This week we attended a couple of days of really interesting conversations and insightful information about social housing at Housing Brighton 2023. A diverse spectrum of presentations outlined the opportunities and challenges the sector faces to deliver quality affordable homes, both new build and retrofitting existing stock. It was fascinating and a real eye-opener, from the architect’s perspective, to hear the real issues behind social housing.
From maintenance and operational challenges, the importance of collecting occupation / performance data, the need for a ‘resident-centric’ service up to the hot topic of affordability and government incentives; the two-day conference also enabled casual and very often more honest chats about matters that Housing Associations, Register Providers and Local Authorities are constantly facing when it comes to delivering good services for their tenants.
One theme that caught our attention during the event was the constant reference to skill shortages at every level in the sector. Alongside the expected affordability challenges, all the discussions we attended touched on the skills shortage as one fundamental bottleneck to deliver and manage social housing at the scale that is required. Triggered by Brexit, Covid and more recently, the spike in living costs; the skills crisis includes a wide range of areas such as training, qualifications, staff retention, work patterns and culture.
We heard from Steve Partridge, Director of the affordable housing consultancy at Savills, on the difficult economic panorama to build new homes, however he was confident that not all is bad news, explaining that new partnerships and models are emerging to get funding in place for new homes. Anna Odedun, Head of knowledge at Future of London, gave great insight into the power of cross-sector collaboration to finance new homes as part of their report Affordable Housing: Overcoming crisis trough collaboration, download here.
As architects passionate about affordable housing, we are keen to continue joining the dots and learning about the REAL issues in the sector, so we can effectively contribute to solving these with proposals and strategies that align with REAL needs.
Some of the key points we believe we can contribute to tackle from our drawing boards are:
Sustainability linked with health, wellbeing, and energy poverty. Not surprisingly we hear pledges for Net Zero Homes that are both well insulated and well ventilated, with enough daylight to create long-term healthy environments. The new built v the retrofit conundrum; really interesting cases and discussion on that topic as well. Ed Houghton from Dgcities talked about the definition of ‘Hard to Treat Homes’ (in the context of retrofitting) providing a great way to understand the challenges of the UK stock, covering almost every era and type. Read a sum up of the session ‘Refurb, Redevelop or Dispose? Read more here.
Linked to the above we learned about the retrofit challenge from other perspectives. Selvin Brown MBE, Director, net zero buildings: domestic, Department for Energy Security & Net Zero explained that funds have been made available with more funds yet to be announced; while Karen Klomp, Assistant director at Turner and Townsend, explained they are on the ground to help LA and HA to tap into funding.
However, one of the real issues seems to be the aforementioned skills shortage as explained by David Pierpoint, Founder and CEO of the Retrofit Academy, whose mission is to train and develop 200,000 retrofitters by 2030. In their website Retrofit Academy claims that ‘The UK Government has committed to meeting Net Zero by 2050 which will require 1.8 homes per minute across the UK to be retrofitted’. The need for the right skills is clear! We also heard from Kathy Thomas, Communications project manager (net zero) for the Northern Housing Consortium, about the importance of planning and managing residents’ disruptions to carry out retrofit works. She explained that this important part is often overlooked and is a crucial factor for implementation alongside funding and skills for retrofit implementation.
Technology: make innovation inclusive and easy to access. We need to design homes with the right level of technology that is both effective and friendly to users of all ages.
Maintenance challenge: construction robustness alongside non-disruptive regular maintenance solutions was a constant topic of conversation with some of the HA we talked to ‘Separate living spaces from maintenance areas’. Learning from other typologies/sectors where maintenance is the main driver for successful operations might be a way forward.
Meaningful engagement: learn from residents and keep them involved throughout the process. This resonates with the final remark by Jill Haley | Vice president, Chartered Institute of Housing who said: “we must be resident-centric, to all HA’s and LA’s out there, if you are not talking to your residents, do so as a matter of urgency’.
Two things kept bouncing inside my head after the two days in Brighton…
The first one is a question: How come so much passion, willingness and talent has not resulted in a successful social housing story recently in the UK? Helen Baker, Chair, Better Social Housing Commission made a great pledge during the final session ‘What is next for the housing sector’: “we need a cultural shift around social housing to move forward” referring to the need for a conscious effort to jointly direct all the great work everyone does in the housing sector to deliver better homes.
The second one is a simple but powerful phrase from someone that represents the ambition of all of us working in this sector (unfortunately we didn’t catch their name).
“We must deliver homes that we would be happy to live in".
This blog post has been written by Max, one of the directors here at WR-AP. Max grew up making and drawing things in his native city: Caracas, later discovering the power of well-designed buildings and public spaces. He values the opinions of the end user above all and believes that is the true sign of good architecture. You can read more about Max here.