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Understanding the real performance of Housing Association homesAugust 2014

Written by Guest Writer, Andrew Burke, Policy Officer, National Housing Federation

Housing associations have been at the forefront of the Technology Strategy Board’s competitions to better understand the real performance of buildings and learn the lessons needed to deliver new homes and refurbishments that can deliver healthy indoor environments, together with low fuel bills. The experience on occasions has been challenging, with projects highlighting weaknesses in design assessments, difficulties with the procurement and supply, poor quality installations with limited commissioning of unfamiliar systems and tenants struggling to get the best from the systems. It is not surprising with newer technologies and unfamiliar techniques that it takes time for the industry to develop and consistently deliver systems that can perform. Similarly, tenants and maintenance teams need to recognise that changes to current systems and approaches will be needed to get the best from their homes.

The Federation recently attend a joint BSRIA KTN Modern Built Environment event on Indoor Air Quality and the issues around the delivery of domestic ventilation systems that perform successfully. The event discussed the underpinning research and concepts that have formulated the approach to ventilating dwellings, and highlighted the experiences of one housing association. With over 100 mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) installations the experience has left the association concerned as to whether such systems are the right approach for social housing.

The association in question had designed all 100 properties to reach the minimum Code for Sustainable Homes requirements, however every scheme including MVHR had experienced at least one of a range of different problems, and whatever the problem the outcome remained the same, an ineffective system and building operation. Problems were exacerbated by the tenants not always reporting the fault. The most obvious manifestation of the problems experienced were large amounts of cosmetic damage.

The problems experienced included poor installation and commissioning, a lack of tenant awareness and understanding of the technology and a lack of maintenance. Whilst the association can take direct control over poor installation, commissioning and the lack of maintenance by better training of their staff or installation and maintenance partner, they have less direct control over tenant behaviour.

Whilst training for tenants could be provided this does introduce a level of complexity and logistics that are not desirable. As a result the association are questioning their whole design process and have made a decision that simple, well tried and tested technologies may serve their particular needs best. In the case of ventilation this has led to natural ventilation now being their preferred choice over newer technologies.

These views reflect the growing concern that in some areas the industry is struggling to deliver well engineered, robust systems that can perform. However, the event moved on to a positive discussion around the wider experience in the construction industry with a deeper understanding of the successful installation of mechanical ventilation systems in commercial buildings, and the actions that can be taken to improve the situation. The workshop highlighted the need for a sound engineering approach to the detailed design of the ventilation system, with particular attention to noise and the impact that this can have on tenants’ perceptions of wellbeing. Practical suggestions were offered on improvements to installation and commissioning with lessons from the commercial sector shared, and thoughts on alternative approaches to maintenance requirements and filter changing in particular.

It was agreed that the cross sector learnings should be developed to allow us as an industry to meet our challenges and deliver product and designs that meet the operator needs and comply with best practice and regulatory requirements.

The Federation and BSRIA are working on an agreement that will enable each of the member organisations to share their knowledge and experiences proactively through a series of network events and shared publications. An initial launch event of this Residential Network will be delivered later in the year. Both organisations hope that this will lead to a proactive sharing of knowledge and experience that will be beneficial to all members.

About the National Housing Federation

The National Housing Federation represents over 90% of the Housing Associations in the country taking an active role in supporting and promoting the work that Housing Associations do. The Federation seeks to enable the delivery of great homes and promotes the health and wellbeing of tenants. In this vein the Federation recognises that the industry faces significant challenges in meeting the government’s targets for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from housing, whilst still providing solutions that are robust and deliver real performance. In looking to the future the Federation is encouraging their members to think about how to deliver the proposed zero carbon standards for new housing and the similar challenges associated with the refurbishment of the existing stock.

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