It is generally recognised across Scotland, that the Highlands and Islands have led the evolution in quality standards in rural housing over the past two decades.
Standards in the sense of attractiveness, together with energy and sustainability factors. The market segment responsible for this innovation is variously described, but Self Procured or Custom Build are useful descriptive terms. This market share equates to around 15% of the total housing market in Scotland; the bulk share being the speculative volume built offering (i.e. mainstream housing developments) which by far dominates new housing – a situation unique to the UK. In Austria, for example, these statistics are reversed with 85% of new homes being user-procured.
In my opinion the reason for this flowering stems from the prioritisation of increased standards of perhaps an unlikely alliance; architects, builders and tradespeople, suppliers, planners and officials and customers who have collectively aspired to better outcomes. The white box syndrome particularly prevalent in the 1990s, and while still the default in some areas, has been overtaken by more considered, more skilfully executed, homes and places. What is perhaps less understood and appreciated is the profound advances in terms of homes’ technical, energy and carbon performance. Many of the new breed of homes which integrate successfully into our Highland landscapes, are world-beating in respect to progressive net-zero carbon housing.
This is an important and encouraging trend as the statistics around construction are some of the most challenging society faces. Our built environment is responsible for 40% of Green House Gases due to the energy consumed in delivering and operating our homes and other buildings. At present 50% of all materials use goes into construction of one type or another, and according to Zero Waste Scotland, an astonishing 50% of all waste generated in the country is due to construction activity. This needs to change.
Sector analysts are uniformly suggesting that the next couple of decades of change will be particularly profound, and that the future construction ecosystem will be radically different. They point to the replacement of a fragmented discrete project-based process with standardised, consolidated and integrated processes. Recent observers suggest that the pandemic will lead to an acceleration of the sector’s transformation. Why is this so? Well a combination of challenges and opportunities are already well underway.
Those in the housebuilding sector are already experiencing acute skills shortages along with an aging workforce. Comparatively few trade apprenticeships were undertaken in the last decade, due in part to the financial downturn and uncertainty from around 2010. Construction hasn’t been an attractive prospect for our bright young people. The opportunities on the other hand are equally powerful: The pressing demands for sustainable carbon efficient methods, clean green industrial approaches, and the rapid uptake in digitisation cannot be ignored.
The pressing demands for sustainable carbon efficient methods, clean green industrial approaches, and the rapid uptake in digitisation cannot be ignored.
Changes in materials are playing their part also. Advanced timber products such as cross laminated timber, wood-fibre insulation and hybrid structural panelised systems, are particularly suited to high performance outcomes. As the Highlands are one of the more forested areas of the UK, adding value to these renewable resources in the region is clearly needed.
We could go as far to suggest that there is indeed a culture shift underway leading to more attractive pathways into a radically new look progressive sector, where high quality design integrated with high quality delivery processes will unlock many benefits. In this future model, gone will be muddy sites with cement mixers and forests of scaffold, to be being replaced by warm, bright, clean and safe off-site workshops, with high and multiskilled operatives working in multiskilled teams. Far from future fiction, the network of ten companies from across the country which make up Offsite Solutions Scotland, are well underway with this reality.
At a time of profound change brought on by a pandemic, climate and ecological emergency and the inevitable economic impacts, we must find hopeful and practical narratives for the coming decade. Our homes reflect our priorities, aspirations and connection with place. A vision for our future homes across the Highlands and Islands has been evolving during the past twenty or so years, so we have made good progress. To move to the next level we must embrace further change.