Fuel poverty is a serious challenge in rural England. More than one in eight households in rural villages, hamlets and isolated dwellings are in fuel poverty. The more rural a location gets, the more the fuel poverty gap widens. As rural homes are more likely to be off-gas, more have to rely on expensive electric or oil heating arrangements. Shockingly, rural households with the worst ‘fuel poverty energy efficiency rating’ have an average fuel poverty gap of an enormous £1,223.
Hastoe is England’s largest specialist rural housing provider. We recognise there is little point in providing affordable rents for rural homes if the homes are too expensive to run. We have to innovate to bring down fuel bills.
So, over the last seven years, Hastoe has pioneered building Passivhaus homes. Passivhaus is a simple technique in theory – a very energy-efficient method of building, based on good air-tightness with mechanical ventilation, and excellent insulation.
The homes are constructed to have minimal energy demands for heating and cooling, while providing high levels of comfort. Much of the heating in a Passivhaus home comes from ‘passive’ sources such as the sun, occupants and household appliances. The benefits are considerable. Passivhaus can achieve a 90 per cent reduction in space heating standards compared to standard UK new-builds. Fuel bills are slashed and carbon emissions for each home reduce very significantly.
Hastoe completed its first Passivhaus homes in the village of Wimbish in Essex in 2011. It was the first Passivhaus social housing development in rural England, providing 14 homes for local people at affordable rents and shared ownership.
Hastoe has worked with the University of East Anglia to monitor the performance of these homes since 2011 and the results have been startling. The average annual gas bill for the houses can be as little as £130, dropping to £62 for the flats. Performance remains consistent, seven years after the development was completed.
That’s a huge annual saving for our residents of around £500 compared to the national average. It builds affordability into the fabric of the building – a saving that sits outside any benefit or rent regime. Quite simply, Passivhaus keeps more money in the pockets of our residents.
Moreover, there is a link between the energy efficiency of homes and the bottom line of social landlords. Research from over 500,000 homes shows that more energy-efficient homes have lower rent arears and are empty for shorter periods of time. For social landlords such as Hastoe, who expect to manage and maintain the properties we build for decades, it’s a long-term investment that benefits both our tenants and our finances.
The development at Wimbish was so popular that the local community asked for another. Wimbish II was completed in 2016, making the village a pioneer in ultra-energy efficient homes. It shows how very high-energy efficiency and quality design can increase support for new development in rural areas.
Hastoe has now built over 100 Passivhaus homes and we plan to always have one Passivhaus scheme on site at all times. Building schemes to the Passivhaus standard has clearly brought long-term financial and health benefits to our residents. But our wider, strategic aim has been to demonstrate that this method is a viable one for the social housing sector.
Our hope is that, as more people and communities become aware of the benefits of Passivhaus, they will request and demand more homes to be built to those high standards. Hastoe is a founder member of the Passivhaus Trust – a UK-wide organisation to promote Passivhaus principles to the building industry and the government.
There also appears to be a growing recognition of the standard at political level. The Labour Party’s ‘Social Housing Green Paper’, published in April 2018, committed to funding and support for housing providers and councils to build new homes to the Passivhaus standard. We hope the commitment will be repeated when the government publishes its own plans for social housing at the end of July 2018. Policy-makers are finally waking up to the potential of Passivhaus to tackle fuel poverty and ensure the UK hits its carbon reduction targets.
At Hastoe, we have been developing Passivhaus schemes repeatedly and have learned about managing the costs of the process. Building to the Passivhaus standard is more expensive than a traditional home; this is partly because in order to achieve certification, the properties must be far more airtight and built using specific and approved materials. This includes special membranes and tapes to ensure airtightness, triple-glazed windows, highly-insulated doors and walls, and a very efficient mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) system. These materials are more scarce and, therefore, more expensive.
Passivhaus is as much about build quality and process as it is about design, and so there is also the supply chain to consider. Comparatively few architects and building firms have experience of building to the Passivhaus standard – making these skills more expensive to procure. However, we feel strongly that it’s an investment worth making. As we have worked with more architects and contractors on more schemes, and applied lessons learned at one development to the next, we are seeing the design and build costs reduce and are building better homes. Although starting from a small base, skills and expertise in Passivhaus are increasing all the time.
Hastoe will continue developing Passivhaus homes and try to highlight the benefits of the technique in the social housing sector. The lessons we have learned building to the Passivhaus standard have been invaluable for our development team. We find that, when we present to parish councils and local communities on why they should partner with us to build more homes, innovation like Passivhaus really catches their attention. When people hear a technology exists to cut their fuel bills to £30 per quarter, they want to learn more about it.
So Hastoe will keep building to and promoting the Passivhaus standard – to cut resident bills, to reduce building emissions and to promote the technique across the sector.
Don Barclay is the development director at Hastoe Housing Association.