30 November 2015
By Abby Crisostomo
Could Home Quality Mark redefine what it means to have a sustainable home?
How can we make sustainable homes more relevant, desirable and beneficial to those who will actually live in them? This is question that has been on my mind for a while, but it was brought to the fore as I undertook the initial training for the BRE's new Home Quality Mark (HQM) voluntary housing certification scheme. It appears that, at least in principle, the HQM rises above expectations.
HQM was developed as a replacement scheme for the Code for Sustainable Homes (CfSH), the government housing sustainability scheme withdrawn earlier this year. While many of the CfSH requirements have yet to be incorporated into building regulations, the BRE has stepped in to fill the gap with their new voluntary scheme.
HQM attempts to do more than just replace or even simply update CfSH, it attempts to redress the sustainability balance, moving away from a purely environmental focus with the ambition of making sustainability relevant to real people.
It is interesting to note that BRE chose to use the word "quality" instead of "sustainability" in part to get past that environmental focus. Some worry that taking sustainability out of the name means undervaluing the environmental impacts of development, but the scheme still considers the environmental aspects, albeit framing them in terms that the average person cares about such as health, comfort and cost.
The HQM training and consultation emphasises cross-sector coordination in an attempt to address the most common problems associated with delivering sustainable housing. There is an entire section of the scheme devoted to “Knowledge Sharing,” which focuses not only on measures to communicate with occupants, but also improving communication between industries to help address the performance gap. Even the implication on the financial sector was discussed, including what a “quality home” could mean for reducing insurance and mortgage interest rates.
One interesting opportunity is whether this new emphasis could stimulate broader investment by third parties in engagement-based services. Could more new businesses or social enterprises develop and professionalise resident services like building management, resident hotlines, post-occupancy evaluation, maintenance packages modelled after service warranties and web portals or apps? Similarly, BRE is considering pre-approval for certain aspects under HQM that may overlap existing processes. For example, prefabricated manufacturers could pre-certify their modules under the My Home section of HQM or developments participating in BREEAM Communities could pre-certify under the Our Surroundings section.
On the assessor’s end, there was welcome news about streamlining evidence collection and data entry. HQM aligns with BIM and SAP outputs and allows measurements taken for one credit to be cross-referenced in another, simplifying the amount and type of data collected. And there are now multiple levels of robustness for evidence, allowing partial credit for having at least some evidence.
Of course, it remains to be seen how easily the HQM’s well-intentioned ambitions can be implemented. How will this increased intention on consumer interaction be enforced and at what cost? Many of the additional issues being assessed are relatively new and untested, so the evidence required for compliance is flexible at this point. That’s good for early adopters of the assessment, but not so good for quality control. In addition HQM will be a voluntary scheme, carrying less weight than the government’s CfSH. Who will end up using it and would the energy required to get people to use the scheme be better spent trying to embed some of these issues into regulations?
Finally, it is still a certification scheme, which means it still has to make compromises between robustness and flexibility, cost and marketability. It will never be a replacement for the engagement, discussion and practical innovation that is central to sustainable development, but it is certainly trying to improve how the benchmark is set.
HQM should be out at the of November for beta testing and officially released at the beginning of 2016. We are looking forward to seeing the final scheme and how this broader focus could influence changes in the industry.