Housing

With homelessness still a major problem in Birmingham, and hundreds of citizens forced to sleep on the city streets, the least we should be demanding is a home for every person. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. We can start a full blown housing revolution while addressing homelessness and unemployment simultaneously. Instead of dilapidated, empty buildings and homeless citizens on street corners, imagine well insulated, energy efficient housing stock for all; locally grown construction fibres and sustainably produced new builds; the integration of renewable and no waste technologies; and affordable rent for those who don't own their home.

The problem

Rising energy bills are one of the chief financial concerns for householders; particularly as the price of fossil fuels and subsidised nuclear power continues to rise. The UK has some of the highest rates of fuel poverty in Europe; largely because its energy inefficient homes are a major contributing factor to high energy bills.

Energy inefficient homes are not only expensive to heat and wasteful but can damage the health of their occupants. For instance, children living in cold homes are significantly more likely to suffer from chest problems such as asthma and bronchitis, while living in fuel poverty has also been shown to adversely affect mental health. More than 1 in 4 adolescents living in cold homes are at risk of multiple mental health problems compared to 1 in 20 adolescents who have always lived in warm housing. Cold homes also negatively affect children’s educational attainment and emotional wellbeing.

On top of this, tenants typically spend 39% of their income on rent compared with a European average of 28%, making UK rent prices among some of the highest on the continent. Our counterparts in Holland and Germany have private rents up to 50% cheaper than in the UK. This, coupled with high energy costs, makes living conditions unpalatable for many citizens.

The UK’s approach to construction is generally problematic. For instance, we import more than £3billion worth of construction materials every month: in 2013 we imported more than 440,000 tonnes of brick alone. This makes us heavily reliant upon oil intensive methods of obtaining materials, which is unsustainable in the long term. It also sees investment in the industry going out of the regional economy and into the hands of foreign suppliers.

The solution

Domestic energy efficiency is one of the most cost effective ways of controlling energy bills, as well as saving energy and creating jobs. It is also one of the best ways to permanently reduce energy usage and the associated costs. Investing in energy efficiency could permanently reduce bills and lift the majority of citizens out of fuel poverty. At the same time it could stimulate green construction and manufacturing industries, creating much needed jobs in a region suffering from unemployment three times above the national average.

But there will still be a need for energy, even in the most efficient homes, which calls for a greater commitment to integrating renewables, such as solar panels, into existing and new build properties. This will give people greater energy autonomy, and make them less reliant on the grid.

Hemp and limestone may offer a solution to the high import volumes of construction materials – particularly bricks – in the form of hempcrete. Hempcrete, or "hemp-lime", is produced by wet-mixing hemp shiv with a lime binder, which has extraordinary thermal properties and "deep-green" sustainability credentials. Hempcrete creates healthy buildings, due to its ability to absorb and release moisture vapour from the interior air (hygroscopicity). This helps to passively regulate internal humidity and prevents condensation and damp which can lead to toxic or black mould growth.

Proponents of hempcrete praise its unique ability to provide excellent thermal and acoustic properties in a single structurally sound, airtight building material which can be used to form the whole thermal envelope of a building. Other modern construction methods require the use of several different materials, products and assemblies to match hempcrete's properties and meet the many different requirements for walls, floors and roofs. The costs of building with hempcrete may also be comparable or lower than those of conventional construction. This remarkable material could theoretically be grown in the farms of the West Midlands and manufactured in Birmingham, creating a sustainable construction industry.

According to homeless charity, Shelter, rent levels are high because there are too many people who have to rent, and not enough homes available. Rents can only be reduced sustainably by increasing the overall supply of all types of homes, so that more people can get a social home or buy their own with a mortgage, and fewer private renters have to compete over each available home. In 2014 Birmingham had more than 9,000 recorded vacant dwellings. Bringing even just half of these dwellings back into use as social and council homes would help to manage rent prices while also going some way towards addressing the city’s homelessness problem.

 

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