Building sustainability into the UK’s housing stock

The Head of Corporate Affairs at Barratt Developments explains how the company is putting environmentalism at the heart of its business

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It is generally accepted that the country is facing a housing crisis and we need to build more homes. Barratt Developments is playing its part. Last year Barratt, the largest housebuilder in the country, built almost 18,000 high quality new homes, leading the industry on volume but also on quality - retaining its five star customer satisfaction rating for the tenth year in a row.

However, for the industry, building these houses cannot come at the expense of the environment. The climate crisis becomes more pressing by the day, and the devastating consequences are already being felt across the world. We need to build more homes and grow the UK economy, but environmental stewardship and long-term sustainability must be foremost in the minds of individuals, governments and businesses.

Environmental impact must be factored in to every decision we make. Safeguarding the environment is one of the business’s five core principles, while the group’s sustainability strategy is overseen by the executive committee and led by the chief executive David Thomas. This means that environmental sustainability is always embedded in every level of the business.

We understand that sometimes people have a negative view of new housing because they believe it can have a detrimental impact on their environment. However, we think that there is plenty that housebuilders can do to mitigate, and even reverse their environmental impact.

An example of this is Barratt’s industry-leading partnership with the RSPB. We have been working together for five years now, and have come up with some great initiatives for improving biodiversity on our developments. Our collaboration resulted in the design and production of a brand-new swift brick that can be easily fitted into new houses, helping provide nesting points for one of our best-loved birds. The partnership has also produced guidance to developers on how to increase biodiversity and implement features such as nature-friendly street lighting, bat boxes and hedgehog highways, and garden guides for residents on how to make their gardens a haven for wildlife.

The partnership’s flagship development at Kingsbrook in Aylesbury Vale was featured in the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan as an exemplar of how to put nature at the heart of development, and just recently the government followed Barratt’s lead by pledging to make a biodiversity net gain – where biodiversity is measurably better than before – mandatory on all new developments. We believe that our work with the RSPB played a significant role in achieving this outcome, and that this requirement will immeasurably improve the quality of new housing development.

Environmental stewardship is not just about creating great places and improving our local environment, but having regard for the global climate as well by reducing our consumption of energy and materials.

In 2015, Barratt set itself a target to reduce its carbon intensity by 20 per cent by 2025. It reached this target seven years early. We did it by upgrading the design of our site compounds specifically to reduce vehicle usage: by carefully considering the positioning of materials and silos, we were able to dramatically reduce forklift travel time and diesel consumption. We also procured upgraded site cabins with much-improved insulation, double-glazing and motion-activated lighting, measures which together achieve an annual reduction of over 1,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

The Group also set itself a target in 2015 of reducing its waste intensity, again by 20 per cent by 2025, and is already at 15 per cent. This was achieved in no small part because of an exercise we undertook at our Saxon Gate development near York. For one of the houses on the site, we separated, tagged, measured and weighed every piece of waste, no matter how small, that the construction process produced. The result was a meticulous breakdown of all of the waste created in building a new house, which has been used to change our processes to reduce unnecessary waste.

In some cases, we have filtered our findings through to our suppliers (all of whom are members of the Supply Chain Sustainability School) who have altered their common practices, for example by reducing packaging or altering the dimensions of products to reduce offcuts. This has enabled the changes made to cascade not just through Barratt, but through the rest of the industry too.

Houses are made up of brick, cement, wood, slate, plasterboard, insulation, and a range of other materials that are responsible for carbon emissions during their production. It is incumbent upon housebuilders to consider the embodied emissions of these products and find more environmentally friendly alternatives. Timber frame houses, for example, have embodied CO2 emissions around seven tonnes lower than a standard build house. This is one the reasons that Barratt has recently purchased Oregon Timber Frame, and is now seeking to increase the proportion of new timber frame houses it builds.

The biggest driver of energy consumption is not the construction process, but the energy consumed once the houses are inhabited. In order to meet our climate targets, it is important that new houses be built
to the highest standards of energy efficiency. 98 per cent of Barratt’s house types are designed to EPC standard B or higher, and we exceed building regulations in a number of areas like air-tightness, insulation and glazing. We believe the best way to improve energy efficiency is to apply a fabric first approach, where we maximise the performance of components that make up the house before considering mechanical or electrical solutions. This approach reduces maintenance costs and is easier to get right first time.

The best way for housebuilders to mitigate their environmental impact is to build high quality homes that last. This reduces the need for costly retrofitting or rebuilding in the future, which will cost time, money, and energy. Fortunately, building high quality homes where people want to live is also what’s best for our customers, and it is our central vision to put our customers at the heart of everything we do. That is why we have been rated five star for ten years in a row, have won more Pride in the Job awards for site management than any other housebuilder for fifteen years, and have built more Built for Life-accredited developments than the rest of the industry combined.

There is no doubt that the climate crisis presents a challenge to all of us, but by thinking creatively, embedding sustainable practices and taking a long view, it is possible to improve environmental standards without compromising on quality.