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Last edited 22 Feb 2021
Wood and affordable healthy homes at scale
For architecture and construction, new building standards and product certification are helping push health and wellbeing into the commercial sector as the biophilic office proves a return on investment. What is lacking though are examples of this approach working in the mainstream residential sector. Where there are examples, they are mostly one-off private homes or in the premium build-to-rent sector. So, the crucial question is: can we build affordable healthy homes at scale?
Recognising the need for healthy homes is not a new issue. The Wellcome Collection recently hosted an exhibition about Living with Buildings with a focus on health and architecture. The exhibition showcased examples of 19th century slum housing and the initiatives that followed to improve housing and occupant health. Poor ventilation was a huge issue at the time and continues to be so now.
But our thinking around what makes a healthy building has progressed and Edward Murphy reminds us of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) definition of health: “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing.” This is what a building’s design needs to accommodate.
Murphy looks to the WELL Standard for guidance. For those unfamiliar with the WELL Standard, it focuses on eight key features: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, mind and innovation. A building is registered to meet the WELL Standard and assessed on set criteria. If it meets the standard, it is awarded certification from bronze through to platinum level.
Commenting on where the UK is currently in its approach to healthy buildings, Murphy said: “Wellness is not just physical, it is mental and psychological. The demand for health-preserving buildings is here and it is growing.”
One initiative that is attempting to address this issue is the Healthy New Towns (HNT) programme. Established by NHS England, a healthy new town encourages architects and planners to incorporate health and wellbeing into the design of homes and beyond into the community. NHS England, through HNT, is proposing a Quality Mark for homes and neighbourhoods.
Kevin McGeough, who leads on the Ebbsfleet Healthy New Town Programme which has been piloting the concept, explained that a version has developed with the working title ‘HomesPlus’. At the moment it is a proposed benchmark for quality homes and neighbourhoods which will feed into and help shape the national proposal, but as yet isn’t a reality.
While the discussion around the UK housing crisis has been dominated by the quantity of new homes, the government’s recently re-invigorated call for design quality may give rise to new hope for better homes in the future.
Better homes means future-proofing homes. Older people are living longer, and homes need to be more flexible and adaptable to better meet the needs of people throughout their life, particularly downsizers. This was the aim of the University of Sheffield design research project, DWELL (Designing for Wellbeing in Environments for Later Life).
Sarah Wigglesworth and the research team developed their own criteria to understand wellbeing in movement, sound, materials and community. Using these principles, they developed a layout for a multi-generational neighbourhood offering dwellers opportunities for informal social encounters in the rituals of everyday life, contact with the natural world and accessible public services.
Sharing her conclusions from the project, Sarah said: “We know how to design great housing and what will support longevity, autonomy and wellbeing. We need the housing suppliers to respond with new models of housing to support adequate quality of life."
She also showcased some modular housing prototypes created for the Home Group made from cross-laminated timber (CLT), a building material known for its adaptability, health benefits and carbon sequestering ability. It is also a quicker way to build, often saving costs on site, with fewer defects and with less reliance on skilled workers. Similar benefits can be achieved using prefabricated timber frame or Structural Insulated Panels (SIPS).
Sarah said: “We need to design for the long term. This is important for climate-change impact, and we need to build community cohesion through attention to the broader issues of planning, location and access to services. Housing should consider everyone’s needs as people, not simply offer a niche product that works as a business model. Our findings around the ageing population show that what works for older people works for everyone.”
 Making it affordable
For Miranda Plowden, this is her key concern at the South Yorkshire Housing Association. Housing associations want to achieve higher standards, particularly to support their customers’ health and wellbeing. But land prices and low property values make it difficult to make quality housing commercially viable. Providing quality social housing is reliant on grants and these have been cut in recent years, so housing associations struggle to provide the homes they want their clients to live and thrive in.
Both Miranda and Kevin McGeough agreed that offsite construction can play a key role in delivering sustainable homes. Kevin commented: “We developed modern method of construction solutions ten years ago, we just never built them. It is not new, we just need to get started.”
Offsite solutions such as timber frame and CLT have been used for affordable homes at scale. But the health benefits these projects deliver are usually a bonus rather than an intention. Referring to the WELL Standard, they create a healthier living environment through improved indoor air quality and increased thermal comfort (which also reduces energy bills – essential for those needing affordable housing). They also fulfil some of DWELL’s additional features since CLT has low Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and is a natural renewable building material, locking in carbon.
So, there are solutions available for this complicated problem, but the only way to create a level playing field is for MPs and built environment professionals to lobby for building regulations that set requirements for healthy homes. This would make healthy homes accessible to all.
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