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British housing can’t cope with the new climate

  • by JW

“Britain has the leakiest and poorest performing housing in Europe that contributes 20 per cent of our total climate emissions.”



Phineas Harper is director of charity Open City, whose Stewardship Awards celebrate urban care of buildings, infrastructure and open spaces – and has just penned this critique of British housing:

As Britons swelter in the highest temperatures on record, the UK’s substandard and overheating housing is again under the spotlight. Most British homes are unable to keep residents cool in heatwaves and are cripplingly expensive to heat in the winter. By the numbers, we have some of the worst-performing housing stock in Europe. Our homes are poorly insulated and draughty, have virtually no shading and are badly oriented. How did one of the world’s wealthiest economies end up with houses that are so unprepared for extreme weather?

For decades, the British construction industry got away with building scantily insulated, poorly oriented houses. The country was quick to industrialise, so burning cheap coal could take the edge off the coldest days, while summers were cooler than they are now. Compared with our northern and southern European neighbours, Britain’s homebuilders could effectively disregard environmental performance to prioritise other, less prosaic concerns.

Edwardian morals, Thatcher and bad design – why Britain’s homes are so hot | Phineas Harper | The Guardian

Housebuilding standards need a climate update | Letters | The Guardian

But this is hardly a secret, with this piece from January, from Sankar Sivarajah, Head of School of Management and Professor of Technology Management and Circular Economy, University of Bradford:

Poorly constructed housing can seriously affect people’s health and wellbeing. And with the UK having some of the oldest buildings in Europe, that’s a lot of housing not fit for purpose. Almost 2.5 million families in the UK live in poor housing conditions and suffer from fuel poverty. This means they are unable to maintain a reasonable temperature in their homes due to low income.

Most of the housing in the UK dates back to before the 1990s when energy efficiency design was not regulated. This not only has a huge impact on people’s health – the NHS spends £1.4 billion each year treating people affected by poor housing – but it also affects our natural environment and biodiversity.

According to the Climate Change Committee, which advises the UK government on climate change matters, around a quarter of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions come from the energy we use for heating, lighting or running appliances in our homes, public buildings or workplaces – and energy used in our homes is the most significant source. Indeed, out of the existing 29 million homes in the UK, at the moment only eight million homes meet the highest energy standards.

The UK has some of the least energy-efficient housing in Europe – here’s how to fix this


Sky news also looks at the issues – in particular how extreme weather is creating ‘heat islands’ of our towns and cities:

Towns and cities need a radical overhaul to make them liveable during the even more intense heatwaves predicted in future, Sky News has been told. Around 90% of the population is expected to live in urban areas by 2050. Yet lack of shade and poor building design is magnifying temperatures, with a growing risk to health.

Professor Prashant Kumar, an urban heat researcher at the University of Surrey, said: “The built environment, with all its concrete and grey infrastructure, is trapping heat and that heat can remain for a longer duration, into the night.”

Extreme weather: Britain’s cities need radical design overhaul – or they will become unliveable | Climate News | Sky News

The New York Times notes the main problem with UK housing:

British Homes Were Built to Retain Heat. That’s Becoming a Problem. – The New York Times

And yet there are serious issues at other times of the year…


The UK has a problem with damp – and its housing does little to help, as reported earlier in the year by a property care company:

As a nation, Britain has a big problem with damp, it can not only cause damage to your home but if left for a long period of time, it can also cause problems to your health as well. According to Shelter, there are 1 in 5 renters who are affected by damp and mould in Britain. So why are mould and damp problems so common in British homes?

The biggest causes of dampness in British homes is the age of the UK housing stock. In fact, the UK has some of the oldest housing stock in Europe. (BRE group Poor building practices, such as inadequately fitted insulation and having no real damp proofing in place at all are also major contributors to dampness in British homes.

Why Are British Homes So Damp and Mouldy? – Timberwise

And from Birmingham from last year: 

Britain, as a nation, has a damp problem. It seeps into our walls, into our lungs and can cause major structural issues for your house. In the mid 2010s, a survey was conducted which asked homeowners about their damp situation. The findings were shocking. In laid bare the issue of millions of us living in damp and mouldy housing.

The survey, conducted by Ipsos MORI for the Energy Saving Trust, suggested 35 percent of people find it hard to keep their house warm because of poor insulation, 44 percent lived in a draughty home, 38 percent complained of condensation problems and 29 percent said they had mould. 

Former president of the Royal Institute for British Architects and commissioner of Historic England, Ben Derbyshire said: “Britain has the leakiest and poorest performing housing in Europe that contributes 20 per cent of our total climate emissions.”

The issue of poor insulation and damp go hand in hand.

Why British houses get damp and mould – Birmingham Live

But new-build isn’t any better…


Analysis of the UK housing industry from five years ago by the Guardian still probably stands:

Weak mortar, faulty drainage, unfinished fittings … for many buyers of newly built properties in Britain, their dream home quickly turns into a nightmare.

More than half of buyers of new-build homes in England have had major problems with construction, unfinished fittings and faults with utilities, according to housing charity Shelter. The government branded the housing market “broken” in its housing white paper last month.

Mark Farmer, a former partner at international consultancy EC Harris, who now runs his own construction consultancy, says: “In Germany, if there are evidenced problems with build quality the regulatory authorities can rescind the licence. This is a ‘barrier to entry’ related to craft skills and basic competence levels that we just do not have in the UK.”

Experts say the rush to build homes amid Britain’s chronic housing shortage, and the dominance of a few big building firms that use a multitude of subcontractors, are also to blame for poor building standards.

Paula Higgins, who runs the campaign group HomeOwners Alliance, says: “The quality of new-build homes is becoming more and more of an issue and we are hearing from more and more distressed buyers every week.” She suggested safeguarding homeowners’ rights as they do in the Netherlands or France (see below).

So how does the construction process in the UK compare with other countries? We found that in Germany and the Netherlands regulations and standards are much stiffer – but in New Zealand, cases of poor quality building appear to be as common as in Britain.

Why are Britain’s new homes built so badly? | Property | The Guardian