The Future of Housing

By Michael Hardware, Director of Planning and Property 

There are many issues facing us today: climate change and productivity are probably the two most important, and both are linked and impact upon the built environment.

The Connected Places Catapult, the Government-backed centre for excellence for innovation in mobility and the built environment, held a business expo earlier in November to grapple with the multitude of issues surrounding buildings, transport and the environment. Called Cityx, The Future of Connected Places, it ran over two days with the first looking at the future of housing and the second at the future of mobility.

Historic challenges

The future of housing day debated the historic challenges of housing supply not meeting demand, growing population, demographic changes including an ageing population, the lack of affordable housing and overcrowding. Environmental concerns were also discussed with the build environment accounting for 40 per cent of carbon emissions in the UK, more than half of those from residential homes.

At a micro-level, new technologies are both adding to global warming and benefiting it. Advances in energy efficiency, LED lighting and growth of electrical vehicles are reducing our carbon footprint, but the increasing dependency on electric gadgets and the higher intensity and pace of live is not helping.

Change is inevitable

The combination of all these factors means that significant change is not only imminent, it is inevitable. The Government has already committed to de-carbonising the economy by 2050, the first leading western economy to do so, but achieving that is another matter. There is going to have to be a revolution in the way homes are designed and built, on how we work and live, and how and when we travel. Innovation and changing working and living practices will help these processes.

Technology is already helping in terms of working practices – more people can work at home and remotely, reducing the need to travel, and this needs to be reflected in the design of new communities. The provision of work/live units and places where people can work locally away from home, such as libraries or even a coffee shop, will assist. Encouraging employers to promote home and remote working is another barrier to the wider adoption of this practice.

Change is happening

There are steps within housebuilding itself to address design and construction, with off-site and modular construction coming forth to improve the construction process and efficiency performance of the buildings, as well as the materials used, moving away from high carbon concrete and steel. But the main issue is heating. We are wedded to gas boilers. There are more efficient alternatives which will ultimately have to be considered such as district heating, ground and air pumps, the inclusion of solar as part of the building to offset energy use.


But there are currently few incentives to encourage the acceleration of this change. Few buyers consider the energy efficiency of new or existing homes when buying. As such, housebuilders do not provide energy efficient homes because it is not a selling differentiator.

Although there is greater public interest in global warming and carbon emissions causing it, it is not yet enough. Most people do not feel their own actions can have any real impact and they are partly right, but cumulatively they can make a huge difference. Government, at various levels, must take a lead, and that may well involve some difficult and unpopular decisions for the good of the wider global community. Encouraging modal shift from cars to more sustainable transport, changing working practices, increasing sustainability are all steps in the right direction but the real incentives are going to be financial: either in terms of subsidies and grants to encourage adoption, or taxes to dissuade energy use, or a combination of both.

Land value

In terms of housing, increasing requirements on sustainability in housebuilding would increase costs but not house prices: currently purchasers do not value sustainability and would not pay for it. This cost could probably come off the land value, which many would not be too concerned about considering the huge premiums landowners currently enjoy. Increasing energy prices would, however, focus consumers’ attention on energy usage, although it would take quite large increases to have significant effects. This would be regressive as it would impact poorer people harder and would be politically unacceptable.

We know that change is inevitable and unavoidable, but the form of that change and how it will be implemented is still unknown.