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Bulldoze or retrofit? Housing briefings at WYG

This week, Future Cities Forum discussed the urban housing dilemma: bulldoze or retrofit? To debate this, senior experts from local authorities, engineering, architecture and the mortgage industry gathered, to talk about the economics of new build housing and retrofitting existing stock for a low carbon city.

The research round table took place at WYG Group’s (now a Tetra Tech Company) London offices at One Angel Court. WYG has been appointed alongside 12 technical specialists to two Homes England national frame works that will support the public sector in delivering housing across the country. The Asbestos and Land Survey Frameworks will each span four years, enabling procurement of up to £30 million worth of services combined. WYG's team role on each project will be to help increase the pace, scale and quality of development to speed up homes delivery in areas facing high demand.

On the issue of retrofit Sir Steve Bullock, Chair of the Housing & Finance Institute and the Sutton Housing Partnership said: ‘Any provider of homes must think about retrofitting existing homes for energy efficiency and for the comfort of the residents. For local authorities this will be an increasing focus. Nottingham City Homes is market leader in this area, with a thirty year track record on improving energy conservation.

‘Of course, you are juggling that with many priorities. It’s not just about energy, it’s about comfort of residents. Some 1960s blocks are really cold in winter and hot in summer, which is why they have cladding. We must very carefully balance the need to avoid another Grenfell with the requirement to be energy efficient.’

Mortgage broker John Charcol’s senior technical manager, Ray Boulger, responded to a question about whether the drive to create low carbon housing stock had a counterpart in the growth of green mortgage lending:

‘Green mortgages are not taking off yet. The Ecology Building Society has focused on new build and self-build but it’s tiny. Barclays just has a slightly cheaper interest rate for its green mortgages range, but you probably wouldn’t go there deliberately and exclusively. However in future, if lenders can perceive running costs (for a home) as less when doing affordability calculations for loan applications, then they may say we can afford to offer you more. In future people may be able to borrow a little bit more if the property is green in energy efficient terms.’

Architect Rob Adams of Adams Collingwood spoke on expanding existing terraced houses upwards (the 'terrace upcycle' pictured below).

‘Retrofitting our Victorian housing stock for energy efficiency would make a lot of sense. We have just done a re-make on a standard Victorian terrace house, on an attractive street in London. We rebuilt it as a new house with a replica front, but the finance was really difficult. Our client could only get a mortgage based on the value of the house we were removing which was half the size of the final property.

'They took a huge gamble to take a bridging loan while the work was done and then re-mortgaged on completion, but they did not get a very good valuation at the end – perhaps it was Brexit influenced. It’s a super strong house, with energy consumption at a quarter of what it was before. It has given us the figures for re-doing a whole terrace of houses. We took this idea to the Mayor of London - of doubling existing Victorian houses in size to increase density with a ground floor for elderly and students, and a top floor with a garden as separate accommodation. However, it flies in the face of just about every local planning norm. We like our terrace houses in London, so let’s try to future proof them for the future city.'

Managing Partner at consulting engineers Max Fordham, Bill Watts, added:

‘We have done retrofit, but it is so hard, so hats off to Nottingham City Council. The only way to get cost down and keep quality up is to industrialise the process. When you are running a retrofit project it’s not the technology that’s the problem, it’s the logistics that are crucial. How to go about minimising disruption for the residents needs great planning. However, I think retrofit is more expensive than new build, but if you can double the area of the house on same footprint – as they do in Singapore - you could create more money.

‘If you talk to housing associations there is lots of pressure, and many are now employing the game of using sites afresh by rebuilding and selling two homes for profit, to keep one for the affordable sector. If you can clear a street and build fast you can get twice the accommodation.

The roundtable also looked at the continued work of housing being joined to infrastructure as advised by the National Infrastructure Commission, the introduction of innovative energy networks and the sustainability of new place-making.

Bill commented:

'There is pressure on politicians – often from my profession – to say to that grand infrastructure is the answer – and these politicians can be taken for a ride. The trouble with the sustainability discussion is that it is so fuzzy, and projects are allowed to roll on without being called out. It is difficult being in the politician's shoes and you need people (advising them) with a holistic view on life rather than banging the drum on their agenda. We are trying – as a consulting practice - to be an honest broker.’

Watch out for our full report on housing issues later this summer.

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