Digital transformation and pathways to net zero were front and centre at this year’s annual conference of the Chartered Institute of Housing.
No longer relegated to niche corners of exhibition halls or to panel discussions attended by three people, questions about how the sector is going to become green and connected were everywhere at the sector-leading affordable housing conference.
Upon arrival at Manchester Central, some of the first exhibitors attendees saw were software providers like Aareon. Companies solving problems of connectivity – CityFibre, Hyperoptic, Openreach – were clearly represented, as were creators of digital twins, like Twinnedit whose stand – twice as large as those around it – was impossible to miss near the Digital Futures stage.
Panel discussions about net zero and digitisation were found on most event stages, proof that the industry is coming to terms with the fact that these are not issues reserved for startups or activists. These are problems everyone has to tackle.
Some of the major themes coming out of Housing 2021:
Don’t react to problems – pre-empt them
“If you’ve landed from Mars and you looked at the housing landlord service, you’d be really confused – because it’s based on failure,” said Nick Atkin, CEO of Yorkshire Housing.
Instead of waiting for things to go wrong and then spending a lot of money fixing them, landlords should consider how they can avoid problems in the first place. That relies on having good data, smart homes that alert landlords to potential problems and real-time customer insights.
Focus on the positives of achieving net zero
Talk about net zero is often framed in a negative light: having to give up things people enjoy– eating meat, flying – or paying extra to be sustainable. But the industry should make an effort to highlight the positives: sustainable homes will be warmer, more comfortable and have the potential to lift people out of fuel poverty.
Leave offsets to other industries
“Get out of jail free cards – there aren’t many of them, and you should really try to avoid using them especially in housing,” said Robert Prewett, member of the RIBA Sustainable Futures Group.
Compared to aviation or agriculture, emissions from housing are relatively easy to cut. Dipping into finite offsets to reach net zero when solutions do exist would be a waste.
Connected houses are the key to carbon reductions
Smart devices showcased throughout the event demonstrated their role in decarbonisation. Wondrwall developed a battery to go alongside its smart devices, allowing it to store energy generated by solar panels, optimise how it will use that energy (and where) in the following days, buy any extra energy at the most cost effective times and sell any unused energy back to the grid.
Meanwhile, Sero uses its devices to monitor how a home is used and effectively runs the house to produce the minimum possible carbon footprint.
Defining net zero in housing is actually not straightforward
There is no statutory definition of net zero for homes, and some attempted definitions have made mistakes in the past, such as measuring energy consumed, not carbon emitted.
When calculating a home’s carbon footprint, you also need to take into account the number of people living there. Not accounting for everyone means not accounting for the entire carbon footprint of the home.
For the best definition of net zero, Andy Sutton, co-founder of Sero Homes, suggested referring to the UK Green Building Council.
Digital transformation is a long-term journey – start now…
What a company needs to do to be on top of its digital transformation will always evolve, which is why your business will “never really nail it”, Jacqui Bateson, managing director at HACT said.
She added: “Becoming digital feels like a really big and hairy, audacious target. But it doesn’t have to be done perfectly in one go. You just have to break it down and start. Just start and learn, and then do a bit more and learn a bit more. That’s all it takes.”
… the same goes for sustainability
In another panel, Sue Riddlestone, CEO and co-founder of Bioregional, urged landlords to get started with a net zero plan and not wait for a framework from the government: “Don’t wait for the perfect solution, get started.”
Making a start will allow you to see where the gaps in what you can deliver are and where you need support. That’s where lobbying by industry bodies comes in.
The ideal construction site is a connected construction site
In a presentation about how 5G can transform construction, Joe Budnar-Hunt, network solutions engineer at UK Connect, gave several practical examples, including reducing costs from workplace injuries:
- High-speed connectivity can improve health and safety by powering machine learning-enabled CCTV that can identify where construction workers are doing something potentially dangerous or not wearing PPE
- IoT devices could monitor gates and send alerts if left open
- Mixed reality smart glasses could render virtual models of a building, helping workers find and resolve issues in planned developments they might otherwise miss
Modular housing is primed to deliver true zero carbon homes
Five years on from Mark Farmer’s seminal Modernise or Die report, modular construction is starting to prove that it works. Ilke Homes has gone from a few homes dotted around larger sites to delivering 600 modular homes within a single project. Having delivered five zero carbon homes already, the next step for the company is to do so in a more cost-effective way.
Once hitting zero carbon at no extra cost becomes a reality – which Nigel Banks, special projects director at ilke Homes, believes it will by 2030 – “the traditional approaches become obsolete”.
Don’t underestimate your tenants’ digital adoption
“It’s a common and lazy misconception that our customers live in some Dickensian parallel universe where they don’t have access to the internet,” Yorkshire Housing’s Atkin said.
The reality is that customers are digitally connected – more so than ever after the pandemic – and what they want is an easy solution to problems, easy customer service, in three clicks. Regardless of tenure, the customer experience has to be digital and easy to use.