UK BtR Sustainability Q&A with Niamh Waldron

Q: How do you feel the ethos of BtR design will change given the challenges tenants were exposed to during the pandemic?

Niamh: The past two years have been challenging for us all and the pandemic has afforded us all time to think and evaluate our priorities; what we want from life and our homes, and indeed how we live and work.

On a very basic level, houses have been homes and work spaces, but also places where we need to feel safe and comfortable. Access to outdoor space, a garden, a balcony, communal space in environments that make us feel good, find refuge and time for ourselves have been so important. Making sure these features are built into design and communities has always been important but we need to think more broadly about this space.

We must consider and aim to create sustainable locations for homes with facilities around growing, nurturing, cycle paths, good lighting to enable evening walks, benches to take a break (a simple yet hugely effective place), playground, dog play parks, etc. Within the home we need flexible and clever use of space and clever furnishings to enable home working but without work taking over the home.

Design going forward must also aim to incorporate efficient top-of-the-class technology and Wi-Fi as a given. The many benefits to our residents of our Simple Life App, and therefore ultimately us, is clear in terms of personal management, communication and efficiency. This basic modern need should not be a challenge. And of course, community and supporting one another has also come to the fore, so building communities of broad demographic where support naturally develops, and empathy can flourish is so important. There are so many simple ways to achieve this by just seeing and understanding what has worked and building this into the fabric of all we do.

Q: Mental health and wellbeing is such an important part of everyone’s day-today existence – how are your developments contributing to creating a positive environment for your tenants?

Niamh: People are and have always been our focus. I personally joined the company during the pandemic with the remit to “make people’s lives a little better or a little easier by our actions” which reflects our company value and core belief system.

A commitment to building efficient and beautiful homes in communities with access to amenities, and ensuring we contribute positively and in an engaging manner with the wider community, demonstrates an understanding and desire to care for people.

Immediate and proactive provision of support at the start of the pandemic for residents, alongside online support for parents as they home-schooled, are some examples.

Peace of Mind Month, and our Health and Wellbeing series, involved a range of events and activities for residents. From baking to yoga, fitness to beauty; sharing online was greatly supported. The resulting local online groups, nominations for charity donations and prizes for people who deserved a little treat, even a virtual Easter Egg hunt, reflect the sense of true community and engagement.

Q: With the plethora of sustainable strategies available in 2022, from waste reduction to CO2 off setting and energy use reduction, what do you feel should be the minimum sustainable target for a BtR development? And what would a completely green development encompass?

Niamh: We should all be targeting reduction and efficiency ahead of off-setting.

Given the recent energy price increases, I really believe we should be focusing on offering people energy efficient homes, over 85% A&B EPC rated within our portfolio, ensuring we provide the fabric around them to in some way mitigate forthcoming costs. Further focus must also be to investigate partnerships with sustainable energy providers, and work towards providing community-based energy, and even look towards  providing our own supplies.

At a construction level we need to build into contracts points of waste and energy reduction alongside supply chain requirements. PV panels, solar street lighting, wild flower areas, fruit orchards, EV charge points, should be  immediate short term targets  Simple things like, clothes recycling, good and well-maintained recycling provision, and accessibility to sustainable products, need to be in place.

A completely ‘green’ community will have all of the above, and we need to work out how this can be achieved with a careful eye on ROI, as balancing expectations and a focus on long term return and asset lifetime value is valued and important to all stakeholders..

Q: Development costs are usually the adversary of sustainable practices – what are the practices you see as having the best ROI? And how do you quantify the benefits to a tenant in order to get funder approval and to incorporating at the front end?

Niamh: Long-term, sustainable data and asset value have to be the message. All stakeholders realise and appreciate there will be a cost to achieving these goals , but the long term benefits to people and the planet, mean the investment has longevity.

This is a huge challenge, but if there are certain minimum expected provisions and targets in place, and this is consistent across the board, we may get where we need to be. It is not easy but that does not mean we should not try. Keep telling the long term benefit story and legacy, and we will get there.

Q: There are always new systems and methods of construction being developed. How do you choose the most appropriate for your business and what are the evaluation techniques you use to confirm if the methods are appropriate for future jobs?

Niamh: Simple Life manages a portfolio of multiple construction type properties.

Our principle preference for family housing has been timber frame; a sustainable source of construction which has been significantly supported to become commercially efficient, reliable in quality and build delivery., but increasingly we are using MMC and sectional construction with the consequent uptick in quality and reduction in construction waste. The rapidity at which the homes can be delivered is also accretive to returns as income can be created much earlier on in the construction cycle.

Q: We’re seeing an ever-increasing demand from the government, investors, and local councils for BtR contribution to the climate crisis – how do you see the design of a BtR evolving to match this requirement and is it possible to design a carbon negative building?

Niamh: The challenge is balancing cost and providing efficient and affordable homes in the BtR space. Low carbon homes are indeed possible but cost prohibitive at present as we are still early in this journey.

Q: Are there any final thoughts and personal opinions on the direction of the sustainability and longevity of developments within this sector you’d like to share?

We are in an exciting space at a time of great opportunity and possibility, not to mention the huge need nationally for homes and globally for the climate, but also a time of immense detail and challenge. It can seem overwhelming and therefore we wonder where to begin? As with all challenges we should try to keep it as simple as possible, doable.

Set SMART targets, engage with people, support and encourage innovation, open our minds to the idea and prospect of working collaboratively, knowing and accepting that we have to make this work, together. There is much to be very excited about, and yes it will be a challenge, but the rewards are endless and our potential legacy worth that challenge.

Article written and published by UK BtR: 

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