Future of living: how our homes can help protect the environment

Future of living: how our homes can help protect the environment

By Matilda Battersby

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We talk to the experts about how buildings of the future can adapt to reduce emissions and protect the planet, while keeping us safe and temperate in a changing planet.

Climate change is going to have an impact on how we live, with our homes potentially needing to adapt to warmer and more extreme weather conditions. While our homes need to protect us, it’s essential that they protect our environment, too.

A survey we conducted shows more than 40% of homeowners are keen for their properties to be as environmentally friendly as possible. So we reveal how our homes can help safeguard our planet for the future.

This is particularly important when it comes to how new homes are built, especially the sorts of materials they use and the energy they’re designed to consume, in order to reduce emissions and our reliance on fossil fuels.

1. Build for net zero carbon emissions

“The built environment sector, responsible for nearly half of global greenhouse gas emissions, remains relatively inefficient and is ripe for radical change,” writes Ashley Bateson, partner and head of Sustainability at Hoare Lea, in the recent report, Building the Case for Net Zero.

“There is an opportunity for built environment professionals to work together to reduce carbon in new buildings and existing stock.”

His report shows how designs for residential and workplace buildings can be influenced to improve resource efficiency, reducing running costs to get to net zero carbon emissions. “Buildings will look slightly different to how they do now, but not much,” he writes.

In the UK, the operation of buildings accounts for around 30% of emissions, mainly from heating, cooling and electricity use.

The World Green Building Council is campaigning to get the construction and property industry to reach net zero carbon by 2050, for all new buildings to be net zero in operation and to reduce embodied carbon by 40% by 2030.

2. Keep an even temperature

As the world gets hotter and we try to cool down our homes with air conditioning, we are caught in a potentially vicious cycle. The International Energy Agency predicts that by 2050, air conditioning will use about 13% of all electricity worldwide, and produce two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

“With climate change we're seeing much warmer summers, so we’re going to see comfort cooling in buildings as standard,” says Kelly Bream, chief operating officer of Navana Property Group.

Poor outdoor air quality is another driving force behind the need for air filtration and conditioning systems. So what can we do?

New homes must be built to withstand shifts in temperature through the use of sustainable and efficient materials.

According to the Building The Case for Net Zero report, this might include using less glazing in residential buildings, and switching from gas boilers to an air source heat pump.

3. Monitor efficiency going forward

Monitoring the energy efficiency and emissions of buildings going forward is going to be crucial in achieving net zero and better protecting the environment.

“We tend to over-engineer buildings so that everyone can use air conditioning and hot water at the same time,” says Bream. “We could look at if that’s sustainable and use data to see how buildings can be managed more efficiently.”

Smart metres and better energy consumption data carry the potential to feed into how we plan and build homes going forwards.

Architect Simon Bird, director of LOM, suggests we will see more widespread adoption of the Passivhaus standard. Buildings which meet this standard are built so they are ultra-low energy and require little energy for heating or cooling.

Bird says: “There does need to be a bigger concern around addressing environmental issues, air quality and health in how we build. We need to consider what the world’s going to be like in fifty years and think about how we want it to be.”

4. Design for flexibility

“We don’t know what’s coming in the future, so one of the fundamental requirements of an architect is to design for flexibility,” says Bird. “Allowing for flexibility is the best thing we can do in environmental terms, making the most of the carbon impact of each build by accounting for future function.”This might mean constructing residential homes that will adapt with their residents, such as having load bearing external walls so rooms can be reconfigured, or providing space for an elevator to be installed to make the property work for older or less mobile residents.

5. Pay more now to save the planet later

One of the barriers to building for sustainability is that materials and mechanisms that ensure low net carbon emissions tend to cost more when you come to build.

For the Building the Case for Net Zero report, researchers modelled the cost for building an 18-storey residential building that was net zero and found that the costs were 3.5% higher than for a less eco-friendly building.

This can be off-putting to developers and prospective buyers, who may have to pay more for a new home as a result.

However, paying less for a new home that ignores the environment and energy consumption could actually be a false economy, says Alex Rose, head of new homes at Zoopla.

“The cost of energy going up will be a major factor for home buyers going forwards,” he says. “You might pay more for an eco-friendly home upfront but the monthly running costs are likely to be cheaper in the long-term. The more consumers can go in and demand this stuff, the more likely it is to happen. And when the average length of time we spend in our homes is around 23 years, this could be a considerable saving in the long-term.”

6. Keep it local

The cost benefits of importing certain building materials from Asia and other countries to the UK are well-known. But we need to consider the environmental cost of transporting construction materials across the globe when they could be sourced closer to home.

In 2017, the UK imported 2.8bn tonnes of building materials from China - it was the biggest exporter of building materials to us - and 2.4 billion tonnes from Germany.

“Currently lots of materials are coming from China and the environmental impact of that is huge,” says Bream. “We need to start looking at more local resources that are cost-effective.

“Building things locally is an obvious way to protect the environment, says Bird. "Using local materials, rather than transporting them long distances, will immediately help to reduce carbon emissions."