Sustainability in social housing is often discussed in the context of cost, risk and legislative requirements, with the impact on tenants as a secondary factor. In a sector which 78% of organisations cite tenant sustainment as a primary driver for setting climate-related targets, few providers have actively begun to engage their tenants in developing sustainability and asset management strategies. As sustainability moves up the agenda, it is critical to involve residents in the development of these strategies to ensure that they meet their needs and enable the successful implementation of such measures.
With 14% of the UK’s GHG emissions produced through its housing stock , and 80% of the homes that will be required by 2050 already in existence , social landlords must look to retrofit to meet the government’s net-zero carbon requirements. Although there are clear benefits to residents when retrofitting work is completed, many are reluctant to engage in and approve the changes to their homes. Fear of disruption is cited as the primary barrier , alongside resident apathy, both of which may be countered by effective engagement strategies. With the consent and buy-in of residents being essential to delivering successful outcomes from net zero works, providers must engage with residents throughout the strategy development and implementation process, communicating the benefits to encourage maximum participation.
The positive impact of net zero homes and the change to a more sustainable living environment are numerous and fall into three primary categories: protection against extreme weather, financial stability, and wellbeing.
As extreme temperatures and weather events increase in frequency year-on-year, providers must future-proof homes against the impact that these events will have on their residents. Strategies cannot simply focus on meeting today’s requirements. Works on properties may include material and design solutions, including fabric-first or renewable energies, as well as adjusting the layout of homes to prevent excessive damage to ensure that homes remain liveable into the future.
Retrofitting existing homes offers providers the opportunity to deliver a long-term reduction in energy costs to their residents, driving financial security and tenant sustainment. To realise this benefit, providers must engage with residents at the start of developing their net zero and asset management strategies to identify where most energy is used in their homes and to ensure that schemes are tailored to impact these areas directly. On average, nearly 40% of energy used in the home goes towards heating spaces. Schemes that seek to maintain a stable ambient temperature in the home, such as insulation and fabric-first solutions, negate the need for energy-intensive heating and cooling. This may be more expensive up front but will better suit the needs of residents in the long-term, reducing day-to-day costs and enabling increased financial security.
Environment and wellbeing
The link between the living environment and wellbeing is also well documented , and this is prevalent both in the home and the wider landscape. A clean and high-quality living environment is proven to have a positive improvement on mental health and quality of life. By adopting sustainable materials, improving local air quality, and moving away from carbon-based sources of energy, providers can improve the health and wellbeing of their residents. This improvement in wellbeing directly correlates with increased tenancy sustainment, with healthier residents more likely to pay their rent and bills on time.
Although the benefits of successful retrofit and net zero homes strategies are clear, introducing smarter and more energy efficient technologies can have a negative impact on homes, taking up space and leading to high costs if incorrectly maintained. In order for retrofitting to create wider, higher benefits to both the resident and provider, it is crucial to understand the needs of your residents and design strategies in conjunction with these, ensuring that residents buy-into the changes being made at all stages of the process.
For retrofit works and net zero homes to deliver the desired outcomes, resident engagement must occur in four key stages:
- Understanding residents’ motivations and ability to adapt to change. Providers must engage with residents to understand their current energy usage, their key concerns about the proposed changes and their long-term needs.
- Co-designing strategies with residents. Setting up a working group with residents through the strategy design period to engage with them and obtain their input on the direction. This will help ensure issues raised in the initial engagement stages are properly captured and will help with future resident buy in.
- Obtaining buy-in to the changes. Advertising the benefits to your residents and investing in education and training to allow residents to adapt to how they use their home and the technology in it. This also includes ensuring that residents know how their initial and ongoing concerns are being addressed to reduce resistance to the changes being made.
- Ensuring successful embedding of the changes. Empowering residents to make the most of the changes made to their homes so that they can see the benefits in practice. This includes having easy access to resources and education to ease the long-term behaviour changes required to ensure that the works meet their full potential.
The inclusion of residents in the development and sustainable implementation of any large-scale asset management, retrofit and net zero strategies is key to success. Providers must ensure they are aware of their residents’ concerns and needs, that these are adequately met, and residents are empowered to create long-term changes to the way they live so that the desired benefits of any retrofit scheme can be achieved.
 UK housing: Fit for the future?, Committee on Climate Change, 2019
 Retrofitting social housing: reflections by tenants on adopting and living with retrofit technology, P Brown et al, 2014
 Great Britain’s housing energy fact file 2011, J Palmer & I Cooper, 2011
 Living environment and its relationship to depressive mood: A systematic review, N Rautio et al, 2017