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Graffiti vs green: How one housing scheme is overcoming vehement opposition

Local opposition can be a major hurdle to permission for new homes. But one affordable housing scheme in Worcestershire found a new way to get locals on side: demonstrating sustainability’s value to the community.

It’s a familiar refrain: Britain is not building enough houses. Demand for homes is high, with English housing starts at their highest level since 2007, but it still isn’t enough.

It’s estimated that around 250,000 homes need to be built each year to address England’s housing problem. Getting schemes off the ground is proving difficult, leading to a shortfall.

But one development in Worcestershire has used sustainability to overcome planning objections and create affordable housing for local residents.

Graffitied opposition

Blake’s Hill is a 10-unit housing development in North Littleton, a village with a population of fewer than 1,000 people.

Local housing association Rooftop Housing Group had owned the plot of land for some time, trying to get planning permission on a number of occasions and being refused several times.

Local authority Wychavon District Council was only convinced once the scheme was reworked to deliver significant value to the local area.

It was decided that all the homes would be built to Code for Sustainable Homes Level 6, ensuring they met the government’s zero-carbon standard.

“We had our hoardings graffitied several times. We would never expect that on a small site like this, so we had to work to show the value of the scheme”

Adrian Speller, Speller Metcalfe

Speller Metcalfe was appointed by competitive tender at the end of 2012 to build the scheme.

“The tender was split 30-70, with 70 per cent decided on quality and 30 per cent cost,” explains Speller Metcalfe environmental director Adrian Speller.

“We also had previous experience of building CSH Level 6 homes and Passivhauses, which helped.”

Speller Metcalfe worked closely with Rooftop and its team to develop the design, beginning on site in February 2013.

Animosity from local residents towards the scheme was clear, with objections contributing to the struggle to gain planning approval over many years.

“We had our hoardings graffitied several times,” Mr Speller says. “We would never expect that on a small site like this, so we had to work to show the value of the scheme.”

Sustainable features

The most obvious way the scheme is demonstrating that value is through its sustainability credentials.

All the homes have been built to satisfy zero-carbon energy requirements – an estimated 190 per cent improvement on current Building Regulations.

The team took a fabric-first approach, focusing on enhancing U-value performance and airtightness as much as possible.

“There was a lot of co-ordination between Rooftop and us early on to ensure energy use was as low as possible before we started bolting on renewables,” Mr Speller explains.

Speller achieved an average of 2.96 air changes per hour (per dwelling) at Blake’s Hill, with choice of materials an important element of this.

“We make sure to only use Green Guide A+-rated materials, with triple-glazed windows and doors used throughout,” he says.

“We were able to source these materials at a lower cost using our existing supply chain thanks to our previous experience building this type of scheme.”

Local chain proves worth

Speller Metcalfe was careful to use local subcontractors as much as possible, despite being hindered by the site’s rural location.

In the end, almost 40 per cent of subcontractors used were sourced from within 30 miles of the site – helpful on a practical level as well as a sustainable one.

“At the end of the day, if your team lives close to the site, they’re easier to manage,” Mr Speller says. “Someone is less likely to want to arrive late and leave early if they don’t live a three-hour drive away.”

In addition, the team worked closely with timber frame supplier LoCal Homes, which has developed a scheme to provide out-of-work local residents with employment and skills.

Employees are based at the company’s manufacturing facility in Wolverhampton, creating the timber frames that are then transported to sites such as Blake’s Hill for assembly.

One such example was 31-year-old Martyn Loynes, who had been unemployed for a year before getting a job with LoCal Homes. During that year, Mr Loynes had applied for 10 to 12 jobs per week with little success.

His mother, a tenant of LoCal Home’s parent company the Accord Group, received a flyer through her door advertising job opportunities at the factory. He successfully applied for a position – and many others have similar stories.

“By working with a company like this, the scheme is having a positive social effect, not just an environmental one,” Mr Speller says.

The houses lose heat at less than 46 kWh per sq m per annum, compared with a UK average of more than 60 kWh per sq m per annum.

