Specifying building materials for social housing is a liability landmine, says John Harris of Wienerberger
Confidence is an important commodity in the construction world; being confident in your partners, building materials, methods and designs simplifies a lot of the long-term, complex decisions that need to be made.
However, right now it seems that confidence is a rare commodity in the social housing sector, with many stakeholders raising a lot of hard to answer questions.
At Wienerberger we’ve been supplying wall, roof and landscaping building materials for social housing projects for many years and have seen how liability, sustainability, quantity and quality concerns are posing problems for those involved in the design, construction and maintenance of these buildings. To find out more about these challenges and how they could be solved, we asked 150 decision-makers in the social housing sector about the problems they face and what it would take to overcome them.
One of the biggest concerns that social housing stakeholders have is knowing that the solutions they choose will be compliant with changing regulations for the entirety of the building’s lifecycle.
Confusion over standards means that eight in 10 social housing professionals believe that there are still a worrying number of liability concerns in the sector. 80% of people we spoke with also agreed that further clarification on which products are suitable is required in order to confidently specify building materials.
The need for more certainty to progress long-term plans was summed up at a roundtable held to discuss these issues.
Marian Burke, one of the participants and director at Marke Property Consultancy, said: “There is a clear lack of clarity on what this will cost landlords and how it will impact the business. Most are working on 30-year plans, so they need to look long term.
“I think guidance needs to be issued by the government which includes what the steps towards the goals are. The industry currently doesn’t have the information or guidance to understand what they need to do or what it would mean for them.”
Many in the sector were hoping that last year’s Social Housing White Paper would define what a social home needs to be, but this level of detail was pushed back to a review of the Decent Homes Standard, which is due later this year. When asked what this review should include, a clear guide to approved building materials was high on the list. Three-quarters of respondents admitted that without knowing what’s going to be in the revised standard, it’s difficult to know which materials to use.
Green building guidelines
In our research, sustainability in particular was identified as another key area where clarity was required. The sector knows that carbon emissions need to be reduced to comply with the government’s target of achieving a net zero carbon society by 2050. How exactly the sector builds to a sustainable enough standard, though, is still an open question.
In our research, nine in 10 social housing construction professionals believe the sector urgently needs new guidelines from the government. On a specific timescale, 29% of respondents believe that there is still time to meet the environmental goals – but only if the government provides further guidance in the first half of this year.
Nick Gornall, head of development at Great Places Housing Group, highlighted the problem: “The industry has no guidance on the standard of products that will be required to meet the targets, so we don’t know if the housing stock we’re building or the changes we’re making to existing stock will be good enough to meet future sustainability standards.”
Scaling up housebuilding
Despite the fact that many are unsure what materials are right for the job, the government has stressed that it wants housebuilding to significantly increase to hit 300,000 new homes per year by 2025. More than half (56%) of the social housing experts in our research said that, as with sustainability, significantly more government guidance and support is required to achieve this.
Despite this issue, and the UK’s historic inability to build houses at this pace, the number of new builds has been creeping up, with the year ending June 2019 hitting an 11-year housebuilding high at just over 170,000.
While this was before coronavirus affected the quantity of houses under development, it does show that the scale of homes capable of being built has improved.
Planning was a frequent topic for debate when it came to specific ways to further speed up the process and ensure the 300,000 homes goal could be met, with many people suggesting that reforms to streamline the construction process and making access land easier would help.
This included promoting alternative tenures such as shared ownership or rental at affordable prices as, compared with public sector delivery, these are better able to take advantage of quick offsite manufacture to satisfy the pipeline of consumers waiting to move in. Encouraging more SMEs to play a role in delivering housing tenures, in place of the public sector, was also suggested thanks to the fact that they can quickly scale up the delivery of affordable developments, resulting in more housing.
The construction sector is one that has traditionally been slow to change, with tried and tested techniques typically being preferred in order to avoid unnecessary risks and obstacles. However, the sector now faces a situation where business as usual is not going to answer the questions and meet the challenges faced.
Many of the construction industry professionals we spoke with agreed that the industry needs to drive the change that it wants by improving communication and collaboration across organisations and disciplines. Better avenues of communication would help to put the sector in the driving seat when it comes to defining feasible standards and would avoid stakeholders getting stuck in limbo waiting for guidance, by enabling the government to take its lead from the industry instead.
Head of sales – housing