Housebuilding boost needs to focus on quality and wellbeing too

Ambitious housebuilding targets set in the budget are welcome news, but build quality must remain top priority, says Helen Hewitt, Acting CEO of the British Woodworking federation

One of the Government’s highest priorities, aside from dealing with Brexit, is to tackle the UK’s housing shortage crisis. It retains its ambition for 300,000 new homes to be built every year, and still hopes to meet the pledge it renewed ahead of the 2017 general election that one million new homes will be built by the end of 2020.

With housing remaining a top public policy priority, it was encouraging to see some constructive measures in the recent Budget. The Chancellor announced the creation of a £675 million Future High Streets Fund to allow councils to rejuvenate town centres, including converting empty retail properties into residential accommodation. The Federation of Master Builders estimated last year that as many as 300,000 – 400,000 new homes could be created simply by making use of empty spaces above shops.

This boost was accompanied by the promise of a further £500m for the housing infrastructure fund to help build a further 650,000 homes, and strategic partnerships with nine housing associations which could deliver 13,000 homes and further support what the Chancellor called “the revival of SME house builders”.

These are positive developments that, as an industry, we need to capitalise on in order to develop some real momentum in the construction of new homes.

Quality not just quantity

While the ambition is very encouraging, its important housebuilding doesn’t just become a numbers game: putting up the highest possible number of units in the shortest possible time. Quality of build and longevity of performance is essential. Homes also need to be attractive places to live, aesthetically and atmospherically. From that point of view, it was good to see the Government appointing a commission led by Sir Roger Scruton to “champion beautiful buildings” where there is a “greater emphasis on design, style and community consent”.

In creating homes that are both attractive and sustainable for the long term, wood has a key role to play. In recent years there has been a growing movement to design buildings that are not only functional and practical, but also aid the health and wellbeing of occupants. This has brought several new factors to the fore when designing a building, such as indoor air quality, the level of light and the use of colours as well as the role of biophilia (the affinity humans have towards the natural world).

The biophilic response has been proven to have a significantly positive effect on a building’s occupants, with research finding that employee wellbeing was 15% higher in office spaces where natural elements such as plants and sunlight were incorporated. This has been supported by research from the Wood Window Alliance (WWA) which found that 47% of people agree that natural materials in their home make them feel happier. Timber in particular has been highlighted as a material that makes people feel better, both mentally and physically.

High performance

Wood is a great material to use for wellbeing and aesthetic purposes – but its performance is outstanding too.

For architects and designers material performance is key: wood delivers an excellent long term solution when compared to artificial alternatives. Tough and durable, timber has the added benefit of acting as a natural humidity regulator, absorbing humidity in damp conditions and releasing moisture during drier periods.

The British Woodworking Federation has carried out extensive research into the application of timber in the home. Through an independent study by Heriot Watt University it was found that a standard timber casement window made to Wood Window Alliance standards has a lifespan of 60 years; this is double that for a PVC-u equivalent.

Part of the British Woodworking Federation, the Wood Window Alliance is a dedicated group of manufacturers that are committed to raising standards in the design and manufacture of both timber and aluminum-clad timber windows and doors.

A sustainable solution

Alongside performance, the lifecycle and end of life of a building product is also a vital consideration for designers and specifiers. With many materials difficult to recycle due to varying recycling facilities across the country, wood is the only truly sustainable building material that can be easily repurposed. In fact, one tonne of carbon is the equivalent of 1m² of timber. Furthermore, for buildings aiming to achieve recognised sustainability credentials or certifications, a joint report by the British Woodworking Federation and SGS Search found that a Wood Window Alliance standard window can meet the health elements required of the Silver level of the Cradle to Cradle Certified Standard. Cradle-to-cradle is a holistic economic, industrial and social design concept that seeks to create systems that are efficient, healthy and essentially waste free.

It’s good with wood

I hope the boost to housebuilding recently announced will carry with it a continued recognition that timber creates optimum environments that also contribute significantly to building performance and sustainability.