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How Glasgow is looking to drive sustainable homes ahead of COP26

Glasgow is about to host the biggest event on the world stage of climate policy, but it is already looking to set the standard when it comes to sustainable, new build social housing. Eve Livingston reports. Photography by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

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Colin Thomson, outside the housing association home that he lives in, in Shettleston, Glasgow
Colin Thomson, outside the housing association home that he lives in, in Shettleston, Glasgow
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How Glasgow is setting the standard on sustainable, new build social housing #UKhousing

All eyes are on Glasgow as the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) comes to the city in November. That scrutiny means eyes turn to the city’s own performance, too. It is also looking to become a leader in sustainability – particularly when it comes to setting the standard for new build social housing. One such development comes in the form of the Glasgow Standard, a set of guidelines for new build social housing that “demonstrates that Glasgow embraces best practice, encourages new technologies, is an exemplar of good design and, most importantly, delivers for our tenants”, as Patrick Flynn, head of housing and regeneration services for Glasgow City Council, puts it.

Since 2018, any new developments funded through Glasgow City Council’s Affordable Housing Supply Programme have had to meet the standards, which exceed the Scottish government’s corresponding requirements for a range of sustainability measures.

“We began the process [of developing the standard] in 2017,” says Michelle Mundie, group manager for housing investment at Glasgow City Council. “There were two main issues we were looking at. One was around space, as we were going in to visit completed developments and felt they were getting very small.

“The other was around sustainability. We were conscious of the need to increase sustainability so we started discussions with planning colleagues who were keen to go to the ‘Gold’ level,” she continues.


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Following consultation with the sector, the standard was set in 2018 and is now being implemented by almost 40 housing associations across Glasgow. It lays out minimum standards for space, layout, storage and accessibility, as well as presenting developers with three options for sustainable design (see box).

In practice, these dictate minimum standards for everything from toilet flush capacity and shower flow rates to the percentage of water heated through renewable energy, noise reduction measures, the size of a home office room and the amount of space dedicated to recycling, among other measures. All developments are additionally required to include a minimum 20% carbon dioxide emission abatement through the use of low and zero carbon-generating technologies.

To build a Glasgow Standard home is more expensive, and can require an overhaul of supply chains and suppliers, as well as more staff training and capacity. But Ms Mundie says that, despite initial resistance, her department has not experienced a drop in applications to build social housing. While COVID-19 has delayed many completions, the council says it has approved 1,983 homes in 2019/20, with 655 meeting the ‘Gold Hybrid’ option and 126 building to a Passivhaus Standard. In 2020/21, 296 new build units were approved at the standard’s Gold level.

“The feedback we initially got [from housing associations] was that this was too expensive and it wasn’t possible. But now they are singing the praises of the Glasgow Standard to anybody that will listen,” she says. “They’re comparing it to other developments in Scotland and saying that they don’t want to go backwards now. They’re building to such a good standard and tenants are really happy.”

One association in the process of completing around 150 properties to the Glasgow Standard is 3,500-home West of Scotland Housing Association. It is among those going beyond the minimum requirements to complete developments at the Passivhaus ‘nearly zero emissions’ Standard, in which homes are completely insulated and airtight, and kept at a regular temperature through mechanical ventilation. Andrew Kubski, director of development and asset management at West of Scotland, agrees the approach is the right one.

Carntyne Old Church, where Colin Thomson lives
Carntyne Old Church, where Colin Thomson lives

“In truth, it’s a bit more expensive because of the additional space requirements and materials,” he says. “But it’s all there for the right reasons, and standards should be rising. We want to build houses that are there for forever and a day, so we find a way to make it work.”

The sustainability of these developments can be seen from two angles, Mr Kubski points out: the lowering of greenhouse gas emissions, but also the lifting of social tenants out of long-term fuel poverty. “The only way of funding these increasingly expensive developments is through efficiency, and not through hiking up rents for tenants,” he says.

For tenants themselves, the main practical differences compared with other social housing are in how they operate their heating and what they ultimately pay for it. Many homes developed by those going beyond the minimum standard, like West of Scotland, have no central heating or combi boiler. From 2024, the Scottish government will require all new builds to meet these ‘zero-emission heating’ standards and forego the use of gas for heating and hot water.

The first Glasgow site built to Passivhaus Standard is a Shettleston Housing Association development at the site of Carntyne Old Church on Shettleston Road, in the city’s East End. Colin Thomson, 61, moved into a third-floor flat there 18 months ago when his disability meant he could no longer manage the stairs in his older building. That flat was managed by the same housing association, of which he has been a tenant for over 20 years. The new flat, accessed by a lift, comprises an open-plan living and kitchen area, bathroom and two spacious bedrooms.

