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Modular construction will help us achieve housing’s “green dream”

Housing can help us meet our social and environmental goals.

By David Done

With the recent extreme weather conditions hitting the UK, the environmental crisis has never been more mission-critical. We know that the housing sector has a huge part to play to help create a cleaner, safer and greener world for future generations. That’s why our new five-year strategy (currently under consultation) places a huge emphasis on sustainability, with a focus on people, purpose and planet.

The current state of play makes for rather sobering reading:

  • Housing is responsible for about 14 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gases.
  • Increasingly, evidence of global warming is hard to ignore, with extreme heat, wildfires, heavy rainfall, floods and tropical storms all becoming more commonplace.
  • In April 2022, the UN’s latest climate report warned that it’s “now or never” to limit global warming to 1.5ºC.

Additionally:

  • The built environment accounts for 45 per cent of total UK carbon emissions (27 per cent from domestic buildings and 18 per cent from non-domestic).
  • 72 per cent of domestic emissions arise from heating space and the provision of hot water.
  • 32 per cent of landfill waste comes from the construction and demolition of buildings.
  • 13 per cent of products delivered to construction sites are sent directly to landfill without being used.

Already social housing providers are facing what feels like two incompatible priorities when it comes to housing development. We’ve been tasked with delivering thousands of much-needed homes to address the country’s housing crisis. In parallel with this, we have ambitious carbon-reduction targets to meet. Most notably, the aim for all social homes is to become net zero by 2050. Add into the mix that we’re currently living through the worst cost-of-living crisis for decades, things are starting to look rather complex.

We know there are solutions, though. One is in the form of modern methods of construction (MMC). This falls at a time where our first modular build is now nearly finished. The Simpson Road project (in Hampton Wick in south-west London) is a collection of nine affordable homes using Ilke Homes’ volumetric modular system.

We’ve been experimenting with this type of construction since 2016, when we prototyped our modular product Launchpod (designed with the intermediate market in mind). We’ve now been able to turn this into reality, largely due to our partnership with Building Better, an alliance of 30 housing associations and local authorities that aims to increase the use of MMC in social housing, which, in 2018, RHP helped to set up. Building Better is “…aggregating demand from members so they can procure high-quality, sustainable off-site homes, at the right price, confident in the fact that these homes will meet their customers’ needs”.

Just like us, Building Better believes that MMC can help housing providers to align these objectives and build greener homes, using greener methods. The carbon footprint of traditional construction is substantial and that’s one reason why social housing providers like RHP are turning to MMC, where homes are manufactured in factories and assembled on site in a few days. The quick and highly controlled factory processes, wider use of recycled materials, minimal waste, reduced lorry deliveries and less travel for workers all help to reduce the carbon emissions of MMC homes.

Additionally, noise and vehicle pollution are all significantly reduced, off-site homes can be completed up to 30 percent faster than traditional homes, meaning there’s less disruption for residents in the process.

Most MMC homes are “fabric first” so they use high-performance, long-lasting materials for maximum insulation and ventilation and they require less energy to run. This cuts carbon emissions, but it also lowers the cost and carbon footprint of future asset management. Technology gathers data about the condition of materials and products from the moment MMC homes are assembled and this too helps to reduce downstream maintenance.

Crucially, with energy costs surging, the thermal efficiency of off-site homes has never been more important. Electricity bills in MMC properties are significantly lower and one manufacturer recently launched Zero Bills, the UK’s first home to guarantee residents zero energy bills. The UK Green Building Council says that around 10 per cent of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions are directly associated with construction. The construction sector uses more than 400 million tonnes of material each year, much of which has a negative environmental impact. In some further positive MMC news for all of us, though, a recent report published by Cambridge University and Edinburgh Napier University shows that MMC “emits 45 percent less carbon than traditional methods”.

As well as planning to build around 750 new homes over the next five years, we’ll also be investing £81m into our existing homes. Part of this investment will be spent on making our current stock more sustainable, including bringing all of our homes up to an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating of at least C. We also aim for both current and new homes to be smart, with a new, modern and cost-efficient approach to home maintenance.

For me, collaboration is key here and it would be fantastic to see the sector come together and get behind MMC even more than we currently are – for people (creating beautiful and spacious new homes for those who need them the most), for planet (it’s a more sustainable way to deliver new homes) and for purpose (delivering more homes at a faster pace in the communities we serve).  

David Done is chief executive of the RHP Group

RHP Group is a London-based housing organisation that owns and manages around 10,000 homes. For more information follow us on Twitter: @rhp_uk.

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