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Can innovation help to solve the housing crisis?

16 June 2022

Crisis? What crisis?

The housing crisis affects the whole of the UK but it is felt especially strongly in Cornwall where a housing bubble fuelled by second homes, buy-to-let investments and the rise of Airbnb has priced many locals out.

An American concept called the 50/30/20 rule states that 50% of income should be spent on needs, 30% on wants and 20% on savings but in Cornwall a full-time minimum wage worker is spending 65% of take-home pay on rent (based on £642 average monthly cost of renting a room in Cornwall), leaving little room for savings or wants.

The UK average mortgage payment for first-time buyers is 17.1% of income so while it may ring true that if you can afford to rent you can afford to buy the reality is much different as the ability to save for a deposit is impacted by high rental costs.

How can innovation help

We can’t solve problems by using the same thinking we used when creating them” Albert Einstein.

Innovation can be used to solve almost any problem.

It is the process of applying a new way of thinking or working to meet new or existing challenges.

The challenges are clear: housing insecurity, homelessness, a lack of affordable housing and high rents.

The solutions are not as clear but we will explore what innovations in housing are being used to address the short, medium and long term challenges as well as take a look into the future of housing and urban planning.

Short term solutions to housing insecurity

To help with some of the Covid-19 fallout Cornwall Council set up temporary storage crate homes on sites in Truro and Penzance for those needing emergency accommodation. The homes would be cheap to build, easy to transport and provided all necessary utilities for comfortable living.

More recently the council have extended a lease at a Newquay surf lodge until 2024 as additional emergency housing, fitting it with a fully-equipped kitchen as well as offering dedicated support to help upskill residents and get them into work.

Bristol City Council have explored the ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit) approach, building tiny homes on micro-sites in the gardens of existing council homes.

ADUs are much more popular in America due to the typically larger plots of land although their use is mostly for family members or generating secondary income.

This shows some of the potential for innovation in the UK and Cornwall to help people out of housing insecurity and into short-term accommodation, but this is only part of a much larger problem.

Innovations in construction

Some solutions are already being explored with 3D printed homes in Texas, India and Africa helping to reduce the time and labour cost of the construction process. A single-story home can be 3D printed in about a week compared to the 7 months it typically takes to build using conventional construction methods.

There are already entire 3D printed neighborhoods in Texas. Mexico have contracted the use of the technology to fill social housing building needs. Studies have also shown that 3D printed home building significantly reduces the carbon footprint; up to 86% in some cases compared to conventional methods.

There is also the ever increasingly popular modular construction method where each ‘module’ of the home is built off-site in a controlled factory environment then transported to and assembled on-site.

This helps reduce any delays in building caused by bad weather. The more time a house takes to build the higher the project cost will be due to labour costs; something modular construction mostly avoids.

A material world

Beyond time and labour efficiencies there are also more material concerns, namely the material used in the building process. Cobbauge, a current cross-border project led by the University of Plymouth, is exploring how traditional building methods can be repurposed to make modern energy-efficient homes.

The ancient building technique involves using a mixture of earth, fibre and water to make a building compound that reduces Co2 emissions and material waste while meeting thermal regulations.

Over in the US a company called Tstud has developed a wall-stud which almost eliminates the thermal bridge standard lumber allows.

The thermal bridge is the part of the wall that allows the transmission of temperature from one space to another; making the inside of the home virtually unaffected by the temperature outside.

This has resulted in HVAC (heating ventilation and air conditioning) cost reductions of up to 75% for their clients over the lifetime of their structure.

Rental and mortgage financing

A rather simple but elegant idea in the US is a company called Doorkee which provides rent refunds (typically around $1,100) for tenants who help to find the next renter for their property once they decide to leave. This lump sum at the end of a tenancy can help the original tenant to save or put towards a mortgage deposit.

Another US scheme called DASH Fund is helping provide flexible capital to small scale entrepreneurs to acquire, renovate and sell homes in Baltimore that have suffered from historical underinvestment. The Fund provides small businesses with opportunity for growth while also helping low-income families access affordable housing where they won’t have to compete with investment buyers.

In the UK the government have recently replaced the Help To Buy mortgage deposit saving scheme (which provided 25% contribution towards a deposit, up to £3,000) with a new First Homes scheme which provides up to a 50% discount on new-build homes for first-time buyers. There are some restrictions on selling the property that you wouldn’t have with other purchase methods, but it enables lower-income households access to housing they otherwise would not be able to afford.

The future of cities and housing

Bio-Futurism is a concept that tries to integrate nature into all aspects of everyday life, including housing, city planning and urban development. Leading Bio-Futurist and Innovation for Business Conference Keynote Speaker Melissa Sterry founded Bionic City which asks the question: “What if nature designed a city?”

Some of the Bio-Futurist work includes using fungi-based mycotecture as a building compound and ‘growing’ our own houses allowing for easy repairs or extensions. One of the most practical and striking ideas is to replace street lights with bioluminescent algae trees which would glow in the dark and remove any need for energy costs & consumption.

The ideas are wide-ranging and sound initially far-fetched like machines made of organic material that can be easily recycled, compostable cars or even finally solving the DNA information storage riddle to make ‘living’ computers a reality.

You can sign up to our Innovation for Business Conference here to hear from Melissa, one of the world’s leading Bio-Futurists, as well as engage with workshops showcasing the latest technological developments and network with other innovative businesses.

Conclusion

The need for innovations in housing to address the current crisis is clear, and public and private sectors are mobilising efforts and energies to do just that. Whether current action is enough to address the scale of the problem remains to be seen but by using innovative thinking and harnessing new technologies we can clearly see how the problem could be solved much quicker and cheaper than previously thought possible.

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