Design in the Public Sector: Innovative approaches to low energy housing

Cllr Laura Miller confirmed that climate change is a cross cutting service issue which means that it concerns us all. COP26 is coming up later this year and one of the goals is mitigation. Included in that, is low energy housing, and was the focus of this webinar.

Cllr Laura Miller, Cabinet Member, Dorset Council (Chair) - 15 June 2021

Cllr Laura Miller confirmed that climate change is a cross cutting service issue which means that it concerns us all. COP26 is coming up later this year and one of the goals is mitigation. Included in that, is low energy housing, and was the focus of this webinar.

This was the second webinar in a series of four, run by the LGA in partnership with the Design Council as part of the Design in the Public Sector programme 2020-21. The webinars intend to disseminate design skills among public sector professionals and provide councils with a platform to share their insights and experiences of tackling climate challenges focusing on various topics.

In this session, we explored innovative approaches to low-energy housing and retrofitting from the experience of different local authorities around the country:

  • The Design Council explained their programme of work with the LGA to explore net zero challenges with councils using design skills.
  • Cheshire West and Chester Council shared their experience of taking a design approach to develop a low carbon housing pilot in West Cheshire.
  • Local Partnerships shared practical learning from their climate response programme for domestic retrofit and housing retrofit guidance.
  • Barnsley Council and Leeds Beckett University talked about their collaboration to design and oversee the construction and evaluation of a new, low-energy housing estate in Barnsley, using the latest research and innovation in insulation and renewable energy.

Jessie Johnson, Lead Programme Manager, Design Council

Design Council was set up in 1944. The ambition was to put design on the global map and they are now the Government’s advisor on design. Services offered include public services and innovation which is the centre of the partnership with the LGA.

Design Council have recently launched a systemic design approach for ‘Beyond Net Zero’. The Systemic Design Framework, launched in April 2021, has been developed to help designers working on major complex challenges that involve people across different disciplines and sectors. It places our people and our planet at the heart of design.

The Design in the Public Sector Programme with the LGA builds design skills and capabilities in local government. This year’s programme supported 13 councils in tackling local climate change challenges. They shared and connected with one another and created a sustainable network.

If you are interested in finding out more about the programme, please contact

Will Pearson, Strategy and Innovation Manager, Cheshire West and Chester Council and

Gavin Griffith, Project Delivery Manager, Cheshire West and Chester Council

Cheshire West and Chester Council were on the Design in the Public Sector Programme in 2020-21. They have calculated that they are the fifth highest emitting local authority area, mostly due to the local oil refinery.

Their project focused on housing which is calculated to be 14 per cent of carbon emissions in the area. Prior to the design programme, they had not grappled with zero carbon housing so are still on a journey but were happy to share learnings thus far.

The design programme gave them a framework to think through their challenge – the process encouraged them to think broadly, and then to hone down to a challenge which is both meaningful and achievable.

They also researched the problem and gathered evidence through interviewing housing associations, Engie, commercial developers, internal stakeholders and Member working groups. They were in touch with other councils such as Norwich, Plymouth and the Passivhaus Trust to share good practice. Their peer council on the programme (City of London) also gave very practical help.

The following insights were gained:

  • Customer satisfaction is key for residents and housing associations – heating systems have to work for people.
  • Building standards - showing developers how they could get ahead of the game.
  • Built environment expert – their feedback was helpful and raised the council’s ambition without relying on off-setting.

Creative ideas included:

  • New technologies – communicating the benefits.
  • Providing financial incentives to low carbon incentives.
  • Local policy levers.

Their vision is to advocate and lead for zero carbon homes. The big idea:

  • Embed a Passivhaus standard policy.
  • Deliver a pilot project.
  • Make local plan amendments which are sustainable.

Low carbon housing pilot

  • The council are intending to work with the developer to enable a low carbon home to transition to a Passivhaus standard.
  • They will construct five low carbon properties in partnership with the developer. This will run over 10 years and they are looking to monitor housing energy usage over time.

Milton Green – leading by example

  • A mixed tenure scheme and provided a good opportunity to test the standard in 43 units of accommodation. This uses air source heat pumps, triple glazing and solar PV and battery storage.
  • They were keen to incorporate electric vehicle charging points.
  • This is a holistic approach for the whole development.

Future housing developments – raising ambition:

  • Brownfield sites favoured as part of the council’s approach.
  • The council has approved a motion that future developments will be 100 per cent Passivhaus.
  • Working with local suppliers and developers to build the local economic benefits, as well as sustainable benefits.
  • Exploring modern methods of construction to minimise wastage and increase the speed of delivery.
  • Reopening the local plan with the aim of increasing sustainable housing developments.
  • Green jobs in sustainable development arising for local residents.