“It’s made the world of difference,” says Mr Thomson. “I never thought I would have a house like this in my life. The sun streams in the windows and on a clear day I can see to the Cathkin Braes.”

“We almost never have to put the heating on,” he continues. It was a windy and cold day when we spoke, but he says: “Right now, the heating is off, two windows are open and it’s roasting.” His energy bills have also dropped, he estimates, from around £80 a month to around £50, with regular rebates from under-use.

Ms Mundie from Glasgow Council also points to the health and well-being impacts of houses built at the Passivhaus Standard. Pilot programmes have shown that the air purification technology installed as part of the build can result in homes in which air quality is better indoors than out, reducing allergy symptoms and breathing problems.

What is the Glasgow Standard? How does it compare to Scottish new build standards?

A system of sustainability labelling was introduced in Scotland in 2011 as part of the Building (Scotland) Act, which requires new developments to meet ‘Bronze’ standards as a minimum, with ‘Silver’ and ‘Gold’ levels for those which incorporate optional extra measures.

The labelling system covers eight different ‘aspects’ of carbon dioxide emissions: energy for space heating; energy for water heating; water-use efficiency; optimising performance; flexibility and adaptability; well-being and security; material use; and waste – numbered one to eight, respectively.

The Scottish government requires developers of new build affordable homes to implement aspects one and two at Silver level as a minimum, but the Glasgow Standard sets the baseline at Gold level for aspect one and Silver level for aspects two to eight, also laying out options for those who wish to go to ‘Platinum’ level.

Landlords have a few options. One is ‘Gold Hybrid’, which requires aspect one at Gold level and aspects two to eight at Silver. To go further, developers can also choose the ‘nearly zero emissions’ option in which buildings are developed to the Passivhaus Standard, inclusive of aspect one at Gold level and aspects four to eight at Silver. Passivhaus buildings are very energy efficient, highly insulated buildings that must meet exacting standards set by the Passivhaus Trust.

Finally, a ‘net zero carbon’ option requires aspect one at Platinum level and aspects two to eight at Silver.

Norman Cunningham, a 70-year-old social tenant in Maryhill in the north of Glasgow, and a member of Living Rent, says the tenants’ union welcomes Glasgow’s ambition. However, he points out, new builds are just one piece of the puzzle and similar attention must be paid to retrofitting existing homes that will still be standing in 2050, the year by which the UK aims to be climate neutral. According to the UK Green Building Council, 80% of homes we will be living in in 2050 are already built.

“When you’re looking at incorporating sustainability, you have to acknowledge that one of the main problems in existing social housing is fuel poverty,” says Mr Cunningham. “Social tenants can’t shop around for energy [if they have district heating or storage heaters] and there are high rises being heated by electric storage heaters which cost five times the price for something inefficient.

“I know of people living in flats who can’t afford to turn on their heating in winter. We’re not building enough new stuff to house everyone, so we’ve got to look after those people, too,” he says.

Mr Cunningham is part of a Living Rent-backed campaign and occupation to develop affordable housing on vacant land in Maryhill’s Collina Street. The campaign’s vision, he says, provides a blueprint for more radical thinking on sustainable social housing, but one that he believes “is just not in the world view of a council”. The group’s proposal is for building to the Passivhaus Standard, with a centralised industrial heat pump powered by the nearby river that could power the entire development, as well as those further into Maryhill when they come to be retrofitted. By selling their hot water, and using it to heat greenhouses in which to grow fresh produce to sell in a community shop, Mr Cunningham suggests the community could be entirely self-sufficient economically, with tenants lifted out of long-term fuel poverty. “That’s what we should mean when we talk about sustainable social housing,” he says.

But while the Glasgow Standard doesn’t yet meet Living Rent’s aspirations, Mr Kubski of West of Scotland says it is still seen as superior to anything else in Scotland. “We build houses across the West of Scotland and effectively we are delivering less energy-efficient homes 30 miles away in South Ayrshire than we are in Glasgow,” he says. He says it wouldn’t be possible to meet these standards outside of Glasgow because the council provides support and assistance that helps make it possible.

“The bottom line is that we want to build affordable, high-quality homes,” he says. “We’re being fully supported [by the council] to move in this direction of travel and to meet our key outcomes of removing tenants from fuel poverty and lowering excess greenhouse gases.

“We can complain about the barriers of time and cost, but, at the end of the day, we all need to do it and we all want to do it.”

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