By Stephen Barker

ATTITUDES to social housing are changing for the better. In 2018 Britain built more public housing than at any time since 1992. The following year saw a social housing scheme commissioned by Norwich City Council pick up Britain’s most prestigious architectural accolade – the Stirling Prize. The “Gold Standard” project of 105 houses was described by the judges as a “modest masterpiece” and demonstrated that affordable housing can be extraordinary when innovation, ingenuity and a holistic approach to design and planning are allowed to flourish.

Aberdeen City Council has recognised the value of this approach with its announcement, early in 2020, that all its housing would be commissioned to the Gold Standard. This is a hugely welcome development for us at Halliday Fraser Munro where we have long championed the value of building Gold Standard homes that surpass the basic requirements of building regulations. We’re also delighted to see Glasgow City Council making moves in the same direction and expect to see other local authorities following this lead.

Gold standard homes aim for a minimum 27 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, achieved partly through using renewable energy to provide 50% of hot water demand. It incorporates other carbon-saving measures including more effective insulation and air circulation techniques. Combining renewable technologies with state-of-the-art energy efficiency has the potential to significantly reduce household running costs. In the case of the Goldsmith Road development in Norwich, which was designed and built to Passivhaus specifications, residents now enjoy 70% lower fuel bills. Gold Standard homes must also include better outdoor space, larger rooms, additional storage for bikes, prams or mobility scooters, including charging facilities as well as home office spaces and excellent digital connectivity.

The question many people ask is “but how much will all this cost?” The answer is that it can be a lot less than you might think and the costs of not designing to a Gold Standard could be much higher over time. Norwich City Council reported that its development was only 10% more expensive than normal procurement and it anticipated lower maintenance costs. Lower running costs also mean there’s less risk of fuel poverty and, consequently, Gold Standard houses enjoy lower void and turnover rates.

Douglas Lumsden, Convener of Aberdeen’s City Growth and Resources Committee summed it up neatly when he said: “The real payback will come from quality of life improvements – the provision of a place where a child can do homework, room for an electric wheelchair, a reduction in fuel poverty.”

Commercial lenders are increasingly aware of the benefits of Gold Standard homes and the most efficient housing has started to attract mortgage discounts from mainstream banks like Barclays and larger housebuilders are actively embracing higher environmental standards. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Green Finance Initiative has called for incentives to boost the green lending market for housing. EPCs now form a key part of home surveys meaning resale values of Gold Standard housing will stand up well in an increasingly energy sensitive economy.

Consumers are forging a path to a greener future and are increasingly factoring environmental concerns into their purchasing decisions. Gold Standard homes won’t just help communities rise out of poverty, they’ll help humankind tackle its biggest challenge yet. As architects, we’re enormously proud of the role we have already played, creating homes that perform better for people and the planet.

Stephen Barker is a director at award-winning design practice Halliday Fraser Munro