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Supply: Accounting for the triple bottom line

Building truly sustainable homes means looking beyond capital cost to the wider benefits to the community and the environment, says Glen Peters.

In 2013 when we completed Ty Solar, our prototype three-bed solar home we invited the great and the good to the opening: chief executives of of housing associations, local authorities and government ministers.

The First Minister did his best to enthuse the luncheon crowd and he promised the excited pupils from nearby Ysgol Preseli that these low energy affordable homes would be the commonly available when they were adults and looking for their first home. Everyone was looking forward to seeing more of these homes that solved so many problems and ticked so many boxes.

When the party was over we waited for calls but none came. Weeks passed and we decided to call our guests to investigate. We discovered that the initial enthusiasm had evaporated into scepticism. ‘We’ll never get that through our Board,’ said one. ‘If only you could throw up a brick skin on the outside…,” said another. ‘If the windows were PVC it’d be more acceptable to our property services.’ The negative comments were endless.

We concluded that our concept homes were too innovative and different to the current market for affordable housing and decided to build our own solar village and manage the properties ourselves to prove that they were wrong.

And now we’re done: six homes in the Pembrokeshire National Park, four conditioned by a Section 106 at intermediate rent, together they generate 50,000 Kwh per annum and collectively produce twice the energy to run a home. And thanks to substantial interest by the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment and the media nationally and internationally we’re in the happy position of discussing at least three projects with different housing providers.

So what has changed?

I believe there is a new appetite amongst some housing providers for looking beyond the myopic lens of capital cost and more holistically at the wider benefits to the local community and the environment; the jobs created, the carbon sequestrated.

The scourge of KPIs that have been over-weighted towards providing the cheapest cost per square foot of accommodation creates more problems than it solves. Spending millions on developing an estate where labour is shipped in from a hundred miles away, where materials have travelled thousands of carbon miles and where harmful carcinogens such as adhesives, paints and preservatives that may have been used in the building materials, have been a race to the bottom for sustainable homes.

In designing the homes at Pentre Solar in the Pembrokeshire National Park we engineered out many of the traditional aspects of a domestic homes. Gone was the plumbing (except for toilets), the attic, roof tiling, linear development and other aspects that have been de rigeur for decades.

We decided that timber, our core building material, would have to be sourced locally to reduce the embedded carbon miles. This would also have the effect of bolstering local supply chains in the future. In effect, Siberian or Canadian pine or rainforest hardwoods would be avoided. Wood Knowledge Wales helped us source ample quantities of local timber.

We went overboard with the thickness of insulation after we discovered that the lifetime value of a home was significantly enhanced by the highest standards of insulation and airtightness. Our SAP rating exceeds 104 on a scale where Category A starts at 92.

And carcinogens were virtually eliminated by rejecting adhesively bonded timber sections, or chemical preservatives or oil-based paints. The latter have proven to be particularly unfavourable in new builds due to the large surfaces of harmful vapour emissions.

Our focus on user experience also helped us to conclude that the homes should be straightforward to live in. ‘Open a window if its gets too warm or stuffy, shut it is it gets too cold,’ was our mantra. Our heating came from thermostatically controlled traditional wall mounted heaters some of which stored PV generated energy during daytime hours.

And in addition to around £1,000 in energy savings per annum we also decided to offer a community electric car which would potentially save each household another £1,000 and cost us less that 1 per cent of the capital cost of the development. For the village that represents a £300,000 benefit over a 25-year occupancy for an additional capital outlay that’s less than a quarter of the financial gain.

None of these benefits seem to have a way of being valued in the current regime. I call upon someone in Welsh Government to encourage the local authorities and RSLs to think more about triple bottom line benefits to tenants, to the community, the environment and to the long-term financial sustainability of future affordable housing programmes.

Glen Peters is CEO of Western Solar


Western Solar Ltd, an SME in Pembrokeshire, has built six sustainable affordable homes to showcase the future of this sector. It has ambitious expansion plans over the next ten years to meet the needs for energy efficient low cost housing.

Western Solar Ltd has spent £2 million researching and developing a sustainable timber building system that is 100 per cent British, relying heavily on local supply chains, labour, materials and powered by solar energy. It has established an eco factory, built a full prototype solar home and has now completed the first solar village of six homes which it will operate as a private social landlord.

The homes can be built at average traditional build costs of £1,200/sq m and offer an energy efficiency (A Rating 105) and environmental impact (A 104). 12,000 KwH of annual energy production make the homes net contributors to the grid. Having 11” of insulation together with passive house standard windows and design mean each house consumes around 12 per cent of the energy of a traditional home saving a family £1,000 pa on fuel bills. The part factory built units is set to disrupt traditional development methods.

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