Climate change and affordable housing

7 November 2023

The building and construction sector currently accounts for a staggering 39% of global CO2 emissions and 50% of the total use of raw materials in the EU.1 It is essential to transform this sector. It can no longer be a driver of the climate crisis but must become part of the solution. Public and social housing providers are facing the urgency of the situation along with pressure to ensure the availability of affordable, quality housing for tenants.

At our annual Conference and General Assembly, hosted by Aler BCM, Franziska Schreiber, Senior Researcher at Bauhaus Earth, emphasised a critical issue.

“Last year, we crossed an important threshold. There was more anthropogenic mass than biomass on the planet. The planet is increasingly human made and artificial. If concrete were a country, it would be the third largest CO2 emitter in the world.”

This highlighted the huge environmental consequences of our choice of materials in construction. We cannot underestimate the impact of moving to bio-based regenerative materials, which can regrow and store carbon. In this way, we can transform the build environment from a carbon source to a carbon sink. Circular building practices – reusing, recycling, and refurbishing – will be key to addressing climate change in the affordable housing sector.

Climate change and affordable housing. Bar chart showing carbon emissions of concrete production compared to concrete emissions. Concrete is third after China and the USA, followed by India, Russia and Japan.
Graphic showing how the circular building practices work. From harvesting to manufacturing to using and then reusing, recycling.

Challenges in the public and social housing sector

Discussions at our General Assembly revealed numerous pilot projects among Eurhonet members, such as building and refurbishing using wood, hemp, straw, and clay. However, despite the strong ambition in the sector, these projects are often limited. The reasons lie in the cost, the difficulty of sourcing skilled workers to manage new kinds of materials, and the absence of necessary systems and structures to enable wider implementation of bio-based builds.

Time is of the essence; we need new models for the future urgently. Sharing the outcomes and lessons from these pilots among our network is therefore crucial for collective progress.

A shift in mindset

As Shreiber pointed out, transforming the built environment is not just about the materials we use.

“It’s about rethinking and reimagining how we use our resources, how we want to live together, and who we are building for.”

At our General Assembly, we all agreed that a collective shift in mindset is needed, and public and social housing providers can play a role in driving this shift.

Communicating the benefits

As public and social housing providers, we prioritise the needs of our tenants. Therefore, highlighting the everyday advantages of living in bio-based, ecologically friendly homes is essential. This may be from a cost perspective; energy efficiency can significantly reduce heating expenses, for example. But the significant health benefits are often less communicated on, highlighted Schreiber. For instance, research shows that the smell of wood alone can boost our immune systems.2 In addition, staying in wooden clad rooms has a positive effect on human health similar to being outside.3

Community building for a sustainable future

Accessible and inclusive public spaces are essential for community building.

“By bringing people together, we can define what is really needed to have a good quality life without over-consuming,” explained Schreiber.

This approach will help us to transition towards more communal living spaces. These are central to multifunctional, compact, and healthy living environments.

Climate change and affordable housing: Working together for progress

Public and social housing providers have a critical role to play in transforming the building sector from a driver of climate crisis to a solution. By embracing bio-based materials, circular building practices, and a collective shift in mindset, we can pave the way for a more environmentally responsible future. Given the multiple challenges that we face as a sector, sharing knowledge and working together to find practical and feasible solutions will be key to progress.

With thanks to Franziska Schreiber of Bauhaus Earth for an excellent presentation at our General Assembly and for sparking our discussions.

If you are a member of Eurhonet, find all the resources from the General Assembly in the Members Only Zone.

Share via
Copy link