This year, the World Economic Forum placed the climate emergency firmly at the top of the agenda for governments and corporates across the globe.
Investors can now be expected to ramp up the pressure on real estate to reduce its impact on the planet. Property Week’s Climate Crisis Challenge in collaboration with UKGBC is therefore extremely well timed.
In the UK, the construction industry makes up nearly half (45%) of total carbon emissions – and the build-to-rent sector is on track to take an increasing share of that, with the number of schemes under construction surging by 57% over the past 12 months.
As BTR developers, we will face increasing scrutiny and it is more urgent than ever that we build more sustainable developments, while also making a compelling business case for doing so.
We must apply due diligence to the sites we plan to build on, with climate change on the agenda from day one. Brownfield sites are preferable to greenfield and they may also offer opportunities to reuse existing materials and facilities. The proximity of local labour force and suppliers can also reduce the environmental impact.
Transport is also subject to a high level of scrutiny. Earmarking sites that minimise the need for vehicles – through encouraging cycling and walking – could make or break whether a scheme is perceived as ‘green’. Building close to transport hubs is encouraged. HUB’s Queen’s Quarter in Croydon, for example, is a five-minute walk from East Croydon station.
In order to attract investors and tenants, BTR developments must be built for the long term. Interiors must be made of durable but aesthetically appealing materials and require little maintenance.
At HUB, we adopt a ‘fabric-first’ approach to reduce the amount of heating our buildings require. As a sector, we need to look at the basics first. Insulating buildings to a high standard will not only lower their carbon footprint but also keep heating bills to a minimum. Electric heating is a practical and effective measure towards reducing an overall carbon footprint.
Structural material choices can have a hugely positive impact. At The Boiler House, HUB’s development at The Old Vinyl Factory in Hayes, London, we used cross-laminated timber frame instead of steel or concrete. It meant that not only was a fundamental part of the building’s structure made from a renewable resource, but that contractors were able to reduce foundation sizes by 30% and erect the entire structure in just nine weeks.
Today, planning authorities require new schemes to include a certain percentage of renewable energy sources. The danger is that it becomes a box-ticking exercise. Of the developers that have been required to install a combined heat and power system in their London schemes over the past 10 years, the majority have never switched them on or used them efficiently.
Small sustainable touches can also make a difference. The inclusion of allotments, for example, allows tenants to grow vegetables and increases the attractiveness of the scheme. Creative thinking may be needed to fit these into urban schemes – we have placed ours on the roofs of our buildings, for example.
A sustainable approach to BTR development is not only ethical, but also has the potential to change negative perceptions of the housing sector.
Moreover, it meets the requirements of increasingly environmentally conscious investors and shows that we are doing our bit for the planet.
Damien Sharkey is managing director at HUB