhouse gases,” he said.

“Tackling the way we heat homes and ensuring that they are as efficient as possible right from the start offers a huge opportunity if we are to ever cut carbon emissions. It’s also an area that can change quickly if we simply apply the technology and the skills that already exist.”

Keep the noise down

Mitsubishi Electric’s, National Specifications Manager, Stuart Bell looked at the history of air source heat pumps and explained how a decade of investment in the company’s UK manufacturing plant had led to the latest, Ultra-Quiet Ecodan range, which not only delivers some of the highest efficiencies available, but is also one of the quietest models available on the market.

He explained that as our urban areas become more densely populated, noise levels will become increasingly important with things like permitted development placing restrictions on where a heat pump can be sited, unless they meet low sound levels.

Living with a heat pump

The event was rounded off by Communications Manager for Heating Systems, Max Halliwell who explained how easy it was living with a heat pump and highlighted comments from his family who have used an Ecodan for almost a decade now.

“My wife just likes the consistency of the heat, my son just wants lots of hot water, and for me, I love the ability of being able to monitor and control my heating from anywhere,” he said.

Mr Halliwell’s experience was highly pertinent as he has fitted an Ecodan to his 1950’s built home and, despite the urgent need for new homes – and the need to improve quality, there is also a pressing requirement for us to find ways of retro-improving the millions of homes that already exist.

George Clarke has also covered this with his previous article for Mitsubishi Electric looking at sustainable refurbishment.

For me though, the overriding message from the seminar was the need to ensure that quality and energy efficiency are at the heart of our homes, whether new or old.

Carole Titmuss is publisher and editor of Refurb Projects magazine