Improving local skills and knowledge in achieving zero carbon housing (City of York)

Embedding green and low carbon techniques in the local construction curriculum.

At a glance

Housing Advisers Programme case study

2019/20 cohort 

Executive summary

In 2019 the Housing Delivery Programme (HDP) was approved by the Executive to deliver 600 new homes in York. All future homes will have air source heat pumps, solar PV panels and mechanical ventilation systems installed to achieve net zero carbon in use and Passivhaus certification. The ambition comes with challenges accessing sufficiently skilled and knowledgeable staff and local workforce due to the specialist and innovative nature of the build.

WARM, a company specializing in Passivhaus and low energy builds have been employed to undertake an embodied carbon study for two for the HDP sites. Once the study is complete a formal report will be produced with the intention of sharing learning with other local authorities and registered providers who are looking to develop low carbon housing. 

Challenge and context

City of York Council (CYC), like many other councils, is seeking to re-establish itself as a new home builder, enabled by the easing of Housing Revenue Account borrowing restrictions and access to various financial subsidies for affordable homes. York also has a high house price and low wage economy with average house prices around 10x the average salary, making it difficult for many to afford a home which meets their needs. We have seen a rise in fuel poverty and the related mental and physical health issues, placing an additional strain on public service providers. The housing issues in York made it more important for CYC to deliver housing the city needs. 

City of York Council announced its intention to deliver 100% zero carbon homes on all future sites in 2019. The homes will utilise Passivhaus accreditation with renewable installations to create high quality, low energy homes which will have extremely low utility bills. Over 40 per cent of these homes will be affordable (social rent and shared ownership) and will stay within the council’s care. 

A significant challenge to the construction of the housing is the difficulties faces in accessing locally based knowledgeable and skilled workforces in the construction sector. The region has little experience or specialist knowledge in low energy housing or renewable equipment due to most developers opting for building regulation standard housing which does not include green credentials. 

The project sought to increase knowledge and skills in the local workforce and construction education sector by funding their attendance to renewable equipment training courses and holding a Zero Carbon Homes event in collaboration with PureHaus. A secondary aspect of the project, an embodied carbon study, seeks to develop a detailed understanding of the carbon consumption of products used in housing construction and how it can be reduced. 

What we did

The project has two aspects to it: 1) decreasing the low energy construction skills and knowledge shortage within the city and; 2) producing an embodied carbon report based on two of the Housing Delivery Programme sites. 

For the skills and knowledge shortage research was undertaken to better understand the skills shortage and how the project could reduce this. The initial project was to employ a consultant to produce a low energy/green construction curriculum for the local college. Following discussions with the college it became clear this approach was not viable and instead it was decided to arm teachers with the knowledge and skills for them to embed low energy/green construction into their existing curriculum by funding their places on training courses. 

The project involved engagement with training providers to understand what courses were available that suit the skills demand in the city. The chosen courses were offered to CYC staff and local college staff. In total 65 individuals attended 6 different courses over the span of two years. There are still a further 2 courses to go ahead focusing on retrofit. 

To bring awareness to the need for zero carbon housing an event was held in collaboration with PureHaus, a low carbon housing developer, where a number of experts in the low energy housing sector presented on their area of expertise. The event was well attended by a range of people and live survey feedback was collected from the event.  

The embodied carbon report is based on an embodied carbon study that is ongoing.  

The difference we made

Funding training course places enabled CYC staff and college staff to attend training they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend due to lack of funding. This enabled both parties to gain valuable knowledge and skills that will enhance not only their own understanding of low energy construction but will influence others around them. For example, funding places for the college enabled the staff to embed low energy construction method teaching into the ‘traditional’ construction method classes allowing for the students to see low energy methods as an everyday option rather than a separate, specialist method of construction. It also highlighted how simple changes like triple glazed windows and increased insulation can have a large impact on the energy efficiency of a home. 

The Zero Carbon Homes event enabled anyone interested in zero carbon housing to listen to experts in the field and gain further insight into both the construction and ongoing maintenance some zero carbon homes require. From those who responded to the feedback survey 60% said that at least half of the information presented at the event was new to them.  

Although not yet complete the embodied carbon report will be a useful resource for other housing developers to understand the carbon footprint/lifetime of each product used in the construction of a house. The hope is other developers will more carefully consider the materials they specify and take a more fabric-first approach to their projects. 

What's next?

The embodied carbon study is to be completed and a report produced from the findings. The report will be shared with the Housing Advisors Programme for other councils to access.  

The Council will continue to work in collaboration with the college when the Passivhaus sites go live to enable further learning for their staff and students.

Lessons learned

  • The project has highlighted a more significant skills shortage than anticipated and a significant appetite for learning about low energy housing from local stakeholders.  

  • Rather than seeing low energy/green construction as a separate set of skills/knowledge which needs a separate training course or specialist teachers it was simpler and more effective to upskill existing staff and integrate low energy/green methods within the standard curriculum.   


Charlotte Bates (Housing Project Coordinator, City of York Council)  

[email protected]