With concerted government and industry effort, 2014 could be a landmark year for housing

Ben Derbyshire

As I look forward to next year, I’m optimistic that 2014 is the year in which we start to close some yawning gaps that afflict the housing market:

Gaps in the information available to home buyer; gaps between buyers’ and their mortgage companies’ assessment of value; gaps in predicted and actual performance of homes in occupation; and perhaps the biggest gap of all – the gap in the consumer feedback loop which permits customers to leverage improved quality and value in the market place.

Why do I think any of this might happen anytime soon?  Because the Housing Standards Review, due for publication in the spring, seems likely to recommend the implementation of labelling – in some form at least. This is tremendously significant because it will be the first government acknowledgement of the potential for using consumer information to raise standards of housing, in the same way consumer information has increased quality in other markets. At the most basic level, this will see home buyers given the price per square metre of any prospective home purchase to enable fair and quick comparisons.

So my New Year resolution is to do all I can to point out the potential benefits to the housing market of customers who are informed of the performance of homes they seek to buy or rent. Equally, I will argue the benefits to housebuilders of being able to be informed by consumers’ response to their product. 

But the potential is much greater. Now is the time to encourage the communities department to look beyond merely labelling space in new spec built homes. Now is the time to show how the industry can collaborate to achieve a wide range of short and long term benefits from a fresh approach to information – housing for the information age.

I do not believe it is an exaggeration to claim that the worst scourge of modern home building, nimbyism, would be considerably less prevalent if the neighbours of new developments could be more readily convinced of the quality of new homes, and that this could be achieved by dint of widely recognised labelling.

We need to demonstrate that the industry is capable of the kind of collaboration necessary to create a voluntary system of labelling – a cross industry initiative

Equally, I am convinced that in due course a buying public, appropriately well informed about the running costs of new and second hand homes, and suitably encouraged by fiscal incentives, would display behaviour with the potential to accelerate the retrofitting of existing homes as energy prices inexorably rise.

I acknowledge these are not inconsiderable claims and also that it would take some time to reach the point that such benefits might be realised.  But there would be short term benefits too.

For example, housebuilders have told us that properly advertised information about the energy efficiency of new homes would give them competitive advantage over their most serious competition – the second hand market.

Meanwhile, property comparison websites anticipate greatly improved visitor traffic because we are able to offer them cost in use predictions based on information already disclosed (but not much used) in Energy Performance Certificates.

So this is the year when I will be seeking support for closing the information gap in as many ways as possible, and here is how:

Firstly we need to demonstrate that the industry is capable of the kind of collaboration necessary to create a voluntary system of labelling – a cross industry initiative.

Secondly, we need to trial what the labelling might look like and how it might work. I have in mind a comparison website that would be prepared to test consumer reaction.

Thirdly we should use a Building Information Modelling pilot to demonstrate to the home building industry (reluctant and confused by BIM as it is) how the technology can help them predict the performance of homes.

Finally, we can extend this pilot into demonstration projects where post-occupancy evaluation will show how consumer feedback can help close the gap between intended, predicted and actual performance.

BIM has exciting potential to provide homebuyers with a whole new experience of what’s possible to know about their purchase both before and after the deal is done. The algorithms have already been worked out – and interestingly, it’s the insurance industry that has taken the lead.  While the BLP Butterfly programme will tell you the costs in use of your new home (and the embodied carbon, if you are interested) the NHBC Home User Guide will give new occupants convenient digital access to operational and maintenance information.

All we need is some sensible cross industry collaboration and a bit of leadership from government and we might start to see the beginnings of a serious revolution in housing – housing for the information age, indeed.  I, for one, will do everything I can to make it happen.

Ben Derbyshire is managing partner of HTA Design