The combination of our mild, drizzly climate and aging housing stock comprises the perfect breeding ground for damp and mould. It will continue to exist even after the pre-1970s tower blocks and maisonettes have been replaced by modern designs. Even an energy-efficient modern home can suffer from damp and mould if it’s over-occupied, under-heated and poorly-ventilated. In short, damp and mould problems won’t be disappearing anytime soon.
The recent spate of tragic headlines has been a stark and sorrowful reminder that it’s not a problem to be side-lined. Fuel poverty is likely to exacerbate the problem as more tenants choose between heating and eating. However, as the Housing Ombudsman has stated, damp and mould are not lifestyle problems.
While there isn’t one quick-fix solution to preventing and managing damp and mould, housing providers can make more use of the repairs and complaints data already in their systems to get ahead of the problem by identifying higher risk properties.
Finding the ‘silences in the system’
Sometimes despite best practices, tenants’ expectations aren’t met. Human errors or a lack of a ‘whole system’ approach can mean calls can inadvertently get closed before being resolved. The “general sense of frustration” felt by tenants that landlords aren’t listening or taking “repair requests or complaints seriously” was highlighted by the Housing Ombudsman in 2021.
Consider the following scenario… A tenant calls to report a damp and mould problem from a leak in the roof. The call is logged and then subsequently cancelled because there is a maintenance programme to replace the roof next month. However, the day after the call is closed, the planned maintenance programme is postponed until next year and the roof doesn’t get replaced after all. So, while the problem appears resolved, in fact it’s unaddressed. The damp and mould continue to spread, so the tenant calls again or uses another channel but because it’s not linked to the original call, it’s not actioned as a priority repair. Three months or more go by without the tenant’s concern being addressed. The tenant feels ignored and stops complaining and the damp and mould escalates.
The good news is that it’s possible to find ‘silences’ like these in the system. Improving analytics in the housing management system can help housing providers uncover less obvious information and trigger alerts when calls are closed too quickly or a tenant suddenly stops complaining and there isn’t a record of any repairs taking place.
Artificial intelligence makes it easier to spot patterns and trends by picking up the same problem reported in other calls, messages or social media posts. The silences are more likely to be found in unstructured data such as note pad entries or inspection reports, rather than in the structured data such as the call reference, date, time or address.
The data gives the housing team a fuller picture so they can act faster than if a report or comment was seen as an isolated concern, thereby supporting housing providers to fulfil the Housing Ombudsman’s recommendation to be on the front foot in finding ‘their silence’.
Understanding the root causes
Drilling into the data will help determine what’s causing the damp and mould in the property. Is the asset structurally failing in its design because it’s a 1950s block of flats or is the property over-occupied or incorrectly-ventilated?
Analysing both tenant and asset data will give a more rounded picture and enable housing providers to identify higher risk categories, in much the same way that data is now used to improve income management by predicting those more at risk of debt. Overlaying both sets of data means providers can build a list and rank properties according to risk; they can then take pre-emptive action and contact tenants in higher risk homes to see if they have a damp and mould problem.
As data quality continues to improve in our sector, better insights are becoming more achievable and will help housing providers proactively tackle damp and mould. When visiting the property or talking with the tenants about other problems, housing staff will be aware that the asset is at higher risk so they can check for damp and mould and support the tenant in managing it.
The current decarbonisation and net-zero retrofit programmes are giving housing providers both the insights and opportunities to be more proactive. While the properties are being retrofitted with cladding, insulation, ventilation, new window glazing and new doors, problems with damp and mould can also be addressed. This approach will help shift the dial towards the whole system working together to tackle the systemic problem of damp and mould.
Prediction and prevention
IoT sensors are also worth putting higher on the agenda because they can be a very useful tool in helping both housing providers and tenants stay on top of damp and mould. Their key advantage is that the sensors bring a combined view of both the tenant and the asset.
Using data from the IoT sensors allows housing providers to actively engage tenants in maintaining healthier and more efficiently-run homes. For example, if moisture levels compared to the square-footage of the asset starts to increase disproportionally and is outside an acceptable threshold then an alert can be automatically triggered to ensure a property inspection takes place.
However, for many tenants to feel happy about the installation of IoT sensors, they need to be part of the journey so they can trust and understand the technology. Running a pilot scheme is one way to do this because tenants can be shown the data to prove how other tenants in similar homes were able to ventilate and reduce humidity without suffering significant heat losses.
The presence of damp and mould in properties isn’t a short-term problem. Neither is it a problem that can be tackled alone. What is needed is a more strategic response that gives both tenants and housing providers the insights and understandings they both need to tackle the problem together.
We are working with several large housing providers to develop a joint and more data-driven approach to tackling damp and mould. Everybody has a part to play to minimise the risk of damp and mould, and education through shared learning and analysis will go a long way in supporting this.
Trevor Hampton is the director of housing solutions at NEC Software Solutions.