There is a wonderfully observed quote that “Politicians are people who, when they see light at the end of the tunnel, go out and buy some more tunnel". Our current housing crisis seems to be the result of persistent tunnel building for a number of years. The latest Housing White Paper published in February sets out the government’s ambitions for the UK housing sector, will this bring us closer to the light or is this a disguised order for more tunnel?
The White Paper failed to address some of the most important issues surrounding how we build new homes. The shear scale of the perceived housing shortage has washed away the willingness to drive quality through regulation leaving the market to sort this out for themselves.
There appears to be a distinct, and growing, separation within the construction market between those who build volume and those who build for themselves or on a small scale. This separation is not just in volume but in quality. Quality encompasses energy efficiency, building health (indoor air quality), workmanship, choice of materials and durability. We are told that there is a shortage of supply so the government has set ambitious targets for new build. with little regulation to set quality standards are we about to suffer a building boom of 'just good enough' houses?
Speaking to the House of Commons, communities Secretary Sajid Javid said: ‘At present around 60 per cent of new homes are built by just 10 companies. Small, independent builders can find it almost impossible to enter the market. This lack of competition means a lack of innovation, which in turn leads to sluggish productivity growth.
Our experience is that smaller building companies and self-builders are important drivers of innovation in building performance and are more focused on design, quality and workmanship, in short they set more exacting standards for their projects: additionally such builders are shorn of the motivation to create profit to provide shareholder dividends and are less likely to cheapen specifications or select products solely on price.
Without competition in the market innovation and choice are restricted, as building becomes streamlined to gain efficiencies (profit) it becomes predictable and homogenised, production line mentality takes over, purchasing power is used to squeeze evermore from manufacturers and suppliers and the whole system is manoeuvred towards lowest common denominator delivery.
This has been identified as a significant issue by the UK Green Building Council who have pointed out that “Whilst delivering a significant quantity of homes is crucial, so too is delivering high quality homes. If we do not aim for zero carbon standards now, we will likely need to go back and retrofit these buildings in just ten years’ time in order to meet our carbon targets.”
Over the past year or so the government has systematically removed or disabled legislative drivers designed to improve building performance, they have abandoned the low carbon agenda and left the sector to sort out the performance and design criteria for themselves, this was one chance to inject a new direction and focus into the housing sector however the White Paper fails to directly address issues such as build quality, building performance and energy efficiency, all of which were conspicuous by their absence.
We are not in a good place, it appears that we are still in the tunnel, no nearer the light at the end. We are likely to build more but not of better quality, we are unlikely to reduce prices to an affordable level and the volume housing sector does not have a track record that would suggest it is likely to meet the targets set by government.
Insulated from these outcomes and motivations are those who build or specify and manage their own projects avoiding buying what someone else has designed and built, this is where innovation and quality will be parked for the foreseeable future. The good news is that this sector is well supported they are already emerging into the light and are not willing (nor compelled) to order more tunnel.
For more information on self-build and sustainable building click on the links below
The Alliance for Sustainable Building Products: The ASBP is a cross sector organisation which aims to engage with a wide range of stakeholders to improve understanding, specification and use of sustainable building products
The Green Register: The Green Register is an independent, self-funded and not-for-profit organisation whose principal goal is to promote sustainable building practices across all disciplines of the construction industry.
The Association of Environment Conscious Building: The AECB is a network of individuals, students, educational establishments and companies with a common aim of promoting sustainable building.
GreenSpec: promotes sustainable building products, materials and construction techniques. GreenSpec is edited by practising architects and specifiers.
The National Custom and Self Build Association: NaCSBA is network of companies and individuals with the common aim of promoting self build and custom build as a form of housing delivery that can make a significant contribution to home building in the UK
The National Self Build and Renovation Centre: The NSBRC is the UK’s only permanent venue designed specifically to meet the needs of anyone looking to undertake a self build, renovation or home improvement project.