The balancing act of Net Zero

  • Industry Viewpoint

  • Industry Viewpoint

As the UK races towards its ambitious 2050 net zero emissions targets, the housing sector finds itself at the heart of a complex challenge - how do we create a built environment that is climate resilient, affordable, and supports the health and wellbeing of occupants?

It's a delicate balance, but one that industry leaders and policymakers are grappling with head-on. In a recent panel discussion at Futurebuild, thought leaders from across the construction sector shared their insights on navigating this tightrope.

Decarbonising the Built Environment

The harsh reality is that homes are being built each year that will require future retrofitting. This is a worrying trend, as not building in energy efficiency from the outset is a missed opportunity. This was echoed by Catherine Adams, Director of Building Systems and Net Zero, Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), who stated, “It's our role to incentivise and normalise net zero approaches to construction and retrofit to ensure that the houses built now are fit for future generations,”

The panel stressed the importance of taking a holistic view that encompasses not just energy efficiency and emissions, but also the wider impacts on people's lives. As Rosalie Callway, Healthy Homes Campaign Leader, Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) said, “We've got a growing body of academic evidence that shows the links between the quality of the built environment and occupant health outcomes.” She highlighted a report by the BRE in 2021 which found that 2.6 million homes in England (11%) in 2021 were of poor quality and even hazardous to occupants, resulting in costs to the NHS of at least £1.4 billion every year.

Rosalie Callway said: “When we're thinking about energy efficiency, it's not just thinking about the insulation, or the kind of fuel used to heat the home - it's about taking a holistic, systems-level view that considers factors like ventilation as well.”

Affordable, healthy homes for all

Affordability has long been a major pain point in the housing sector, and the experts agreed that any net zero strategy must keep this firmly in focus. Clearly, creating a sustainable future that's only accessible to the wealthy is out of the question. "Affordability should be at the centre of policy making." said Cara Pacitti, Senior Economist at the The Resolution Foundation. “We have challenges in terms of housing supply and affordability that are stacked up alongside the other very real sustainability challenges we have discussed.”

This means rethinking everything from planning regulations and construction methods to finance models and occupant engagement. The panel stressed the need to understand people's needs and barriers at a granular level.

Building resilience through design

But affordability is only half the battle. Panellists also emphasised the critical importance of designing homes that can withstand the impacts of climate change - from extreme weather events to rising temperatures.

"We need to be science-led. We need to understand the world and an environment we're building for and take early action to prepare for it. We're facing hotter, drier summers; warmer, wetter winters. We are going to have much less water," said Ed Lockhart, CEO of the Future Homes Hub. “Science helps us navigate what’s really important and how quickly we need to act.”

Lockhart's organisation is spearheading a long-term delivery plan to help the homebuilding sector meet ambitious sustainability, affordability, and quality targets. "We need to have one plan. We need to all work together within the sustainability community and align ourselves with home builders, manufacturers, financiers, local government, central government to have a single plan for change."

A collaborative, human-centric approach

Ultimately, the experts agreed that achieving net zero housing while balancing climate resilience, affordability and wellbeing will require a fundamentally new way of thinking and working.

It would appear that it’s going to take unprecedented collaboration across government, industry, and communities. But if we get it right, the benefits will be transformative - not just for the environment and the planet, but for the health and prosperity of people everywhere.

Author: Simon Radcliffe

Senior Copywriter

Contact Simon Radcliffe

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