Beating the heat: how the property sector can survive summer heat waves

Beating the heat: how the property sector can survive summer heat waves

Last week, the country was melting (quite literally in some towns) in temperatures exceeding 40 degrees. It was like the Sahara in the sunshine. And it wasn’t much better in the shade due to the UK’s high humidity levels. Only those lucky enough to work in beautifully air-conditioned offices escaped the record-breaking ‘scorchio’. 

Sadly, however, the number of UK homes with air con is pitifully low - about 3% according to some estimates; therefore sitting rooms with south-facing windows soon turned into saunas. This made life unbearable for swathes of the population whilst also raising a rather important point: the property sector has been so concerned with insulating homes for cold winter months that it has largely ignored the risks of summer heat waves. So what on earth can we do about this?

The burning issue

Heat waves are no longer the freak events they used to be. In fact, experts predict that extreme heat events are likely to occur every other year by 2050. And when you consider that the MET Office has warned that average summer temperatures could rise by 3.8 to 6.8 degrees in our lifetime, we could all be sizzling like summer sausages on a regular basis in the not-so-distant future.

It’s pretty concerning, therefore, that the Climate Change Committee Report, which has looked at the UK’s all-round ability to cope with climate change, has pinpointed the property sector as being particularly unprepared. The problem is that the UK’s housing stock (including most new builds) was primarily designed to keep out the cold and the wet. So heat waves have come as a bit of a culture shock. 

Action on this issue is urgent because there are already around 2,000 heat-related deaths every year. This number will only rise alongside average temperatures. Extreme heat also poses a threat to the structural integrity of buildings. In 2018, which was the joint hottest summer on record at that stage, there was a large spike in subsidence claims as the earth dried out and contracted. 

Turn up the air con?

Although climate change sceptics suggest that we simply install air conditioning units to cope with freak hot weather - we loved this piece of satire about a certain Donald J. Trump - there are several reasons why this approach isn’t sustainable. For starters, air conditioning is expensive: the units themselves plus installation can cost well over £1,000 plus running costs. We’ll also end up with energy consumption spikes in high summer.

Meanwhile, the idea of summer fuel poverty, to go with our annual winter fuel poverty crises, would be enough to give tenants living hand-to-mouth, not to mention under-the-pump landlords, the coldest of sweats. It’s also a tad counter-intuitive, not to mention a bit barmy, to fight climate change by actually increasing our energy consumption and emissions.

Sadly, air conditioning units aren’t exactly eco-friendly. According to energy.gov, they release roughly 117 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year in the United States alone. Air conditioning also works less efficiently in the UK’s older, draughty homes. Therefore, we suggest that estate and letting agents give their customers practical tips to keep their properties cool without installing mechanical cooling units.

Advice for tenants and landlords

For starters, agents should recommend the strategies they’ve used in Mediterranean countries for decades: passive cooling measures like installing shutters, reflective blinds, and ceiling fans can all really help. Whitewashing the walls, or rendering red bricks and painting the facades white, also reflect the heat.

A process called ‘night purging’ is also quite effective. Curtains should be drawn during the day (to keep out sunlight) and windows opened at night (to let warm air escape). It’s a great way to improve natural ventilation. It’s also worth installing an air source heat pump if the homeowner can afford it. These eco-friendly devices aren’t just a great way to keep properties warm in winter; unlike gas boilers they can also be used to keep temperatures stable and cool during summer months. Fantastic.

Homeowners could also install a green roof on their property. Known for absorbing rainwater, providing insulation, and creating an eco-system for bees and other insects, green roofs also halve what’s known as ‘heat islands’ where temperatures build up in densely populated urban areas. Although some people dislike the way green roofs look - so some might reject this particular advice - it doesn’t hurt to at least plant the seed in their mind. 

A hot planning topic

The way that houses are designed and built will obviously need to change in the coming years, too. Indeed, there could be a bit of a rethink with architects and developers considering ventilation and shading as much as insulation and natural light. Windows should be orientated to limit exposure to direct sunlight and extensive glazing, which has been considered rather fabulous in recent years, will probably become less fashionable. 

The government may well reform building regulations as well. Indeed, last year, Boris’s bunch added a section on overheating for the very first time. ‘Part O’, as it’s known, asks builders to limit solar gains while introducing ways to remove heat. Although this irked developers who already had developments in the pipeline, it was a necessary (if a tad unpopular) step. 

The coming years will also no doubt see new technologies, as well as architectural changes, influence the sector. And agents will have a job to do in promoting this new breed of home. For example, zero-carbon passive houses, which are airtight and highly insulated abodes that regulate temperatures throughout the year, should come to the fore.

The eco-friendly ‘Passivhaus’ concept, as the name suggests, relies on passive measures like the ones mentioned above to keep interiors cool: shading, orientation, and clever ventilation. Many also include attic ventilation units that consists of two air collectors - one for cool air and one for warm air - that circulate air around the home to keep temperatures perfectly temperate. Clever, eh?

Waving goodbye to the heat

Did you know that the Earth’s temperature would continue to rise for several decades even if the human race stopped emitting all greenhouses gases today? It’s a frightening thought that’s definitely worth sweating over. Consequently, the property sector needs to act urgently to make homes more habitable during sustained hot weather. 

Although this is going to be a challenge, especially given the UK’s antiquated housing stock, there are relatively cost-effective actions we can take. And these, as discussed above, fall into two categories: retrofitting (to install the passive cooling and ventilation techniques) and sensible planning / building control measures. Modern technologies can also give homeowners and homebuilders a helping hand along the way.

But we shouldn’t forget, of course, that heatwaves are just one consequence of climate change. Thought should also go into preserving water so that homeowners, not to mention the authorities themselves, can cope with longer dry spells and droughts in summer. Meanwhile, we’ll also need to adapt to an increased risk of flooding as the frequency and intensity of storms goes up during winter. That’s right folks, when it comes to climate change, it never rains but it pours. 

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