Other sustainable measures include mechanical ventilation heat recovery, passive infrared lights outside the properties, energy-monitoring appliances, Celotex wall insulation on the 195 mm-thick timber frame, A-rated gas boilers and a sustainable urban drainage system.

This drainage presented a particular challenge to the team.

“Getting the size of attenuation needed to catch surface water run-off and meet CSH Level 6 was difficult,” Mr Speller recalls. “In the end we installed a large tank underneath the car parking and paved areas.”

Designing for renewables

In addition to all those elements, Mr Speller says the “preferred renewable” used on the scheme was solar photovoltaic panels. So much so, in fact, that the design was altered to accommodate additional PV.

“This was the cheapest way of offsetting to get to zero carbon,” he explains. “We actually ended up running out of roof space to fit the required amount of PV on, so we redesigned the roofs for that reason.”

The PV is estimated to reduce CO2 emissions and energy usage significantly, as well as provide a financial income to Rooftop Housing Group through the Feed-in Tariff, which could be offset against the cost of the development.

“We actually ended up running out of roof space to fit the required amount of PV on, so we redesigned the roofs”

Adrian Speller, Speller Metcalfe

Speller Metcalfe also used building information modelling on the scheme, primarily for demonstrating the scheme.

“We’ve been using BIM for a while, and while this project didn’t use full Level 2 BIM, we produced a 3D model of the design at tender stage which helped us win the bid,” Mr Speller says.

“Once appointed, we were then also able to use that model in public consultations with locals to show them the design impact of the scheme.

“These aren’t traditional-looking houses, so they do make a bit of a statement – but the model helped us explain why they were designed in this way and helped us get people on side.”

Tenants’ bills slashed

Residents moved into the new houses in December 2013, with post-occupancy monitoring continuing ever since.

Although precise data is not yet available, early indications are that residents are saving large amounts of money on their energy bills – a particularly important achievement for affordable housing.

“I know, for example, that one tenant’s bills have gone from £200 per month in their previous house to just £20 per month here – that’s a huge drop,” Mr Speller says.

“One tenant’s bills have gone from £200 per month in their previous house to just £20 per month here”

Adrian Speller, Speller Metcalfe

“It’s really important that we’re returning to the project and monitoring it.

“We also provided training and education for the residents to give them an understanding of how the fabric works, how the ventilation systems work and why the airtightness is so important.”

The scheme was also designed to be an exemplar pilot project for Rooftop Housing Group, as it was the first of its kind in the West Midlands.

In particular, the housing association wanted to establish the true costs of providing CSH Level 6 housing over a typical Level 3 property, the current minimum requirement for affordable housing.

Level 6 unexpectedly cheap

Speller Metcalfe delivered the scheme at a cost of £1,500 per sq m, compared with £1,150 per sq m for a typical CSH Level 4 property – a figure that was lower than expected.

“We leveraged our supply chain and looked to hone costs wherever we could to keep it down,” Mr Speller explains.

“You could make it even cheaper by simplifying the structure. Depending on the location, this would be an option.

“These houses have balconies, for example, but not all would need these, and taking them out would reduce the cost further.”

“We can see that the technology required to build to this level is more widely available now that before, which has driven down costs”

Adrian Speller, Speller Metcalfe

Cost is, of course, a big issue when building homes sustainably. The homes at Blake’s Hill cost more than typical affordable housing, but the lower bills ensure the benefits are passed on to residents in the long run.

And Speller Metcalfe, experienced in the sector, is finding that costs are going down across the board.

“Materials in particular were much more expensive three or four years ago,” Mr Speller says.

“As a contractor doing low-carbon builds, we can see that the technology required to build to this level is more widely available now that before, which has driven down costs.

“That’s good, because it needs to go that way if we are to achieve the sustainability goals set out by the government.”

Not only that, but schemes such as Blake’s Hill that add value to local communities could be one way to overcome local objections to affordable housing schemes – in turn helping to overcome the housing shortfall we’re hearing so much about.

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