Developing for the Future: On the healthy benefits of green building

New sustainable building regulations present an opportunity to address and improve other aspects of property design, says Olga Turner of sustainability and well-being consultancy Ekkist

The Committee on Climate Change recently published a report titled UK Housing: fit for the future which sparked debate across the industry regarding the property industry’s responsibility for carbon emissions, skills and training, and the delivery of high quality housing which improves our “health, wellbeing and comfort”. 

The five key points raised in the report were around performance and compliance, focussing on the ways in which new homes are built and existing ones retrofitted, (which often falls short of design standards); the skills gap, whereby there is a shortage of low-carbon construction skills across designers, builders and installers in the industry; third, the need for retrofitting existing homes, of which there are 29 million which could all contribute to a reduction in carbon emissions, even with minor changes and upgrades to existing systems; fourth, the need for building new homes which are low-carbon (through current plans for building 1.5 million new homes by 2022); and finally, finance and funding, to address the urgent need for green mortgages, green loans and to help finance the upfront costs of these changes. 

Primarily, the report declared that UK homes are simply not fit for the future: “greenhouse gas emission reductions from UK housing have stalled, and efforts to adapt the housing stock for higher temperatures, flooding and water scarcity are falling far behind the increase in risk from the changing climate”, the report claimed. Furthermore, it stressed that “the quality, design and use of homes across the UK must be improved now to address the challenges of climate change” and to improve health, wellbeing and comfort. 

The architectural professional reacted by highlighting that architects need to play a pivotal role in ensuring all five priorities can be actioned and that “architects must begin to take responsibility for their actions and take the challenge of climate change seriously” (Andrew Waugh Thistleton commented in the Architects Journal).

Brian Berry, Chief Executive of the Federation of Master Builders, responded that “if the government wants to be ‘more green’, it should focus instead on retrofitting the more than 24 million homes that have already been built and which account for around one fifth of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions” as “this will not only help reduce the UK’s carbon footprint but will also tackle the scourge of fuel poverty.”

This is an opportunity for us to not only tackle the questions of carbon emissions, but to also improve our health well-being through improvements to the way in which we design and build our homes

However, I was spurred by the report to consider the symbiotic relationship which can be struck between low carbon materials and strategies that can also benefit our health and wellbeing: often, the two go very well hand in hand. For example, many low-carbon or even carbon-storing materials such as timber and clay which are widely used in construction also have health and well-being benefits. This is an opportunity for us to not only tackle the questions of carbon emissions, but to also improve our health well-being through improvements to the way in which we design and build our homes. There is significant cross over between materials and design strategies which are good for our health and the environment: we need only to look to the recent report highlighting the crossover between the WELL Building Standard and BREEAM (estimated to be over 25%) to see that the scope here is huge for a win-win scenario. 

I recently attended a parliamentary debate raised by Jim Shannon MP on the cost of unhealthy homes to the NHS, which is currently estimated at around £2.5m, where there was a huge cross over highlighted between poor quality, low energy efficiency buildings and those which negatively impact our health. If we can improve not only the ways in which we heat our homes and make them greener and more efficient, but also the ways in which we analyse the lifecycle and impact of the materials we use (including both their carbon footprint and impact on our health), we will not only tackle the carbon question but also improve our health and well-being. This would lead to greater productivity, reduced costs to the health service and also lower carbon emissions: a much more rounded goal for the construction industry. 

The energy consumption of a completed building shouldn’t become the main focus for this debate

It was also interesting to see a call for an end to all gas-powered homes by 2025 in the report in order to reduce carbon emissions and similar fast-acting carbon-reduction suggestions. However, the energy consumption of a completed building shouldn’t become the main focus for this debate: the embodied carbon in the overall design and build process is far, far greater. Energy efficiency is, of course, crucial to reducing our carbon footprint. However, designing a hyper-efficient building must not come at the expense of other parts of the process. A carbon consultant once described a project to me where the carbon footprint of upgrading from double to triple glazing in a building’s specification had a higher overall lifetime carbon footprint due to the inherent carbon cost of producing the additional glazing – far more than the finished building would ever save. This is one such example where we must be careful consider the entire lifecycle of the building.

A holistic view of the energy consumption of a building over its lifetime is critical, and assessments should consider the overall design, manufacturing, construction and disposal processes, as well as their impact on the environment, our health and carbon emissions. 


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