Comment: Sustainable timber frame housing can snuff out fuel poverty

Hands up if you’ve heard about the urgent need for new homes? Chances are most of the business community have seen a ­headline or three about the UK government’s ambition to see 300,000 new homes built by the mid-2020s.

Scotframe sales director Malcolm Thomson says sustainability improvements can 'significantly reduce fuel poverty and reduce maintenance costs'. Picture: Monkey Business - Fotolia
Scotframe sales director Malcolm Thomson says sustainability improvements can 'significantly reduce fuel poverty and reduce maintenance costs'. Picture: Monkey Business - Fotolia

It’s a laudable ambition. While this is a stretch target, and the industry is some way behind the curve, there is no doubt that we need these homes. But it shouldn’t just be about the number of new builds. Quality and future viability need to be ­further up the agenda. It is equally important for the industry to focus on providing sustainable, energy-efficient homes that are built to last.

This message is definitely getting through to self-builders who, understandably, have a vested interest in building a sustainable property with low energy costs, as presumably they plan on staying put for years. Self-builders understand the benefits of building sustainably. This starts with the very fabric of their property – the external walls, floors and roofs.

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A timber frame structure is complemented by closed panel building systems – manufactured offsite – to deliver high thermal performance and an exceptional air-tight home that exceeds the most ­stringent environmental and sustainability credentials.

It costs a little more at the outset but the costs are recouped via lower energy bills in future. But how do you persuade, say, housing associations to do the same, when government and industry focus is all about the number of new homes built?

'Remarkable energy reduction'

It was not always like this. In the early noughties, 40 per cent of housing ­association properties were built to a timber frame construction and often to a higher specification than those in the ­private sector. However, the 2008 recession resulted in a focus on building for the lowest cost possible.

Today there is greater understanding of the importance of building energy-efficient homes. But if I were chief executive of a housing association, I would be thinking: how can I leverage sustainability improvements to significantly reduce fuel poverty and reduced maintenance costs?

There is a big win here for those ­willing to think beyond unit numbers – Scotframe’s building systems significantly improve a building’s sustainability credentials, thus achieving a remarkable energy reduction over a building’s lifetime. Eildon Housing, based in Selkirk in the Scottish Borders, is a great example of a registered social landlord thinking differently. ­Eildon wants to build homes more quickly and – this is the important bit – make them cheaper to heat while they do so. They plan to trial different construction methods across four new sites beginning in the New Year. Construction costs, time to build, living quality and financial viability will all be under scrutiny.

Potential new tenants will be involved in the study and the results will be used to ­determine Eildon’s future building programme while blazing a trail for how Scottish homes are built and lived in in the future.

Tackling fuel poverty

This farsightedness is to be applauded. Scotframe has been working alongside UK social housing providers throughout our 30-year history, extolling the benefits of energy-efficient timber frame packages.

But we have more work to do to dispel the misperceptions that this way of building costs more. In reality, any additional costs are ­rapidly offset by reduced labour resources during a shorter build time. Even more importantly for social landlords, future maintenance costs for the lifespan of the property are significant reduced before you factor in the reduction in heating costs for tenants.

Building energy efficient homes is getting easier thanks to technological innovation and precision offsite construction expertise but it needs social landlords to see the wider, long term benefits – for them and for the tenants for whom fuel poverty is a growing concern.

Malcolm Thomson, sales director at Scotframe.