Fixing the housing crisis by fixing the flooding crisis—and vice versa
When I started at the Catapult in 2014, one thing I wanted to transform into a project was a ‘sketch’ I’d called The New Forest. In short, the idea was to fix the UK’s housing crisis by fixing the UK’s flooding crisis, and vice versa. We build and retrofit houses from machined timber, with wood supplied from forests carefully reintroduced to surrounding landscapes, such that the absorption capacity of these new forests help to mitigate against flooding rather than exacerbate it, in turn generating material and jobs to build sustainable settlements which address carbon and biodiversity (alongside the multiple further benefits of timber buildings). These two powerful drivers—housing, flooding—positively counterpoint each other.
Aside: It’s an example of a lever strategy, a technique that should’ve been in my strategic design vocabulary, Dark Matter & Trojan Horses. The lever is created by connecting previously disparate forces and deploying one in order to positively affect the other and vice versa. Another classic problem, equally difficult, would be connecting healthcare and urban planning i.e. improving public health via preventative urban planning manoeuvres (walkable urbanism, tree planting, air quality increases etc.) paid for by the resulting healthcare budget savings. These are almost common sense approaches, but traditionally difficult due to the lack of ‘total budgeting’ or the problems in coordinating the public sector, a far more complex task than private sector strategy. Here, we deploy housing to encourage reforesting, noting how flood mitigation could be connected to development positively instead of negatively. We drop down new housing, which pushes up forests, or drop down new forests, with which to build up sustainable housing … You push down on the end of the lever, and it lifts the other end. A well-designed lever means a smaller push on one end—beginning to rebuild in timber—can produce a much greater effect at the other—planting new forests. And then, any child knows, the best thing to do with a lever is pump it up and down, like an old handcar, generating further momentum.
The idea came partly from my long-standing interest in timber buildings, and specifically manufactured cross-laminated timber (CLT) buildings, inspired mainly by working on the Low2No project and Helsinki Design Lab Sustainability Studio in Finland (with my colleagues Bryan Boyer, Justin W. Cook and Marco Steinberg; and particularly learning from Justin in terms of CLT and carbon.) I firmly believe that this technology — new and ancient at the same time — could be how many, perhaps most, of our buildings could be built from now on. Could be and should be. It is a far more efficient form of building, reducing construction time, waste, and energy massively, but more importantly it is effectively carbon positive, it doesn’t burn, it’s healthy and attractive, culturally and otherwise.
There are numerous cross-laminated timber (CLT) projects emerging now, worldwide. The wonderful Strandparken project, in Sundbyberg, Stockholm, indicates what can be done. Although the project has not been without its issues—as one might expect with this first wave of CLT buildings—it stands as an example of how efficient, rapidly constructed, medium density housing, can be beautiful, popular and genuinely low-carbon. Win-win-win.
The issue with shifting the industry en-masse to CLT (and related approaches like glulam) comes down to the cost of change. With few exceptions, the building industry typically acts as if it is almost allergic to innovation, finding little or no reason to meaningfully change their systems and approaches. Yet using CLT is already effectively cost-neutral, once you take true costs into account by not simply calculating the price of swapping timber for, say, concrete, but also looking at overall speed and efficiency, including logistics, waste, and streamlining the work of the many ‘downstream trades’ and unnecessary materials in building. This is a role for the public sector to play: to mandate and advocate for true costing, and demonstrate through pathfinder projects and planning controls. As with Low2No, public innovation can act like a ‘snowplough’, clearing the way for private innovation to follow in its wake.
When I returned to the UK in the January of 2013, however, I returned to a country dealing with two crises, and apparently very different ones: the so-called housing crisis, particularly the perceived housing shortage, and the very real floods that were engulfing a good chunk of the country, and had been through the winter. Generally, these were not seen as connected, so let’s look at each independently to begin with.
The housing crisis is actually several crises.
The first is the shortage: In London and the south east, we need tens of thousands of new homes annually, and taking other growth areas into account, the UK needs around 250,000 new homes nationwide, according to Shelter. The second crisis is the opposite: outside the handful of growth areas, there is a surfeit of housing that is un-used, barely used or poorly used. Assemble’s sterling work in Liverpool shows what could be done with this type of housing, but few places have an Assemble to hand. (James Meek in the LRB still has the best overview of why the UK has got itself into this particular pickle.)
