The homes we live in have a significant influence on our health and wellbeing.
Despite this, 20 % of housing stock in England does not meet the national Decent Homes Standards according to the 2016 review of housing stock condition.
This means that the dwellings fail to achieve basic standards. Including compliance with the statutory minimum standard for housing (HHSRS), provision of a reasonable degree of thermal comfort and being in a reasonable state of repair.
Bad housing comes with a huge cost. In research undertaken by BRE, it has been estimated that leaving vulnerable people in substandard housing stock costs the NHS £1.4 billion a year. While at a societal level it costs £18.6 billion in medical costs, lost education and lost employment opportunities incurred.
In line with the old adage ‘prevention is better than cure’, eradicating bad housing therefore presents a fantastic opportunity to create a healthier society which is less reliant on its under-resourced healthcare system.
However, it is not just the end user that can benefit from better quality homes; housing developers and investors can also benefit. For investors looking to retain homes for rental, poor quality leads to higher maintenance costs and could lead to early obsolescence, hence building to a better standard can reduce risk over the long term. While for developers looking to sell on directly, providing houses that require less maintenance, have cheaper running costs and are resilient to flooding and changing climate could contribute to increased marketability. Furthermore, as standards continue to be raised across the industry by proactive developers and investors, those who fail to move with the times risk being left behind.
But how do we eradicate bad housing and where should we start?
The same BRE publication on the cost of bad housing suggested that systematically adverse health effects are associated with the following poor housing conditions; dampness, the effects of living in a cold home, household accidents, noise, insecurity, overcrowding and fire safety.
Of these conditions, one of the clearest links is that between our thermal comfort at home and our health. Cold homes increase risks of cardiovascular, respiratory, rheumatoid diseases and mental health problems, which together are attributed to 9,700 deaths a year in the UK.
This issue is typically felt most in low income households where poor energy efficiency, coupled with rapidly rising energy costs make sufficient heating unaffordable.
At the other end of the spectrum, the risk of overheating is also increasing. As a consequence of increasing standards of air-tightness and energy efficiency, many new buildings are now so effective at retaining heat that they are getting too hot in summer months. While increasing temperatures as a result of climate change magnifies this effect further.
This is a problem because prolonged exposure to high temperatures at home can have a number of negative impacts on our health. From mild effects like dehydration, heat cramps and dizziness to more severe effects like heat exhaustion and heat stroke, it is estimated that there are currently 2000 heat-related deaths each year in England and Wales. Although projections made in the same study indicate that climate change could increase this to around 7,000 deaths by 2050.
However, we can design many of these issues out, and achieve thermal comfort for occupants with a passive design approach. Cold can be designed out with features such as external wall insulation, increased air-tightness and triple glazing which promotes passive solar heating. While excessive heat can be designed out through the appropriate orientation of the building, use of shading and through ventilation.
In reality, there are a lot of crossovers between strategies for both designing out cold and excessive heat, with changes made to address one likely to have an effect on the other. Hence any thermal comfort strategy must be holistic in its approach and not focus solely on one or the other.
Other factors such as daylighting, pollution and noise should also be considered holistically through the passive design process because of the impact they can have on the operation of the building. For example, high levels of outside pollution or noise can mean occupiers don’t use the building as intended by opening windows to purge hot air during the summer.
The Zero Bills home, which can be seen at the BRE Innovation Park provides a great example of how we can use passive design to achieve thermal comfort and maximise energy efficiency. Additionally, as its name suggests, its low energy design paired with renewable electricity generation allow it to be run cost neutrally, therefore eliminating the risk of fuel poverty.
While delivering thermal comfort in apartment buildings presents an additional challenge, it isn’t an insurmountable problem. Building dual aspect apartments that allow for a through flow of air could make a big difference however too often these opportunities are neglected as developments seek to maximise number of units instead.
This example demonstrates that to improve the health and wellbeing of our homes we must take steps to prioritise it in the design and planning process. To do this we will need stronger mechanisms of planning control and quality assurance to ensure homes are designed and delivered in ways which enable them to have a positive impact on the health of the residents that live within them.
Permitted Development Rights (PDR) which allow conversion of commercial buildings to housing on the basis of local planning authority approval of certain limited matters, rather than through a typical planning application, do not allow for this level of control. Hence, the quality of homes created this way is often substandard.
In the absence of scrutiny many PDR projects neglect to consider in detail the changes which need to be made to the physical infrastructure of the building to make it suitable for human habitation. Often the poorest in society will then be shoehorned into these inadequate spaces, highlighting the rife inequality which still exists in housing today. As such, we support a review of government policy on PDR and in other areas of housing regulation where changes could contribute to a marked improvement in public health.
However, industry shouldn’t wait upon government to make these changes. Delivering the houses people really need now presents a huge opportunity for proactive developers and investors who want to stand out from the crowd. The Home Quality Mark (HQM) is a tried and tested certification scheme which does this already through the delivery of quality assured homes above the regulatory minimum. Without needing to reinvent the wheel HQM presents a ready to use solution which can ensure that new housing is more sustainable, will not have detrimental health impacts and indeed it could even contribute to resident’s health and wellbeing. As all good housing should.