Ensuring Design Standards for a Sustainable Future

Manny Atkinson, Director at award-winning architecture firm BTP, argues the industry needs to bear in mind the design standards of the past to help ensure affordable homes are sustainable in the future. 
A lot has changed since I began my career in architecture and designing affordable homes
a decade ago.
Not least the loss of some key design requirements which I believe we need to find a way of preserving to ensure the sustainability of affordable homes in the future. 
While many of the regulations we needed to adhere to in the past did duplicate guidance, they still provided a useful checklist to ensure affordable housing could stand the test of time.
These regulations included the Lifetime Homes Standard, Housing Quality Indicators, Design and Quality Standards and the Code for Sustainable Homes (CfSH). 
In addition, we needed to achieve full Secure by Design compliance and consider requirements specific to the locality, such as the Design for Access 2 requirements for the Manchester area.
Three years ago, the Housing Standards Review abolished all of these requirements and put in place a new set of standards focusing on the size of the home rather than its sustainability.
This means that the Building Regulations, which outline the minimum standard, are now the only backstop in terms of providing substance to any design.
The Building Research Establishment (BRE) created this useful graphic below. It highlights just how many guidelines were lost through the abolition of the Code for Sustainable Homes.
It also outlines the new criteria which were introduced via the Building Regulations.

The current focus in the industry is on delivering as many homes as possible, as cheaply as possible, with little thought for the sustainability of the buildings.

The housing standards review in 2015 has resulted in slightly larger homes being delivered, but at the cost of quality and sustainability.

There is a need to preserve the essence of some the regulations that have been abolished to avoid this.

The top design criteria I believe need to be kept in mind are:

HQI areas – these set out the proportions of a decent sized home and are tried and tested. Is there any need to build bigger homes when this costs more? Could this money be better spent on sustainability measures?

Water consumption – The CfSH restricted water usage to 105 litres per person per day. Now Building Regulations requirements have set the minimum standard as 125 litres per person per day. Stricter controls are needed to limit water usage to help reduce residents water bills.

Daylight – A minimum amount of daylight is essential for human wellbeing and comfort within the home, yet no minimum requirements are in place any more. It’s so important for this to be borne in mind in designs.

Ecology – The CfSH was fairly successful in taking into consideration the ecological value of a site and protecting and enhancing it. Only basic requirements are now in place.

Security – The new regulations only focus on the security of the individual home, so we need to bear in mind the security of the wider site.
Energy – The CfSH requirements for the energy efficiency of properties were much more stringent than the latest regulations which have taken a step in the wrong direction. Many contractors have resorted to the cheapest insulation materials on the market. I believe in a ‘fabric-first’ approach in line with CfSH which ensures the building is well insulated before installing renewable technologies. This often helps reduce people’s fuel bills, for example when solar panels are installed residents can have free electricity during the day, helping to tackle fuel poverty.

The list above is not exhaustive but aims to highlight some of the areas essential to designing sustainable homes.

I believe architects working in the affordable housing sector have a duty to address issues like fuel poverty through our designs and to deliver the best product possible.

We can’t just rely on the minimum requirements set out, we need to take responsibility and go the extra mile to ensure homes stand the test of time for generations to come.
This article appears on The Asset Management Network, 3rd July 2018.

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