New London Architecture

Turn attention to under-occupied homes, sustainability conference hears

Wednesday 18 September 2019

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

The UK could make serious headway into its housing crisis whilst simultaneously adhering to stringent environmental targets and improving the loneliness of older people if it could unlock millions of under-occupied homes.

So said Alex Lifschutz, director of Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands at Designing for a changing climate: towards zero-carbon London, a conference at NLA yesterday that underlined the importance of changing the ‘mindset, measuring, evaluating and maintaining’ in the battle to save the planet.
Lifschutz said the key was to adhere to the principles of ‘long life, loose fit’ as espoused by former RIBA president Alex Gordon in 1974, but particularly in the 36% of UK homes which are under-occupied. Many of the 3.6million older people who live alone are ‘locked into their homes’, Lifschutz said, because if they sell them they will get nothing on their pensions. 

‘If we’ve got these homes – if we’ve already got the loose fit, if we’ve bought the carbon – let’s use it more effectively.’  Alex Lifschutz, Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

Lifschutz pointed to the work his practice did at the Athlete’s Village in London for the Olympics, with tall buildings to accommodate just under 2000 homes and designed as flexibly as possible. And with some £35 billion spent on housing and homes every year, is government contradicting itself, he wondered. Is promoting help to buy  in fact just creating lots of small houses? ‘We’re plugging an apparent gap in homes by building lots of small ones and they’re not really answering the need’.  The biggest waste is not food or energy but inequality of space, he added, which could be improved not through punitive measures but ‘nudging people into better behaviour, and sharing a wonderful resource – which is our housing stock.’
Introducing the conference earlier, NLA’s Lara Kinneir had put issues into context by saying that over the next 40 years some 230bn sqm of development is being added– equivalent to adding another Paris every single week. ‘Is that sustainable?’, she asked. 

Building a resilient city, said Arup associate director Christopher Pountney, will need concerted action, not least because cities will be hit harder by climate change. One way of ameliorating effects, especially on urban heat islands, is to employ vegetated roofs, another increasing tree cover, while others still could include building community gardens, and Increasing permeable surfaces. ‘These are simple measures, but they are measures that need to be taken together’, he said.

As the planet heats up the number of heat-related deaths is likely to increase to 7,000 per year by 2050, equivalent to four times as many road fatalities per year. Ashley Bateson, Hoare Lea

Overheating will also have a detrimental effect on sleep, Bateson warned, and therefore of health and wellbeing, while there will be wetter winters and drier summers, with flooding impacting insurance costs – but the cost of mitigation is far less than adapting later. And why isn’t every flat roof a green roof, he asked. We also have an industry that is focused on celebrating buildings at handover, Bateson said, urging that more post-occupancy studies be carried out in the name of improving sustainability.

Sustainable can be beautiful, said Alison Darvill, associate director at Bennetts Associates, showing her team’s work at the Royal College of Pathologists in Aldgate. This was a lightweight structure in which the existing foundations were maintained, saving 40% carbon, and benefiting from the long-term vision of the client. 

For Marion Baeli of PDP London, meanwhile, retrofit was the way forward, especially since some 38% of the UK’s total CO2 emissions come from buildings in use, and 28% from residential buildings in use. The NHS spends some £1.4bn a year on treating conditions that arise from poor housing, she added. ‘We could write this on a bus for people to pay a bit more attention’. Practical steps people could do include properly insulating houses, and attending to windows, ventilation, airtightness and thermal bridges. But it was also important for the profession to ‘retrain’, and for government to rethink the ‘aberration’ of applying VAT of 20% to refurbishment projects. 

The conference also included a session on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ building materials, kicked off by UKGBC’s Richard Twinn, who urged that the UK should wean itself off using offsets as quickly as possible and that we should measure what we’re doing as an ongoing process much more widely. Waugh Thistleton Architects’ Andrew Waugh made the case for timber, including the world’s first tall timber building. ‘We think of timber as not just being an alternative, but an opportunity for a construction revolution.’ And, he added, while all the rest of the world is changing regulations to encourage construction of timber, the UK has taken a different path – ‘as with so many things at the moment’.

The Concrete Centre senior architect Elaine Toogood, meanwhile, said concrete couldn’t just be called one material, given the variants being worked on, and in some cases could represent the lowest carbon solution. Its thermal mass, for instance, makes it incredibly useful for reducing the operational use of CO2. Finally, Max Fordham’s Hero Bennett said it was crucial to make key changes at the very start of projects, where the biggest impacts could be made. But small changes are not good enough, she said. ‘It’s really about a cultural change in the way in which we design’.

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

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