The early adopters of low-carbon housing

We caught up with Richard Whittaker, Director of Development at housing association Citizen, to discuss the need for improved quality of social housing and the importance of collaboration.

Tell us more about Citizen and your role

I’m responsible for the delivery of all of our new affordable homes. This year my budget is around £100m with an ambition to deliver in excess of 550 new homes in this year alone.

We’re one of the largest landlords in the West Midlands, with an existing stock of around 30,000 units. Part of our focus is providing houses for people who either would struggle to or can’t get on the property ladder. But in the main our provision to support low-income families who would otherwise struggle to meet the costs of private renting.

Given the cost-of-living crisis, how have you had to adapt to support residents with the steep increase of bills?

It’s a difficult and uncertain time for most people at the moment and we are dedicated to supporting wherever we can. We have income officers who help our low-income residents with finance management and highlight the best routes to get the support they need.

We know what they are entitled to and ensure we keep regular touchpoints with them, particularly during this challenging time. Ensuring we deliver high quality homes that provide a foundation for life is a specific business strategy for Citizen, Traditionally in construction you visit every twelve months, but we see more value in visiting every three to ensure we are working towards that ambition.

It means we can check in on residents wellbeing but also have a better understanding of customer perception. This feedback influences how we can deliver support to our residents through this crisis.

What work are you doing in the new build space?

Over the last three years, we’ve delivered over 1,500 new properties which equates to around £300m of investment including work-in-progress developments. We’ve entered a joint venture with Vistry Partnerships, Central, that will see over 1,000 new homes built in the West Midlands area, of which 240 will be affordable new homes managed by us.

We’ve also been running pilot schemes in relation to low carbon and energy efficiency for our new build properties. We’re particularly proud to say that through our schemes we’ve achieved an EPC rating of A+ – given less than 1% of properties in the UK have achieved this, it’s significant in terms of encouraging others to follow suit.

What are your key objectives for this year?

We have several strategic ambitions with one being the zero-carbon agenda – a key focus for most in the construction market.

We’ve been looking in particular at adopting alternative technologies to gas as much as we can. So, air source heat pumps, solar panels, battery back-up, ventilation recovery systems are solutions we adopt where we can.

We’re also embracing digitalisation to enhance our asset management information. We’ve developed a Building Information Model that is simplified with an easy filing structure, so we can get all information about our properties in one easily accessible place. This covers everything from planning documents to certificates, to drawings and designs.

What are you proud of?

It would have to be our early adoption of the Future Homes Standard. The government isn’t looking to introduce it until 2025, but we see the benefits of introducing it now. We believe that by improving standards now we’ll see more sustainable and longer tenancies. It is for me, one of the first times in my career that we’ve been building affordable housing to higher performance standards than open market sale properties.

It’s really changed my view in terms of what social housing and affordable housing means. It used to be seen as a cheap as chips solution but in fact is now setting higher standards for the benefit of our customers promoting a ‘tenure of choice’ as opposed to just need.

What challenges does housing face?

In all honesty, it’s a difficult time for the construction market in general. It’s a stressful environment because we’re always against the clock, trying to work to a budget and meet certain parameters. This will never change, and future changes, such as the introduction of the Future Homes Standard, will add to those difficulties. However, these challenges can be overcome if we, as an industry, collaborate together and look to build longstanding relationships.

This is why we believe in joint ventures, like our partnership with Vistry Partnerships, Central, I strongly believe that we can fix the industry’s issues by working together.