A rush to redevelop shops and offices left empty by the pandemic could create a swathe of substandard homes that are vulnerable to climate change, Zurich UK has warned. Analysis by the insurer reveals applications for office-to-residential conversions are up 28% in the latest quarter , hitting a three-year high, as developers snap up blocks left vacant by an exodus of workers from city centres.
Now Zurich fears a further relaxation of planning laws from 1st August could create scores more poor-quality homes that are vulnerable to heatwaves and flooding, as well as other problems relating to fire safety and escape of water.
Last month, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) warned that overheating in homes is among the eight top risks to the UK from climate change. According to a 2019 report by the CCC, one in five homes in England already dangerously overheats during heatwaves. Last summer, heatwaves in England caused 2,556 deaths, with the CCC predicting the toll could triple from an average of 2,000 to 7,000 each year by 2050.
Office to flat conversions are at increased risk of serious overheating due to poor design, including a lack of appropriate ventilation and shading. The danger is greatest in tiny, self-contained bedsits and studio type flats that could potentially become uninhabitable during increasingly hot summers.
Furthermore, the location of many offices in heavily built-up, concrete areas leaves them more exposed to the ‘urban heat island’ effect, where temperatures are hotter than outlying areas, and flash floods from heavy downpours.
As well as risks posed by climate change, Zurich sees a high volume of escape-of-water claims from office-to-residential conversions, with one of most frequent causes being the failure of plumbing systems not originally designed to service hundreds of domestic kitchens and bathrooms.
Paul Redington, Zurich’s Major Loss Property Claims Manager, said: “While we recognise the need for more affordable housing, we have concerns about the standard of some homes built under permitted development, where we already see a disproportionate volume of claims. There is a danger that the glut of shops and offices left empty by the pandemic are turned into cheap, substandard housing that lack resilience to extreme weather.
“In particular, overheating in new and existing homes is emerging as a potentially deadly risk. Poor plumbing is also a serious issue that causes major disruption for residents. In the drive to revitalise our town centres, we must ensure that we do not create swathes of homes that are unfit for living and future climate conditions.”
Tony Mulhall, Associate Director Land Professional Group at RICS, said: “The post-Covid city may need to quickly adapt to new modes of behaviour which could see many building types adapted for purposes not originally intended. Following government’s expansion of PDR rights a generation of hermetically sealed commercial buildings may now fall into this category to be re-purposed for housing, needing to satisfy a completely different set of standards. Heating, natural ventilation and direct access to outdoor space – by which we mean all flats being provided with balconies – to name just a few of these requirements.
“Although energy poverty, where residents cannot afford to heat their flats throughout the winter is a recognised problem, the other increasing concern is residential buildings which, due to increased natural temperatures, are tending to overheat. Some buildings when reconfigured as apartments with a single aspect may not allow for through ventilation as part of a natural cooling strategy.”
Eddie Tuttle, Director for Policy, Research & Public Affairs at the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), said: “While we agree with the principle of PDRs to create more flexibility in buildings, rejuvenate town centres and deliver more housing in the right locations, there is clear evidence that homes built using PDRs has led to spaces detrimental to the health, wellbeing, and quality of life of future occupants.
“While space and light requirements go some way to addressing the quality concerns surrounding PDR, we remain concerned that units coming through PDR have few checks for other markers of quality such as EPC ratings, building aspect, building safety measures including Gateway One checks, access to amenity space, and ventilation. Ministers must continue to work with the sector to address these concerns and address them as a matter of urgency, particularly as the Government’s landmark Building Safety Bill starts its passage in parliament.”