Insights article

Sustainability in housing and why it is important

Sebastian Weise
Published: 21/03/2023

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The UK has a legal target to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. The housing sector and more widely real estate is a major contributor to global emissions. Therefore, sustainability in housing is an essential tool in combating global warming, reducing our environmental footprint, and providing housing for people that meets national benchmarks for a liveable environment.

Sustainable homes incorporate energy efficient technologies, building materials, and maximise natural site features, such as lighting and ventilation, to minimise waste and its impact on the surrounding environment. As part of the government’s plan to achieve netzero by 2050, sustainability in housing is a key objective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

What does 'sustainability in housing' mean?

The built environment generates 40 percent of all global CO2 emissions. Thirteen percent of that total figure is attributed to existing building infrastructure, materials, and construction. In the UK, housing emissions are estimated to be 8.1 tonnes of CO2, per household, per year. With the government having committed to achieving net zero by 2050, we still face a monumental challenge in terms of reducing our carbon footprint and making housing more sustainable.

Sustainability in housing refers to homes that have been designed and constructed with the environment in mind. These homes usually use renewable and sustainable materials throughout their construction process, feature energy-saving systems, recycle waste materials, and are built with minimal environmental impact.

Sustainability in housing is accomplished through installing systems that use smart technology to monitor energy consumption, allowing residents to make decisions about heating and cooling and the impact on their energy costs.

Beyond that, sustainability of a development can also be affected by good urban design, by the way the layout supports active travel, encourages use of outdoor spaces. This can be supported by well-founded site selection criteria. For example, active modes of transport are more likely in places with a good mix of land uses nearby. 

Sustainably built homes are easier to sell. Government mandated energy ratings are used by discerning buyers to decide which house they will bid on. Having an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) that's rated green (bands A-C) is likely to appeal to prospective buyers. Tenants make similar decisions, knowing that houses with low energy ratings will lead to greater energy costs. 

The many benefits of sustainability in housing

Sustainability in housing offers numerous advantages. Not only are homes more energy efficient, they use fewer resources in construction, help protect our natural environment and contribute to its preservation.

Eco-friendly house construction emphasises energy efficiency with features such as sealed attics, solar panels, low emissivity windows, closed foam insulation, and creative framing strategies. Sustainable homes also often reduce water consumption through efficient piping systems and high-efficiency equipment—with energy efficiency contributing to cheaper utility bills.

Another advantage of sustainability in housing is durability and, as a result, lower maintenance requirements. More than just a comfortable space to live in, these homes are often also healthier and safer than traditional buildings due to the use of less toxic materials used during development.

Creating more eco-friendly houses is a growing trend, with many property developers striving to meet higher sustainability standards for new builds. Builders understand the appeal of houses with high energy ratings. They are also committed to net zero targets and want their new build housing to use renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuels which emit greenhouse gases, increase our carbon footprint, and impact the global climate.

Greener homes not only reduce operational expenses, but they are more desirable to potential buyers as well, and are becoming more and more popular with developers who are taking advantage of government schemes to increase efficiency and provide modern, sustainable housing.

What are different strategies to support sustainability in housing?

New build programmes increasingly adopt ‘green-schemes’ 

Developers are taking various steps to make their projects more sustainable. Some of these involve green-schemes, which aim to reduce the environmental impact of built environment projects and utilise measures that involve energy-saving initiatives.

Some of these projects are mandated by governments, while others are voluntary. Regardless, all are designed to create more eco-friendly buildings and communities. Cala Homes, for instance, have announced a sustainability strategy to achieve net zero in 2030.

In addition to government support, such as the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, numerous organisations have developed standards and certifications that motivate builders to utilise green building practices, including their practical application to existing builds.

Housing associations and councils facilitate large-scale retrofit projects

Sustainability in housing doesn’t just apply to new builds. Many existing homes in the UK do not meet modern benchmarks for a sustainable living environment. 

As large residential land lords, housing associations play a significant role in transitioning their housing to achieve the government's NetZero objectives. For example, Karbon Homes, a large land lord in the North east, announced a £2.5m retrofit programme

To help achieve net zero and improve sustainability in housing, the UKGBC (United Kingdom Green Building Council) has announced partnerships with six leading organisations to assess the scale of government investment needed to reduce emissions through retrofit projects. This alliance includes Clarion Housing Group, E.ON, Greater London Authority, HTA, Lendology CIC, and SE2.

Leading the way, Cornwall Council is already working towards achieving net zero by 2030, and has committed a £4.2 million project, known as ‘Whole House Retrofit Innovation’ to see radical improvements made to council owned property. Beginning with the 83 lowest performing homes, in terms of energy efficiency, Cornwall Council will install loft, external wall and underfloor insulations, as well as solar panels, improved ventilation, and ground source heating as part of their major sustainability in housing campaign.

Private home owners 

Sustainability in housing doesn’t just apply to new builds. Many existing homes in the UK do not meet modern benchmarks for a sustainable living environment. 

Retrofitting energy saving and other devices, as well as renewable energy sources such as solar or battery storage can be used to make a difference in any existing home. Likewise, increasing energy efficiency through better insulation, replacing incandescent light bulbs with LEDs, or installing smart windows, retrofitting modern technologies into your property can go a long way to making your home a smarter place to live.

Bigger projects, such as the user of solar panels, not only reduce carbon emissions, but will also save residents money on energy bills in the long run. As for consumption, your existing Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) is a great indicator of how much energy your property is currently using.

For England and Wales, the UK government has generated a tool to find out suggested improvements, the likely investment and repayment costs. This is here: 

The role of EPCs within sustainability in housing

EPC means energy performance certificate. EPCs are legal documents that assign an energy efficiency rating for your property. Ratings range from 'A' to 'G', depending on factors like insulation, heating system, and controls installed in the building. Since 2008, providing a new build or conversion with an EPC has been a legal requirement in the UK. 

The legal requirement for EPCs still originates from European legislation. Therefore, the practice of assigning EPCs for newly built or sold houses is also common in most European countries.  

For home owners and landlords, an EPC also indicates the potential improved energy rating if specified improvements to a home are made, which could help save money on bills. Energy-efficient properties use less fuel for heating and lighting, thus using fewer resources for their operation.

New build properties tend to be more energy efficient than their older counterparts (there are also government mandated and legal minimum requirements for new builds), due to the fact that they have been designed with higher standards and utilise efficient heat sources. This reduces the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, leading to a less detrimental impact on the environment. In fact, a recent survey into the efficiency of new builds found that 84 percent of properties developed between October and December 2021 were scored as either ‘A’ or ‘B’.

Generally, when looking at EPC data for a development, it’s important to be aware of the many limitations of EPCs. EPCs are often established on the basis of a site visit by an assessor, but sometimes they are also applied without a site visit, based on knowledge of other similar properties nearby. EPC records are still of general use as a yardstick for for investment programmes or potential home improvements. 

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