Expert technical advice can mean big cost savings for housing providers down the line when it comes to maintaining improvement works, says Rob McCormack
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To what extent do you think cuts in local authority funding are impacting the ability to maintain or improve the condition of housing stock?
We continue to see evidence of the impact funding cuts are having on housing stock investment decisions. In our opinion, one of the largest challenges facing social landlords is a reduced ability to access the level of technical resources needed to make sound investment decisions for housing stock.
We support local authorities and housing associations when they require an impartial technical opinion on contracts, specifications, installation assessments, employee training and identifying the causes of housing defects. When independently assessing housing stock that has received cavity wall or external wall installations, for instance, we are seeing many occasions on which those insulation retrofit products have been applied to unsuitable or inadequately maintained dwellings.
We also witness examples of social landlords failing to adequately maintain housing stock following the installation of insulation retrofit products. This can significantly affect the performance of these products, and potentially invalidate associated guarantees. Social landlords can then find themselves responsible for subsequent remediation costs.
What more could social landlords do to assess and improve the quality of stock?
There are many examples of social landlords benefiting from assessments of their stock being conducted by independent organisations – bodies that aren’t involved in the subsequent delivery of any identified improvement or maintenance works.
Through the provision of these impartial housing stock ‘health checks’ – focused on technically assessing the suitability and condition of the dwellings, and performance of any retrofit applications – landlords are able to both prioritise and select the most suitable, cost-effective improvements and maintenance investments.
Another area we have witnessed as being beneficial is ensuring correct maintenance investments are applied at the right time. We continue to come across cases in which insulation retrofit products are applied to housing stock without consideration of the maintenance cycle. Many insulation retrofit products come with warranties of more than 20 years. But in some cases this is not considered when they are installed to stock which is due to receive frequent intrusive maintenance work. Such work can affect both the performance of the insulation retrofit product and validity of the associated warranties. Consequences for social landlords can be the cost of unneeded remediation works or repeat investment to restore the housing stock to its original condition.
What are the most common issues that can occur when undertaking housing improvement works?
Issues most commonly occur at the beginning of the process, when housing stock is assessed for its suitability for the proposed improvement works. Failure to conduct a technically accurate assessment at this stage can lead to incorrect works being applied, which is likely to result in future remediation costs.
We come across very frequent examples of pre-installation remediation requirements for a dwelling not being assessed accurately, and therefore not being completed prior to the application of an insulation retrofit product. If the dwelling is technically unsuitable, it is very likely to result in excessive remediation costs due to the insulation retrofit product being in situ.
Issues are also caused when there isn’t technically qualified personnel working for or on behalf of social landlords who can assess both work in progress and certify works post-completion. This can hinder landlords’ ability to control the quality of improvement and maintenance works, with any future assessment having to be conducted retrospectively, potentially in the form of a maintenance response request or a housing disrepair claim.
When social landlords are unaware of the appropriate post-installation maintenance requirements, this will lead to issues in future upkeep. These issues can be both financial – when a suitable budget hasn’t been allocated for future maintenance of the housing improvement/s – and performance-related – through failure of the social landlord to meet maintenance requirements, so impacting on the performance of the housing improvement measures and the housing stock itself. We witness instances like this involving external wall insulation systems. These significantly improve the appearance of a dwelling. But if such a system is not maintained in line with specified requirements, its appearance can prematurely deteriorate.
How can these issues be avoided?
Nominating a suitably experienced partner to conduct the technical assessment of housing stock’s suitability for proposed improvement works is key. This partner needs to be capable of impartially assessing the condition of all elements of the stock to identify the correct improvement works and maintenance requirements. They should also be able to articulate any pre-installation remediation requirements, so enabling the social landlord to prioritise the most suitable and cost-effective solutions for their housing stock.
If landlords do nominate an expert partner to impartially assess the suitability of their housing stock for proposed improvement works, there are many benefits to then utilising the same resource to oversee the quality of works installed. Knowledge collated from the initial housing stock assessment can provide more transparency in the installation process, and ensure any specific housing stock requirements are applied – so achieving the necessary level of quality assurance.
The post-installation maintenance requirements of improvements should be identified in the early stages of creating a project budget. We would propose such requirements are either defined within the specification given to the company responsible for delivering the work, or that another organisation capable of fulfilling these requirements is identified and engaged at this stage. The nominated organisation should be capable of advising on costs, timescales, frequency of maintenance and assuring that all maintenance works applied are carried out in accordance with any guarantee provider requirements.
Rob McCormack is director of CIT Consultancy, Investigation and Training. He has more than 15 years’ experience of operating in the energy and construction sectors, delivering commercial projects and UK government legislation. Leading CIT, which is part of the BBA group, his aim is to raise industry standards to the benefit of residents and those who are responsible for looking after them.