Unlocking Healthier Homes through Digitally-enabled Construction
The last decades of housing growth in the UK have demonstrated that our expectations of our communities have changed.
Homebuilders must understand their role as custodians for the future, ensuring the next generation has the chance to move into healthy, affordable homes and be part of communities that fulfil its wider needs.
The provision of homes, built with the right materials and with genuine care and attention, is part of how we ensure that each generation enjoys the same opportunities and standard of living that their parents did. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the homebuilding industry is as much a service as a business: a good home may be a product, but it’s also an essential for life, and thoughtful design and a commitment to sound principles of quality and longevity is a commitment to the future of our society.
The Oxford-Cambridge Arc has long been a space for innovation, and just as it serves as a testbed for a host of new technologies, we can use it to trial our vision for the communities of tomorrow. With new housing necessary to facilitate the future growth of the Arc, a region that contributes over £75 billion to the UK economy each year, homebuilders need to leverage technology to deliver sustainable, affordable homes that can meet the needs of people for many generations to come.
One of our first demands for the next generation of housing has to be an expectation of higher quality.
The sympathetic retention of heritage architecture is one of the UK’s strengths, but the advanced age of much of our housing stock can threaten people’s health and wellbeing. Many homes are difficult to heat and are plagued by issues of damp and mould or involve harmful legacy building materials such as lead paint or asbestos insulation, requiring substantial investment to resolve. A landmark 2021 report from BRE estimated the cost to the NHS of poor-quality and unmodernised housing at £1.4bn per year, and the wider societal costs at over £18.5bn per year.
These issues are not unique to older homes, as traditional methods of homebuilding all too often involve the use of materials with toxicity levels known to pose serious risks to human health. Combining the latest in technology with offsite manufacturing is a means of addressing this, as digital tools can design out health risks from the outset if they are programmed to generate solutions based on accredited products and materials, which are sourced from approved and responsible suppliers.
Ensuring the consistent delivery of a high-quality housing is simply a matter of combining design software that generates compliant and technically accurate solutions in real time, with the productisation principles adopted by the more innovative automotive and aerospace industries. Bringing together digital tools and a Kit of Parts approach streamlines the process of selecting compatible materials that are high quality, environmentally sustainable, and without the health consequences of traditional construction methods.
Homebuilding is part of a wider problem with the environmental cost of construction.
The UK Green Building Council estimates that the built environment contributes approximately 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint when resources, construction, operational energy usage and transport emissions are all taken into account. At the same time, around 400 million tonnes of materials are used by the UK construction industry each year, representing one of the most resource-heavy and unsustainable parts of the British economy.
The challenge for the homebuilding sector is clear: we need to ensure we design the principles of environmental sustainability into the fabric of our homes and build them using the most sustainable materials possible. Through the possibilities of MMC construction and an overarching thread of quality control, we can ensure houses are thermally and acoustically comfortable with optimised natural light, we can cut down waste in the supply chain by utilising the efficiency of the production line model, and we can specify healthy materials right down to the ingredients in the paint we apply.
We need to prove we can reconcile our environmental objectives with affordability, and the efficiencies inherent to standardisation and offsite construction will be a crucial pillar in achieving this. Coupling these with digital tools that optimise material choice and building form and that monitor environmental performance across the full lifecycle will ensure a virtuous construction cycle. Ultimately, this holistic approach to building healthy homes will enable our society to invest in the safety and security of the next generation and of the environment itself.