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25 November 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 2:53pm

How housebuilders can solve the climate crisis

By Alan Jones

The Royal Institute of British Architects’ Stirling Prize is the UK’s most prestigious award for architecture. Recent winners have included an office building, a renovated pier, and a theatre. This year’s victor was different: new social housing in Norwich, commissioned by the local council.

The chair of the Stirling Prize jury described it as “high-quality architecture in its purest, most environmentally and socially conscious form.” These low-cost homes are low-energy too, with bills 70 per cent lower than average. This is vital at a time when energy costs and awareness of the climate emergency are rising. While the reaction to Goldsmith Street’s triumph was overwhelmingly positive, one question lingered: where is the depth and breadth of high-quality housing schemes?

I sense a sea-change of better housing for all, and expert architects have a vital role in helping achieve this new future. The UK’s housing crisis is multi-faceted and Goldsmith Street addresses at least two of the most pressing issues.

First, it is a rare example of a local authority deciding to build social housing. Taking more than ten years to build around 100 homes illustrates how determined the council was to overcome the recession and withstand the financial and political pressures to settle for short-term solutions. And the council kept control, adopted traditional contract procurement, and had the architects value engineer the project to a tight budget.

Second, UK homes are among the least energy efficient in Europe. Homes account for 14 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions and current policies show little change. Many UK homes are old, but even our newest homes fail to meet their most unambitious targets.

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In one of the most spectacular lobbying triumphs of recent years, the housebuilding industry persuaded the government to relax energy efficiency targets as they were unaffordable. To put this into context, a recent study estimated that the measures which were scrapped were equivalent to roughly ten per cent of the average profit margin of the average volume housebuilder.

Goldsmith Street is a beacon of hope for several reasons. Quite simply we need to build more, and better, affordable housing. Our wellbeing and where we live are inextricably linked. It is madness that we spend vast sums of public money funding poor-quality rented accommodation and yet make it incredibly difficult for the public sector to build homes to meet that demand.

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We need to ensure new homes and the spaces around them are as good and long lasting as possible. This requires recognition that careful design matters. We need layouts that create community cohesion and safe play spaces, effective solar summer shading and winter gain, separation of pedestrian and cyclists from cars, fire safety, and effective energy use.

Finally, we need to acknowledge that the market is dominated by major volume housebuilders that do not provide sufficient choice to satisfy the breadth of demand. One lesson from Goldsmith Street is that a committed local authority can make a difference by working with skilled architects and local residents and considering long-term benefits, not just looking at this year’s balance sheet.

Alan Jones is president of Royal Institute of British Architects.