The UK has another housing crisis too, a culturally complex slow-burner, which is the incredibly poor quality of most British housing, the oldest housing stock in Europe. As I’ve written before, we should probably knock down much of it and start again, replacing with more sustainable models for housing. Sadly, that can hardly be a serious suggestion, given the attachment to those shoddy houses necessarily engineered by a property-owning culture—and besides, there is a reasonable amount of wonderful old housing in the UK too—but either way, we will need to construct or retrofit as much as possible.
We should not waste these crises but use them strategically to build properly anew, and while that should mean a far richer diversity of models (more on co-housing’s potential for that in this piece) in terms of materials I’d suggest we should double-down on timber. The UK’s rich history ensures that there will still be more than enough brick, concrete and stone around to articulate our recent histories and provide a diverse textural patina across our neighbourhoods, yet timber could be a preference for much of what gets built next, with all the attendant advantages described earlier.
Yet the experience of Low2No, where an almost-completely CLT building on the drawing board became significantly less than that once the powerful local construction and property industries had got its teeth into the value engineering, taught us that you need serious additional incentives in order to change calcified practices, despite the aforementioned benefits. This will mean creating demand through behaviour change and exemplary communications but also political will to shift the supply side.
So how to create a true demand for timber, a genuine political will?
Enter flooding. In that January, as with every January since and increasingly from now on, we heard of flood-related disasters up and down the UK on a daily basis (as elsewhere.) I read several articles, many via George Monbiot’s writing in The Guardian, about how much of the flooding is in part due to England’s landscape having been denuded of its natural protection of its foliage and forestry, through various activities, but particularly:
- Over-farming, fuelled by subsidies that prioritised income over ecosystems, growing maize for biofuels in particular;
- Property development, building homes and other buildings on or around flood plains, and significantly changing the absorption capacity of the land as as result.
Both reveal a stultifying short-termist agenda, a preference for wealth creation through individual property or land ownership over other forms of value creation. But stripping the landscape of its natural protection in the form of forestry and its associated flora has led directly to unmanageable surges in the volume and intensity of water flowing through our rivers after heavy rainfall, and particularly after the kind of intense weather events that we are now seeing on a regular basis, never mind the extreme weather events we can expect more of in the near future.
Thanks to a wholesale change in the way the land is cultivated, at 38% of the sites the researchers investigated, the water — instead of percolating into the ground — is now pouring off the fields. [From ‘How we ended up paying farmers to flood our homes’, George Monbiot, The Guardian, 18 February 2014]
So whilst this increased rainfall is exacerbated by anthropogenic climate change, as recent research at Oxford University shows, its particular impact on our settlements is a direct result of our shaping of the landscape, and where and what we have chosen to put on it.
These surges can only swell into populated areas, where an unhelpful and perhaps inadvertent coalition of under-resourced planners pushed around by avaricious property developers has led to housing, and its associated infrastructure, being built directly in flood plains. This condition applies in many of our cities, having generally been built around rivers for obvious reasons—London around the Thames sits in what is effectively a giant flood plain, as any glance at its topology would reveal. But then much of the land around the Thames outside London is likewise, and the country is full of similar areas that want, deep down, to spend much of their time being soaking wet, on what is, after all, a particularly damp bit of rock in the North Atlantic.
Ed. This kind of careless property development can be seen all over the world. I saw it first hand, and vividly, in the somewhat epic 2010 floods in Brisbane, which I was unfortunate enough to be caught in; another formative experience feeding this article’s idea.
Britain’s landscape is a confection, shaped to the needs of its time. Nicholas Crane’s magnificent book, The Making of the British Landscape, describes in compelling detail the way that it has been altered, designed and managed over 12,000 years, and how, in a way, there is little that is natural about it. Yet that landscape would’ve been tended a little more carefully, previously, and floodplains understood and respected, just as hills and valleys would be cultivated to soak up excessive rainfall. Agricultural land is now increasingly replaced with loose, bare topsoil or plantings of maize, a particular problem crop as the soil stays bare before and after harvest, without the stubble or weeds required to bind it—hence further loose topsoil and a huge increase in surface water run-off. As regards built-up land for housing and shops, that, of course, is increasingly paved-over, given such developments tend to be unsustainable low-density housing with its associated car-based infrastructure—and so even more rapid surface water run-off.
