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Taking the Pulse of Social Housing Construction

Designing, building and managing social housing is complex and multifaceted, and even more so against a changing dynamic of safety standards, housing demand, environmental targets and build quality. To explore the current challenges facing those involved in social housing construction, John Harris, Head of Sales – Housing at Wienerberger, unpacks the manufacturer’s latest research.


2020 brought change in many ways and the social housing sector was no different. What’s more, forthcoming policy and regulatory changes, a drive to be more sustainable, the demand for affordable housing increasing – and of course, a global pandemic – the challenges faced by those in the sector became even more intricate and multidimensional.

To understand these evolving challenges and, importantly, how they can be overcome, in late 2020, we completed an in-depth study with 150 decision-makers in the social housing sector to better understand their priorities, problems and what the future looks like.

The pathway to sustainability

Within our research, the environmental performance of social housing was one of the biggest causes for concern. Although the targets set by Government to reduce the carbon emissions from buildings to just a fraction of what they were in 2018 by 2050 felt somewhat ambitious to many involved, most respondents were more apprehensive that the pathway to reaching these figures is currently unknown.

In fact, nine in 10 social housing construction professionals surveyed said the sector needs new guidelines from the Government if it’s to meet sustainability targets. Delving deeper, this need, many respondents felt, was due to a lack of understanding in the sector around what constitutes a sustainable home and how best to build to reduce carbon consumption.

Respondents were also concerned around timescales, with 88% agreeing that the sector cannot wait for the pending Decarbonisation Fund and Decent Homes Standard review to define how it is going to become more sustainable – it needs this detail now.

Summing up the problem, Nick Gornall, Head of Development at Great Places Housing Group, who was involved in the research, said: “The industry has no guidance on the standard of products that will be required to meet the targets, so we don’t know if the housing stock we’re building or the changes we’re making to existing stock will be good enough to meet future sustainability standards.”

While concerned about the lack of clarity, those involved felt that with a clear, strategic and collaborative approach, reaching these targets is doable. “The industry has time,” said Phil Pemberton, Director of Asset Strategy and Delivery at Riverside. “It just needs a strategic plan for how to get there.”

Overhauling ownership

Within the research, another Government target causing sleepless nights is how to create 300,000 new homes per year by 2025. Over half of the social housing experts in our study said that as with sustainability, a lot more centralised guidance and support is required if the sector is going to meet this ambition.

Before COVID, it seems the industry was on the right track, with the number of new homes built at an 11-year high in June 2019. Yet with lockdowns causing some housebuilders to down tools or be short on contractors, and as the eviction ban lifts increasing the demand for affordable housing, the gulf between supply and what’s available is only likely to widen.

In our research, this thought was echoed, especially by architects who felt that 300,000 should be the minimum to cater for this new and historic housebuilding deficit.

Exploring the causes of housebuilding delays, planning was commonly cited, with respondents calling for reform to speed up the construction process and to make it quicker to access land in the right places.

While the recent loosening of permitted development rights may have helped with this process, the inquiry launched in March 2021 to examine the change in policy may see an end to the relaxation that allows further development of housing blocks and change of use from offices to homes.

As part of the research, stakeholders also stated that alternative tenures should be better explored. “The majority of housing is delivered by the private sector on a homeownership basis and responds to ‘demand’,” said Mark Murphy, Land, Planning & Development Director at developer MLN. Shared ownership and affordable rent, for example, would help to broaden options for consumers. Similarly, offsite construction represents a more responsive and faster way to meet demand.

Echoing the need for a change in tenure, Michael Swiszczowski, Director at architectural practice, Chapman Taylor, added: “We’re focusing too much on people buying homes. We need to start viewing build-to-rent as a viable approach – a more liberal and European attitude towards rental will help us.”

Size, style and substance

As well as agreeing on a need to overhaul our approach to housing in the UK, those surveyed also shared a belief that quality standards, energy performance and our understanding of what makes a ‘decent’ home need to be reviewed.

Echoing Nick Gornall’s view that the industry has no guidance on the standard of products required to meet the targets, Swiszczowski feels the focus is too much on size, rather than an outcome-led approach to design. Instead, he feels we should be constructing buildings based on “how the building will be for the person who ends up living in it”.

To meet the challenges of quality, quantity as well as sustainability, our findings were unanimous: collaboration is needed across organisations and disciplines. “We need to look down the supply chain – everyone needs to step up…early conversations need to happen more,” added Michael.

As we emerge from the pandemic and ahead of the publishing of the revised Decent Homes Standards and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy decarbonisation research, the sector mustn’t rest on its laurels. Instead, it must take a proactive approach, setting the standard for Government to follow.

Armed with mutual thinking and shared goals, our findings suggested we will be able to move homes beyond ‘decent’ to good and even great, as well as explore new construction methodologies, products and solutions. Likewise, engaging the whole supply chain, including manufacturers, can go a long way in creating better quality, more sustainable homes for residents.

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