House builders have the opportunity to empower real change with zero-carbon development, says Thakeham chief executive Rob Boughton
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How much of a role can house builders play in creating the zero-carbon future we need?
All of us as house builders can do more than simply play a role.
Zero-carbon development has the power to inspire millions of residents and the industries that serve them. This cannot be underestimated.
We can empower change at a time when too many local communities still perceive house builders as making vague promises and reneging on commitments.
That’s why we decided last year to commit to the promise that every Thakeham home will be zero carbon in lifetime operation from 2025.
If house builders can be transparent with our homeowners, residents and local people in the areas surrounding the communities we create, then we can build the trust we need to deliver zero-carbon communities.
It’s not just about the fabric of the home and the renewable technology in it. House builders have a responsibility to help communities make the changes needed to address our global impact on climate change.
When you consider that 20% of buildings that will exist in 2050 are yet to be built [according to the UK Green Building Council], that’s a huge opportunity for us all.
It’s our responsibility as placemakers to create environments in which communities can live a zero-carbon lifestyle and demonstrate the right way to create them.
What are the biggest barriers holding developers back from embracing zero carbon?
Some people say the public aren’t ready. We think that’s wrong.
There is a huge appetite for change if we are brave enough to show people the way.
For example, if your new home includes a fast electric car charger, then your next car is more likely to be electric.
If you see that there is traditional and flexible commercial space within cycling distance, that’s a reason for two-car families, for instance, to reduce to having one car instead.
Another could be if you experience an efficient integrated local public transport service, and neighbours tell you how well car clubs are working for them.
As projects progress, it’s easy to be sucked back into the traditional, safe model of how the industry has operated in the past. But we think there is a huge appetite for change if we are brave enough to show people the way.
Just because something isn’t easy doesn’t give us an excuse to shirk our responsibilities. Those responsibilities include demonstrating how placemakers can encourage new behaviours that are better for the planet.
What needs to change to overcome these challenges?
Developers that are brave enough to face these challenges head-on will win out for the planet in the end. Bravery means no more excuses.
We wonder if, for example, saying the public isn’t ready [for zero carbon] is simply a disguise for some developers not being ready? It’s a sign that developers need help, too.
A few years ago, we decided to face up to the challenge. We were the kind of developer that might have resisted sustainability changes, too.
But after devoting time to understanding the complexity of the issues, we are now encouraging other developers to come together and face our challenges head-on.
We are proud to sit on the Home Builders Federation’s Future Homes Task Force – the industry drive for a sector plan to net zero. Through these discussions we collaborate and share best practice.
Together we can prepare for the Environment Bill and future policies that will transform the way the sector operates.
What is the business case for zero-carbon development?
The most talented employees want more than a wage; they thrive when they are part of something bigger. Our zero-carbon mission has been a big pull in recruiting skilled employees.
Within the industry, access to finance is being linked to sustainability targets.
Willmott Dixon, for example, has recently secured a revolving credit facility worth £50m, which will be tied to its net-zero carbon commitments. The level of interest paid on the facility will depend on the company achieving its net-zero accomplishments in the coming years.
To enable our vision to become a reality, we know we need to embrace the commercial realities of zero-carbon placemaking.
This means delivering better land deals than our competitors and working harder to create closer relationships with our local communities and stakeholders.
We know this is hard work, but it is already bearing fruit.
Proportion of buildings that will exist in 2050 that are yet to be built
Thakeham’s position in a ‘100 Best Mid-Sized Companies to Work For’ in the UK list
What are the wider benefits of this approach?
This is all about people, really – whether that’s creating a better world for people to live in, or to work in.
Thakeham was recently placed 18th in the ‘100 Best Mid-Sized Companies to Work For’ in the UK in 2021 [in a list put together by Best Companies], so we know that our staff are engaged.
Sustainability is a responsibility shared by the whole company. Our staff care, and we see better results as a business for it.
We have also seen indicators that people outside the business are tuning in to our approach; our proposal
for a 619-home scheme in an area of outstanding natural beauty received three times more letters of support than objections, for example.
Marrying the benefits of sustainable zero-carbon placemaking with a purposeful company culture is a powerful combination.
What are some of the key factors developers should consider when approaching zero-carbon development and sustainable placemaking? Where should they start?
A good land deal helps. But at an early stage you need to build a deep understanding of precisely what the community needs.
You take those needs and match them to the very best zero-carbon placemaking practices.
These practices include a wild pool of planning skills and metrics, including biodiversity net gain, community businesses, and active and sustainable transport options.
Fundamentally, developers shouldn’t look at these projects as ‘flagship’ schemes – they should look at them as the next business as usual.