Now that the landscape’s ability to absorb stormwater has essentially been stripped away, lives and livelihoods are now being wrecked on a regular basis, with predictable seasonality if unpredictable intensity.
Part of the issue is that we do not understand the value of trees generally, even in, ironically enough, England’s so-called greenest city, Sheffield, which currently has a embarrassing farce simmering over its handling of street trees.
Despite many cities worldwide beginning to focus on their value — witness Melbourne’s wonderful Urban Forest project, and their understanding of the value of a cooling and cleansing natural canopy — there is not enough replanting in cities, or around the flood plains and valleys that feed cities.
Yet in Constitución, Chile, when rebuilding after the devastating 2010 earthquake and tsunami — another story I’ve written about, for the Brickstarter project — part of the answer to flooding and sea level rise was just this kind of reforesting of the coastline, a natural flood barrier that happens to be a park most of the time. It’s a beautifully simple solution.
Perhaps it was borrowed for the Big U project proposed for Manhattan, which imports Dutch savoir faire in water management——were it not for that fact that it’s an age-old technique (and of course the Dutch in particular know a thing or two about having to deal with flooding due to human activity.) And there are even UK examples to learn from: the ‘Slowing the Flow’ project in the Yorkshire town of Pickering seems to be reducing river flow in flood by 15–20% through planting trees and other natural mitigation methods.
The beauty of the solution is in rediscovering it. But if a forest can halt a tsunami, it should be able to deal with the accumulated effects of British mizzle.
We could use our landscape to soak up increasingly excessive rainfall rather than exacerbate it, yet there is apparently no funding earmarked for natural flood defences in the UK currently. So given that this knowledge is also not enough to develop a more strategic response, even in the face of regular debilitating flooding, how to create the additional demand apparently required for a large scale replanting, a re-foresting of a decent chunk of England? We need more traction.
The UK is apparently about to build 14 ‘garden villages’ to help with the housing shortage—delivering around 48,000 new homes. Could we use this opportunity to not only build sustainable homes, but ensure that these so-called villages have a systemic effect outside of their immediate footprint? “Systemic” means sustainable beyond construction, but genuinely sustainable in terms of generating new jobs, new products, new industries even, and yes, flood mitigation. Might each ‘village’ have an associated forest? (After all, if the government forces us to use such ye olde language, we might as well selectively borrow some ye olde ideas.) Let’s use the strategic need to build thousands of new homes as a lever to create the demand for local timber (and ideally at the densities suggested by the Sundbyberg Strandparken housing above.)
By locating such forests smartly, and mitigating flooding, we might use some of the financial capital otherwise set aside for flood damages as investment to pump prime the project. Flooding costs billions of pounds, after all—that’s a decent amount of financing if we could conceive of it as investment rather than cost.
The Finnish timber story underpinning our Low2No project was of an incredibly well-managed industry — and forestry — but one that needed a new, higher-value trajectory. Its timber business had, for decades, been focused on paper and pulp, and successfully, as the second largest sector after ICT. Yet that business was heading south, literally, to countries that produce wood faster and with lower labour costs. So timber for buildings could provide Finland with a new, higher-value future for the entire sector, a valuable new advanced manufacturing industry, full of various forms of employment. The lever strategy meant using Low2No, as a forerunner of a new generation of timber buildings, to deliver not simply a new business for property and urban development, but also for this adjacent industry, in timber. (This strategic play is described in more detail in my book Dark Matter & Trojan Horses; see also my report from the nanocellulose-infused wood laboratory at Aalto University.)
The UK’s timber business is a fraction as strong, its forests barely managed at all in comparison, and neither are attuned to high value products like CLT. Yet the Scottish timber business could be. It is so clearly part of a similar biome to that of the Nordic Region — the granite, birch, spruce and fir would be familiar to any Finn, just as much as the rain would be. The only thing lacking is an industrial policy that would cultivate the know-how, technologies and labour required to breathe life into it (despite excellent efforts like the Centre for Wood Science and Technology at Edinburgh Napier University.)
