As the futurist William Gibson famously put it, “the future is already here, it just isn’t very evenly distributed’ yet. So when it comes to making low carbon affordable housing the new normal across Europe, there are two challenges that we face.
The first is to develop low-energy, low-carbon house types for affordable housing. This is the ambitious challenge that the four H4.0E pilot projects are taking on. Using a ‘materials first’ approach to ensuring that every aspect of the building design, technology, process and materials have been selected to minimise carbon, both in construction and in use.
The second challenge is to make those low-energy solutions as replicable as possible, so they can be repeated elsewhere, either by the same organisations, or by others.
In today’s construction supply chains, almost every housing project is designed and procured from scratch, so each one costs no less than the previous one. This makes the additional overheads costs of low-carbon design – and indeed any kind of innovation – prohibitively expensive.
Standardising low carbon home building
To change all that, the house types have to be standardised and pre-documented, so, they can be used again, and adapted to many different sites, not just one, so we wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. One part of the solution lies in using a ‘Design for Manufacturing and Assembly’ approach, rather than traditional forms of construction, which tend to be high-skill, low-precision, low-performance and difficult to document in a standardised way. Using a DfMA approach, a house type is documented like any other product, along with a complete set of manufacturing files, supply chain requirements, assembly guides, a bill of materials and expectations of performance.
But there’s a problem. Unlike most products, with housing, one size-doesn’t fit all. Different sites, users and locations might have slightly different requirements. Prices change. This is where parametric design comes in. Developing a common ‘parametric engine’ – so in future the developer can make small adjustments to one ‘parameter’, and the others will update automatically and instantaneously, for example, by recalculating the likely costs, or energy performance, or embodied carbon, or automatically outputting new manufacturing files and a bill of materials and quantities. That allows the designer to account for multiple factors when making design decisions. Today, such technologies are tied to offline proprietary CAD applications. The challenge we are taking on in the second part of the H4.0E project is to develop and test new software tools that can bring this capability into the web itself, where it can be linked to models and data created and updated by multiple people. For example, it may be possible to link to datasets about the embodied carbon of materials, or, in future, to update energy estimates based on the recorded energy performance of the homes themselves.
The H4.0E digital platform
It is a difficult, groundbreaking R&D experiment – one that involves navigating not just technical barriers, but wider barriers too: the availability and quality of data, un-interoperable data analysis models, outdated procurement approaches, and sheer industry and institutional inertia. But by bringing together experts from across North-West Europe with complementary expertise, we can take it on. To be clear, the pilots will not make low-energy housing cheaper overnight – pilot projects always come at a premium. But underpinned by the platform, the aim is to give them a chance to get that value back, again and again. In effect, to create a machine that over the five years, can slowly bring significant reductions to the cost of low carbon home building. The H4.0E digital platform will eventually help construction companies in making the right choices in materials, techniques etc. to reduce CO2 emissions. Data and calculations from the H4.0E the pilots will be used to allow this to occur.