It pays to be efficient, but it pays more to be sustainable

8th September 2023

Jordan Turner, PhD student at the University of Wolverhampton and graduate surveyor at Frasers Group, explores the barriers that must be overcome to deliver sustainable housing.

The built environment produces just over a third of all global emissions. In the UK alone, 40% of emissions produced come from residential households. Consequently, the UK government is determined to meet a net-zero emissions target by 2050. This was outlined in the Planning For The Future consultation, which set out a schedule of goals that would need to be met in order to achieve this. One particular focus in reaching net zero is through residential buildings.

Energy efficient does not equal sustainability

Ensuring that our homes become more sustainable, energy efficient and greener through the use of innovative and sustainable materials during construction is essential. Current research leans towards retrofitting rather than the creation of energy efficient homes from the outset, but there is also a lack of research in finding new construction methods. New domestic Minimum Energy Efficiency Standard (MEES) regulations proposed to come into effect from 2025 are aimed at increasing the minimum energy performance certificate (EPC) rating for rented properties from an E to a C. However, it raises the question of whether energy efficient necessarily means sustainable. Double-glazing, decent insulation and a new boiler may provide a good energy efficiency rating, but does this equate to it being sustainable?

Break it down

Further research and the implementation of more sustainable methods within residential housing is needed. To do this, it is important to effectively break down a house into individual elements – heating systems, insulation, windows, doors, the foundations and shell itself – and then look at how innovative and sustainable materials and practices can replace traditional methods previously used. We are not talking about virgin materials and methods, but ones that are readily available but are not being used.


The biggest obstacle to all of this is cost. For example, hemp insulation, which is a far more sustainable material, will cost around £15 to £20 per square metre over commonly used fibreglass at £5 per square metre and sometimes less. Hempcrete similarly comes in at a higher cost over concrete, at almost £100 more per square metre. However, we need to look at the bigger picture. M&S built its Cheshire Oaks superstore using hempcrete and, after just one year of monitoring, found that the store was producing 40% fewer carbon emissions than an equivalent conventionally built store. It also reported that the hempcrete walls were losing less than 1 degree in temperature overnight, compared with 9 degrees in similar store environments – evidence that hempcrete has been successfully implemented and proving beneficial.

Heating systems are also a focus point, with the government wanting to move away from traditional gas boilers to hydrogen and electric systems. It has proposed that all new boilers should be hydrogen-ready by 2026, but sustainability experts suggest that this may not be the best route forward. This is because of the timeframe and because fossil-based hydrogen cannot completely decarbonise heating, as upstream natural gas has leakage and incomplete carbon capture. Electrical heat pump systems have therefore been recommended as the best chance of reaching net zero more quickly. However, a typical air-source heat pump can set you back £8,000, with ground-source heat pumps coming in at an even higher cost of up to £18,000, because of the digging work required. Ground-source heat pumps also need a substantial amount of space unless vertical digging can be permitted.

Solar panels are another way of increasing both energy efficiency and sustainability, but in recent years have become a more expensive option. Going back 10 years, companies were throwing themselves at homeowners, offering free solar panels by effectively leasing the roof space over a period of 25 years. The customer benefited from cheaper electricity and retained the panels at the end of the lease. In recent times, few if any companies offer this, placing the full cost on the homeowner. An average eight-panel system on a semi-detached roof can now cost around £6,000. Solar windows are also being implemented in some buildings and used in conjunction with solar panels. Working in an almost identical way, energy is produced by sunlight hitting the glass. These could be particularly advantageous on areas of a property that use a lot of glass, such as a conservatory.

Overcoming barriers

While, in theory, it would be great to start implementing cutting-edge materials and methods into properties now, the cost of doing so to a current homeowner may not be practical. However, if newbuilds could be proactive in implementing them, then this could begin to drive costs down. Mass production of 500-600 newbuild developments could create the competition the sector needs as other companies jump on the bandwagon. In turn, the cost barriers that currently exist can be reduced in time. We need to create homes that are both energy efficient and sustainable without being burdened with high costs while doing so.

Jordan Turner, MSc. AMEI, GradIEMA, is a PhD student at the University of Wolverhampton and a graduate surveyor at Frasers Group

Image credit: Shutterstock

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