Paul Brannen MEP contributes to Labour's housing consultation

07 June 2018

Paul Brannen MEP has today submitted his feedback to the Labour Party's Green Paper consultation - Housing for the many. His contribution, copied below, was sent to John Healy MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Housing. 

"The draft Paper is well written, well structured and in line with the values of the Labour Party.

My contribution is specifically focused on how we can deliver the housing we need ie a focus on the actual construction of these much needed homes.

How can we construct the very large number of homes we need relatively quickly in a way that does not damage the environment and exacerbate climate change? How can we make sure they will be affordable? Can they be energy efficient so that we avoid fuel poverty problems for their residents?

Wider context

The UK is facing a housing crisis but we are not the only country with this problem.  With the global population predicted to rise from 7.6 billion to 11.2 billion by 2100 countries such as China, India, Brazil and Mexico are finding themselves in a similar situation.

If the global demand for homes, including in the UK, is met using traditional building techniques involving concrete, steel, brick and block, we will continue to seriously damage the environment and exacerbate climate change to such a degree that it will become irreversible.

This is because existing construction methods involve the direct or indirect emission of large amounts of CO2, in particular the manufacture of concrete results in 8% of global carbon emissions.  The large amounts of energy in the form of heat required in the manufacture of steel, block and brick further acerbates the problem, resulting in a combined CO2 emissions figure of over 10% of global carbon emissions.

Consequently solving the UK`s and the wider global housing crisis must not simultaneously result in the destruction of the environment.

Part, but not all of the solution, is for a significant shift from concrete to wood construction.  The relatively new invention of construction timbers such as Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) and Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL) means we can now build at height and at scale in wood for the first time.  These engineered timbers have the structural strength of steel and concrete.

The world’s tallest wooden building at 18 storeys was completed last year in Vancouver, Canada.  In Vienna, Austria a 24 storey wooden building is under construction.  The biggest wooden building in the world is in Hackney, London ie not the tallest but the building with the most wood in it.

Replacing concrete with wood is a double environmental win.  The wood continues to sequester carbon in the same way it did as a tree in the forest.  At an EU level 10% of our carbon emissions are sequestered by our forest cover.  At the same time the wood substitutes for the concrete reducing the carbon emissions resulting from its manufacture.   

This approach was recognised in the recently passed EU legislation on Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry which incentivised the use of ‘long life harvested wood products’ including construction timbers such as CLT and LVL.

Section 4.5 - Delivery

Question 10: Do you have any other comments on our proposals in section four?

and

Section 5 - Safe, Secure and Decent Homes
Question 16: Do you have any other comments on our proposals in section 5?

The way we build houses has not fundamentally changed since the 1950s.  If a Labour government is going to meet the current demand for good quality, affordable housing whilst also looking to the future and meeting our climate change obligations, a new approach is needed.

As mentioned in point 102, “modular homes meet high quality standards, are eco-friendly, faster, and are often cheaper to build than traditional housing”. This summarises well the benefits of modular wooden housing and why it offers the best long term solution to many of the UK’s housing, environmental, and social needs.

As point 102 raises, “output is constrained by the lack of factories and high upfront investment and design cost”. However, the Lyons Review (2014) which this section references, also states that; “the domestic UK modular industry, mainly focussed on timber ..., remains relatively small but ... growing... could potentially contribute up to 60,000 homes pa....investors are willing to support the expansion of this sector and the main constraints on its growth is consistency of demand to justify the necessary large scale investment in production capacity...”

Companies need confidence that the required investment today will be profitable in the long term. This can only be achieved with a government framework committed to modular housing using wood combined with a Wood First policy.

Off-site modular construction can provide good quality training and job opportunities.  Unlike the traditional building site modular home factories are much more likely to attract female workers as evidenced in Finland where women work as tilers and electricians on the shop floor alongside men.

Legal & General have opened an ambitious modular homes facility at Elment-in-Sherburn, between Leeds and York. They see the UK as a potentially strong market for modular homes made from wood.  If we are to see more investments of this nature in future ambitious policy proposals, both national and local government must help lead the way.  A clear signal of support to the timber framed modular homes industry in this paper from Labour would be a crucial first step.

A floor per week can be constructed on site when building in wood, twice as fast as concrete. The overall construction of wooden buildings can be up to a third faster than the alternatives; reducing overall site costs eg you do not have to hire the crane for so long.  

The cost of a CLT frame is comparable to one made of reinforced concrete.  In April 2018 Alinea Consulting produced an influential report that highlighted the advantages of using CLT over concrete.  The report, Residential Timber: Cost Model, suggests CLT is a viable alternative and uses two detailed exemplar cost models to demonstrate the point.

Section 4.3 refers to funding options provided by a future Labour Government. This could be used to negate any “high upfront cost and design cost” of modular wooden housing. In fact, the commitment to prioritise modular housing would do much to reduce these costs without a single penny being spent. 

Modular wooden buildings offer a versatility that is not possible with traditional building methods. Wooden buildings have been linked to numerous health benefits and new wood based construction materials like LVL or CLT allow for buildings up to a considerable height and size, enabling more efficient land use.

It would therefore be useful when talking about “non-traditional” (102) approaches to construction to explicitly indicate timber framed buildings as an example.

Timber is the key construction material in the UK modular industry and is moving from a niche product to being considered a mainstream building material, rivalling concrete and steel.

Concrete and steel are extremely energy and carbon-intensive to produce.  They are heavy to transport which generates additional exhaust fumes and contribute to poor air quality, especially in our cities.  One of the four main particulates that cause air pollution in London are the microscopic pieces of rubber that are released from the tyres of heavy goods vehicles.  Construction traffic such as heavy cement lorries are therefore a major cause of air pollution. Timber, on the other hand, is lighter to transport and hence fewer lorry deliveries to site occur, meaning less pollution from timber builds. 

Throughout points 107-110 the quality of homes is discussed. Here we could specifically mention the materials passive homes and high energy-efficient homes are constructed with.  Wooden buildings are more energy efficient so use less energy and produce smaller energy bills for occupants.  Wood is naturally thermal efficient, meaning timber can be more cost effective when constructing energy efficient buildings. If the frames and panels are thick enough, energy savings can reach 14%, another incentive for the use of wood in social housing.

Wooden interiors are shown to deliver multiple physiological benefits including: reduced blood pressure, heart rate and stress levels, improvements in emotional state and level of self-expression, as well as improved air quality through humidity moderation. This indicates the much wider economic, environmental, and social benefits of wooden framed buildings.

The Labour Party should always be looking for ambitious and progressive solutions to our country’s biggest problems. Proposing a large scale wooden modular home building programme fits this criteria. It is the only viable option to produce the quantity of housing needed in a timely fashion while supporting innovation, job creation on a very large scale and helping deliver our environmental commitments, especially on climate change.

A greater use of wood in construction will help incentivise increased tree planting across the UK which would be environmentally welcome as our forest cover lags behind other European countries, with the UK importing wood at a level second only to China in the world.  More forests will soak up more carbon and outside of the EU we will no longer be in the Common Agricultural Policy, meaning we can incentivise tree planting as we see fit - generating a further economic and environmental boost."

Attachment: https://www.northeastlabour.eu/why-build-wood

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