Where is the UK’s sustainable housing?

Where is the UK's sustainable housing - Candid Orange

By Maud Webster

The UK is home to plenty of examples of sustainable housing, from single small-builds to whole housing schemes. So why do we still see development that is environmentally unsustainable, socially unsustainable, or often both, continue to pop up?

As we plunge deeper into the climate crisis, and housing crisis, on top of rising economic inequality, it is paramount that we build sustainably in all respects. 

There are roughly 29 million homes in the UK, and a major conservative pledge in the 2015 and 2017 general elections was to build another 1.5 million before 2022, to sustain a growing population. And therefore, it’s important that as large a chunk as possible of these houses are affordable. Though COVID-19 likely put a dent in these commitments, there are still swathes of housing projects commencing at the moment. But most of these just aren’t sustainable. 

Architects are aware of how they can make their projects sustainable. A plethora of research has delved into both how to effectively retrofit existing homes to make them more environmentally friendly, and how to build new sustainable homes. A 2019 report by the Committee on Climate Change highlights the importance of materials, utility considerations and, efficient site planning when ensuring we meet housing targets, yet in a sustainable manner. 

Practices have many times proved beautiful, sustainable, and relatively affordable housing is possible; take Mikhail-Riches for example, famed for their 2019 Stirling Prize winner Goldsmith Street in Norwich, and who have recently unveiled plans for the largest Passivhaus scheme in the country. It’s crucial to note that whilst environmental sustainability is crucial, so too is social sustainability. 

Greedy developers

So why are we not seeing more sustainable design? Largely, it is due to profit-hungry developers, who will cut corners to reduce outgoing costs as much as they possibly can, consequently milking the housing crisis. Though physical elements of environmental housing – double glazing, good insulation, sustainable materials, solar panels, etc. – save residents money in the long-term, they cost a lot to include from the get-go, which encourages developers to skimp.

If we consider social sustainability we can look to the provision of affordable housing. Developers can exploit the planning system, which weakly requests a certain percentage of constructed homes (35 – 50% depending on the local authority) be designated for affordable housing, by claiming this would make their development commercially unviable. Corporations can maximise projected outgoings to suggest their buildings are much less profitable than they actually are. This is what the Berkeley Group, one of the UK’s leading house building companies, has done. They contributed roughly 3500 homes in 2017 alone, helping to add to over £3bn profit (over eight years); at the same time, they reduced the amount of affordable housing within their developments in London, arguing the local authority’s requests weren’t viable. This quickly leads to many developers ducking out of a responsibility to provide affordable housing, even if they can financially afford it – a loophole only resulting in more socially unsustainable development. 

Does our government care?

The government is majorly overhauling the current (admittedly, pretty shit) planning system. But their proposed policy changes introduced last summer threaten to send us in the wrong direction. The 2020 ‘Planning White Paper’ constitutes a radical move to remove the focus from the time-consuming but democratic planning application system. It splits areas into ‘protected’, ‘renewal’, and ‘growth’ zones. Development is still possible in the first two, but with some limitations. 

However, in ‘growth’ zones, proposals will automatically be granted if compliant with design codes and fit certain regulations (yet unclear); hypothetically, this will make it really easy for developers’ plans to bypass scrutiny, and may mean new development imposed in the UK will not take into account the architectural specificity of environmental and social contexts. The Town and Country Planning Association expressed concerns that the proposals do not prioritise climate change. How social sustainability and thriving neighbourhoods will translate from policy into practice appears dubious.

To most, these policies seem pretty dull, and it’s easy to not care about them, especially as the documents are (intentionally) hard to engage with. However, if we ignore and let these proposals slip right into practice, we’re going to be seeing some pretty dull, unsustainable, and even destructive developments quickly pop up around our cities. 

Is there hope?

Yes! It’s not all bad; many progressive architectural practices have some impressive projects in the works as you read this article. The aforementioned firm Mikhail-Riches have recently been awarded approval for a 600-home, net-zero carbon housing programme in York, set to become the largest Passivhaus scheme in the country. Passivhaus is a standard of building design, which demonstrates a building relies on very little energy for temperature regulation, which results in cheaper bills and less reliance on environmentally damaging energy sources. If delivered well, the York scheme has the potential to propel enthusiasm and belief back into affordable, attractive, socially sustainable, and environmentally-friendly housing. 

Visualisations published in the Architects Journal show a mixture of low-rise and high-density terrace housing, with a mixture of private and public outdoor space. Martin Fulcher for AJ comments:

“It will encourage ‘genuine low-carbon lifestyles’ by integrating sustainable modes of transport, biodiverse landscapes, spaces for growing fruit and vegetables, and sustainable drainage systems.”

Good architecture considers the lifestyles of its users. If situated well, architecture can remove reliance on the car, or even promote an anti-car agenda, by pedestrianising streets and reducing car parking availability. This appears to be the plan for the York scheme, pushing car-parking to the perimeter of the site and creating dynamic and walkable spaces. 

Despite the best intentions of our current government, and the ignorance of many large developers purely interested in procuring profit out of unsustainable and ugly developments, projects like Mikail-Riches’ in York provide us hope for the coming decades of sustainable design. Hopefully soon, we won’t celebrate those who build sustainably, but instead condemn those who don’t.

Image courtesy of Maud Webster.