What will it achieve?

Save 5,026 KG CO2


  • Skills and knowledge in construction – technologies and building techniques
  • Viability around the sites
  • Design and usability

What we need to do to take the project forward?

  1. Focus groups – check out what costs are viable for local residents
  2. Pilot scheme
  3. Plan and report from Design Council work and this will report back to Members
  4. Consultation on the local plan which will be running shortly, hopefully creating more sustainable policies

Rachel Toresen-Owuor, Programme Director, Local Partnerships

Domestic properties account for 30 per cent of energy use and 19 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United Kingdom. Most people do not realise that they’ll need to upgrade and retrofit their homes, and housing retrofit is complicated especially when you’re looking to upgrade the existing stock portfolio.

Local Partnerships ran a survey prior to creating their housing retrofit handbook. This was with a view to exploring the barriers for local authorities when retrofitting housing.

Less than 5 per cent of local authorities consider themselves ready to address the challenges of housing retrofit due to a lack of resource.

The handbook offers guidance on procurement, funding and finance and engaging with communities and householders:

  • Tips for engaging with households and property owners include: audit, brief, communities, disseminate and engage.
  • Five key principles for engaging with small and medium sized enterprises - developing understanding, mainstreaming, simplicity, removing barriers to entry and brokerage.


  • An opportunity to help with social housing stock.
  • Examples of work which can be done include rooftop PV, decarbonisation of communal heating, landlord lighting upgrades and fabric improvements.
  • Why use Re-fit?: Guaranteed performance, OJEU compliant, fast and efficient tendering and end to end support from expert teams.
  • Any public sector organisation can use Re:fit including local government, schools and housing associations.
  • Steps on re:fit journey: Plan, procure, perform.

Sara Scholes, Project Manager, Barnsley Council and Martin Fletcher, Research Fellow, Leeds Beckett University

In 2010, after a gap of 30 years, Barnsley started building housing again. They have built 173 homes and have planning permission for 58 more.

Alongside the declaration of a climate emergency, the council reviewed their house building to be in line with their net zero ambitions. The council wanted to innovate and lead by example whilst working with partners and residents.

In Barnsley, there are 1,800 council homes which are wide ranging in standards.

The council had a suite of standard house types and had fitted ASHP and solar PV on previous schemes. Building on that, they were looking for a critical friend to create a specification to replicate across the local authority area.

The Net Zero Innovation Programme, a collaboration between UCL and the LGA, made it possible to work with Leeds Beckett University in an in-depth way to make improvements to designs and standards.

Barnsley Council are working with the Leeds Sustainability Institute to combine their research and expertise to build new low carbon homes.

The process is to carry out a design review, a construction evaluation and then a post construction monitoring.

The Leeds Sustainability Institute look at new build performance, carry out physical tests on the buildings, isolate issues and figure out solutions.

Barnsley are forward looking to ensure that they adhere to new building regulations rather than the current ones. They are also keen to ensure that any work achieved is replicable for both the local area and other local authorities.

The Design Review passed designs back and forth to improve it – practical issues of designs and sequencing of work is important. It highlights where there might be a new method or material to create a better house. For example, they increased the size of the cavity to increase the insulation. They needed to make sure that this was available on the market so that they did not need a bespoke material.

The next phase is into construction – they are currently looking to go out to tender to appoint a building contractor. They will be doing lots of site observations to look at what is working and not working and why so that they can design faults out for next time.

Post completion testing will include:

  • Airtightness and leakage detection – putting a big fan in the house to check what air escapes and where.
  • Co-heating test – heat the building to 25 degrees in winter.
  • Building forensic tests – heat flux measurement, thermal imaging, borescope survey.
  • In use monitoring for one year – energy and electricity use monitors will check how all the new systems are being used and are performing. They will evaluate the heating and humidity of the homes. They will also conduct interviews with the residents to make sure that they understand how to use all of the technology.

This project will provide comprehensive support for Barnsley’s homes, and in turn will provide the university with a tremendous amount of research.


  • Climate change is a cross cutting council service issue and therefore concerns us all.
  • Check out Design Council’s systemic design approach for ‘Beyond Net Zero’.
  • Ensure that you understand the challenge which you are grappling with and gain ideas for a solution from a variety of stakeholders.
  • Look out for the Housing Retrofit Handbook by Local Partnerships.
  • Can you collaborate with your local university on a net zero project for two-way benefits?