It's Not So Hard to Build Quality Housing, Just Follow the Recipe

A project in a Climate Innovation District in Leeds shows how it's done.

Solar avenue Houses
Houses on Solar Avenue.


The standard trope is that building healthy, ultra-efficient housing is expensive and difficult, and that the houses are not attractive. Oh, and they can be stuffy and dark inside thanks to teensy windows. None of that is true, but what is true is that building them takes more care and skill, and that they do not need gas furnaces.

That's why developers and gas companies just hijacked the International Code Council (ICC) that writes the building codes in the United States. As Robert Ivy, CEO of the American Institute, says,

“We are deeply disappointed to see the ICC move forward with this change, which we believe will present a step backwards for climate action. This heavily opposed decision stands to only serve select special interest groups and will no doubt erode progress towards the modern codes that are desperately needed to heal our planet."
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It's also why this project by British developer Citu in Leeds is so important. It puts paid to the fibs and distortions that the industry in both the United Kingdom and North America use to avoid building the kind of housing we need to cope with the climate crisis.

Designed by White Arkitekter, it is a Climate Innovation District, turning "a central brownfield site into a resilient, green, mixed-use neighbourhood of 516 low energy homes with integrated amenities for everyday life." Once home to a steel mill and chemical works, Geoff Denton, lead architect at White Arkitekter, notes:

“The concept was to build a community based on Scandinavian urban densities with an exceptional standard of environmental performance. Working closely with forward-thinking de the masterplan converts an industrial environment into a walkable, healthy, family friendly environment”. 

The timber homes are built at Citu works, a factory they built to fabricate them. Oliver Wainwright of the Guardian writes that "these terrace houses are made from super-airtight timber panels stuffed full of wood-fibre insulation, with triple-glazed windows and solar panels on the roof, each erected in less than a week."

Site Plan

White Arkitekter

It is not just the homes that are important, but also the planning of a walkable city. The architects note:

"A successful and sustainable local neighbourhood is a product of the distances people have to walk to access daily facilities; enabling non-vehicular movement within the Climate Innovation District to become a priority. The masterplan’s distinctive urban design allows for a pedestrian and bicycle-friendly street environment, so all needs are in reach by cycle or foot."

The houses have Passivhaus features like heat recovery ventilators and are topped with solar panels, There is no gas now and no need for hydrogen later, since you don't need much heat when you build this way in the first place. Because the designs are simple and straightforward without a lot of gables, bumps, and jogs, they are efficient and affordable to build.

Exterior of Houses

White Arkitekter

What is so remarkable about this project is that they are not kidding around about building a different kind of housing. Treehugger recently showed an American development from KB Homes that was being sold as healthy and efficient, and it just demonstrated the difference in approach. Here we are seeing the real thing, and an acknowledgment that we have to be serious about change, as they note on the Citu Website:

"Our world has been transformed in the past fifty years, but houses remain the same as they’ve always been. The Citu Home is different. It combines brilliant, bold design with the latest in sustainable technology, to create an incredible living space which radically reduces your carbon footprint."
Interior of house


But they can still do traditional marketing:

"Huge triple glazed windows and light wells flood large, open plan spaces with natural light. Sleek, modern and finished to a rigorous specification, the Citu Home features clean lines, bamboo floors and high ceilings to create bright, warm and inviting spaces. This is Scandinavian design at its finest."

The biggest problem I have looking at these projects in Europe is that I start feeling like my friend Mike Eliason, who spent time working in Germany and came back to Seattle right when the pandemic sent us all home to look at our screens. Because there is no reason that our planning has to be so bad, our building codes so lax, our build quality so crummy, or why a KB Home couldn't be doing housing and neighborhoods like this in North America. The British housing industry, in general, is no more progressive or less schlocky than North America's, but there do seem to be more green shoots popping up. And it isn't that hard to do; Emma Osmundsen of Exeter City Living tells Oliver Wainwright how it is done:

“Passivhaus is really not complicated, and it doesn’t have to cost more than conventional construction. It’s a bit like baking a cake: most of the ingredients are the same as a regular house, but you just have to follow the recipe in the right order. Perhaps it’s because the building industry is so male-dominated, but there is a general reluctance to follow the recipe.”

It is true that when I look at the last 10 speakers at the Passive House Happy Hour, six of them are women. Perhaps Osmundsen has a point.

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