Britain has a long and enviable reputation as a world-leading innovator in arts, science, technology and architecture, yet this seems to have eclipsed the bulk of domestic housing stock, which has remained firmly rooted in the past. A sclerotic planning system combined with nimbyish attitudes towards new development has conspired to ensure that only 12.2% of the housing stock has been built after 1990, leaving the UK with some of the most decrepit and inefficient homes in Europe. Only recently has the Government begun to recognise the problem, placing sustainability at the heart of its new housing policy.
The shortage of modern, efficient housing stock is being addressed in principle by reforms to the planning system. The new National Planning Policy Framework, announced in March 2012, stipulates apresumption in favour of sustainable development.
Reform to the planning system has been long overdue, yet it remains to be seen whether the new regime will be able to deliver the visionary homes of the future. Negotiating the planning system is fraught with difficulty, particularly for small developers and self-builders - precisely the sort of people who can deliver the high-quality, visionary homes of the future but who lack the resources to navigate the system and overcome the instinctive resistance to development from occupiers of neighbouring properties and other vested interests.
Nimbyism is a serious problem for sustainable development: Research undertaken for RICS (Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors) suggests that "there is a marked preference for the appearance of conventional new homes as opposed to the low carbon homes currently being built". There is no reason why 'conventional' new homes cannot be low carbon either, but the distinction is probably drawn because the most advanced homes are currently being built by people pushing both the technological and design boundaries, perhaps offending conservative sensibilities in the process. However, there does need to be a general paradigm shift in attitudes in order to deliver the low carbon housing of the future, especially as new construction techniques offer up new design possibilities.
Self-builders - the pioneers of future housing?
It is no coincidence that the UK's first certified Passivhaus was a private build. Commercial developers will always have an eye on the bottom line, whereas self-builders are motivated by passion.
Self-builders represent the vanguard of sustainable domestic architecture, consciously pushing the boundaries of design, not only aesthetically but technologically, where the classic trade-off between form and function becomes ever more blurred - renewable technologies are as much an aesthetic statement as a technical solution to a problem. Self-builders may flaunt their sustainability credentials, but has the recession dented wider enthusiasm for green measures, perceived to be an expensive luxury at a time of austerity?
RICS research suggests that there is currently considerable resistance to homeowners meeting the increased construction costs of the higher levels of the Code for Sustainable Homes. However, this is tempered by "an increased interest amongst consumers for self-sufficiency" and that homeowners can be persuaded to adopt sustainable measures by focusing on cost savings. Again, self-builders are at the forefront of changing attitudes towards sustainability and these need to trickle down.
However, self-builders are not necessarily lone eco-warriors: whole communities also able to pursue an active sustainable agenda, offering a glimpse into the future.
Fintry Development Trust - a blueprint for the future?
Microgeneration based on renewable technologies offers the possibility of genuinely self-sufficient and sustainable communities, exemplified by the pioneering Fintry Development Trust.
With a membership of 150 out of a small community of 500 adults, the Trust set about modernising properties in the village of Fintry, Scotland. It undertook insulation improvement measures, advised households on renewable energy and secured ownership of a wind turbine on the nearby Earlsburn wind farm.
According to the Trust, energy saving measures have saved the community £180,000 per annum. The wind turbine generates 7.5GWh per annum, a substantial contribution towards the village's 10.2GWh annual consumption and bringing the community close to its aim of being energy self-sufficient. This offers a credible model for communities elsewhere to emulate.
Fintry is a pioneer of community-led sustainability in the UK, but you have to look towards Sweden for more ambitious projects.
When its shipping industry collapsed in the early 1990s, with the loss of a third of all jobs, the Swedish port city of Malmö took radical action. Instead of forlornly clinging to the past, it looked decisively to the future and within a decade had transformed itself to be lauded as one of the most farsighted cities for sustainable development in Europe.
Malmö has an array of innovative environmental initiatives delivering new ways of responding to climate change. It is pioneering approaches which could inspire local authorities around the world. In one example, the Western Harbour development not only showcases some of the most sophisticated architecture and urban design in Europe, but is served entirely with renewable energy from sun, wind, water, refuse and sewage. A huge district heating system which stores heat in underground limestone during the summer and draws on it in winter ensures that the neighbourhood remains carbon neutral.
In another area of the city, the 3,000 residents of Augustenborg have benefitted from building upgrades and refurbishments, including Scandinavia's largest green roof system. The most instructive lesson to be drawn from the whole experience is that the Malmö model has only been achieved as a result of concerted political commitment, taking positive action to realise the vision. This is sorely lacking in the UK.
Shropshire Exemplar Village
The Shropshire Exemplar Village project was heralded as the first zero carbon housing development in the UK. The £2.8million project was meant to demonstrate the feasibility of zero-carbon design and build, and would have led to the construction of 10 architecturally innovative and technologically advanced properties, to be sold on the open market afterwards. Shropshire Council was contributing redundant industrial land in return for a cut of the sale proceeds, whilst a consortium of private developers was financing the development. However, after a policy U-turn by the Coalition Government, diluting proposed Building Regulation requirements for energy efficiency, the Conservative-led council pulled the plug on the deal in 2011.
Building the Future - a stakeholder approach
In the UK, private self-built homes are already delivering homes for the future, yet the numbers are pitifully small - estimated to be only around 10,000 per annum. This is a shame: self-builders are highly motivated and aspire to create homes of the highest standard, usually regarding the Code for Sustainable Homes as the minimum benchmark.
The self-build sector is a Petri dish of sustainable home design and build, allowing a huge range of experimental houses to be created, offering multiple visions of the future. Yet these visions need to be adopted and replicated on a vast scale to make any tangible difference to the UK's dilapidated housing stock of over 20 million homes.
Organised self-sufficient communities such as Fintry offer a tantalising glimpse of what could be possible in the UK, but it is Sweden which has shown the way in community-led sustainable development. The UK needs to harness the energy and vision of self-builders, incorporating them into and scaling up the Fintry model of cooperation so that it offers a genuine blueprint for the future of housing.
In one positive sign, the Government now acknowledges that 1 in 10 new homes are self-built, and that organised community developments may indeed be the way forward. A new £30million fund to support self-build communities has been announced, though it is a tiny contribution when set against the Government's own challenge of building 3 million new homes by 2020.
The technology and the aspiration to create the small self-built sustainable communities of the future already exist; it just requires the political will to turn that potential into reality. The Swedish model at Malmö is a tangible expression of the future of large-scale sustainable development, but it is only possible when stakeholders such as politicians, citizens, banks and developers coordinate their efforts.