And if the Scottish business could be, what of the rest of the country? The whole place was forest at one point; a few new city forests, and forests for each of those garden villages, is not unthinkable. The advantage is not simply in terms of downstream use of timber products either, but also in the use of land itself: when harvested sustainably, timber stocks tend to improve ‘carbon sink’ capacity over un-managed land.
(It’s interesting to note that Legal & General, one of the UK’s biggest insurance companies, has invested significantly in CLT production facilities to build homes. What would it take others—like the Coop, say, who are another big UK insurance offerer and with its roots in numerous communities big and small—to look at shifting investment from insurance to timber housing, new jobs, and flood mitigation, all linked to local forestry investments?)
The Catapult, it turned out, wasn’t the right home to nurture this kind of project, for a number of reasons. In the UK, it would require various departments of environment, housing, planning and economic development to work together. At that point, sages shake their heads and mutter dark words like “impossible” or “difficult”. Yet this kind of multi-perspective problem, with no single client but several clients — a classic wicked problem, in other words — is exactly the kind of strategic design opportunity we need to use to reframe governance for the 21st century. Taking advantage of ambitious cross-cutting problems such as these might actually provide the impetus for change.
Of course this is a long-term strategy, and thus does not fall neatly into electoral cycles, making it difficult for civil servants forced to see the world through those prisms. Yet it is possible to start delivering short-term whilst setting up a long-term solution, just a snooker player must pot the ball in front of them whilst thinking a few shots ahead. Ideally, we would want the wood to be as local as possible—at least from the UK, to minimise the footprint of logistics as well as provide employment and generate local industrial innovation. As well as producing timber for buildings, we would want the forest to be biodiverse, rather than simply monocultural plantations. Yet right now, the timber supplies, and industry and forestry management know-how is simply not there; it disappeared centuries ago, and as WWF reported last year, this lack of local sustainable forestry puts us at risk in a number of ways.
To enable that first set of garden villages, however, we could begin by importing certified wood from the vast reserves across the Nordic region, and at least start developing our construction know-how that way, whilst our new forests start re-growing. It may take decades for the new forests to be viable, but if we do not start now they will always be decades away. And the flood mitigation capability will start working as soon as they start taking root. So we use savings from the reduced cost of flooding as investment, and prop open the window this gives us to create education and training programmes, pump-prime entrepreneurship, and start managing productive forests again.
Of course, we could ‘solve’ the housing crisis without necessarily building in wood, and hooking it to flooding, just as we could properly address flooding without necessarily hooking it to the housing crisis. But given the UK shows little sign of addressing either of them coherently individually, why not connect these forces and see if a new strategic combination can drive some momentum?
In Oslo, there is a particularly inspiring project growing in the city forest, called Future Library, created by Scottish artist Katie Paterson.
A thousand trees have been planted in Nordmarka, a forest just outside Oslo, which will supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in one hundred years time. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until 2114. Tending the forest and ensuring its preservation for the 100-year duration of the artwork finds a conceptual counterpoint in the invitation extended to each writer: to conceive and produce a work in the hopes of finding a receptive reader in an unknown future. [From futurelibrary.no]
The texts reside in the new city library, in a purpose-built room constructed from the trees that were cut down to make the clearing. Once a tree matures, it will be turned into one of the books. Until then, the book remains un-read, by anyone other than the author. (The first three authors are Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell and Sjón.)
This thinking is so wonderfully clear, giving us a lucid way of thinking differently about time, about long-term value, and about that otherwise entirely non-poetic word, sustainability. Future Library should be an inspiration for policy-makers well outside of public art circles.
The short-termism and strategic myopia of British policy-makers is truly startling at times. Declaring the countryside ‘open for business’ without meaningful direction or constraint is only likely to lead to development that increases flooding, amongst other issues, just as similar policies lead to the fracking of Sherwood Forest. Meanwhile, other ministries in the same government are left with pennies to fund the mopping up.
When your bathtub is overflowing onto the neighbours below, one should really turn off the tap before dabbing the floor with a few towels. But it turns out that not only is the government’s ‘towelling’ budget insufficient, there is little sign of it facing up to farmers, landowners and property developers in order to turn off that tap. The tap, if my analogy is not yet blunt enough, is the increasingly intense rain falling onto those hillsides and valleys stripped of their natural protection and then doing what water does best. We should not be standing in its way, or on hands and knees with soggy towels, but restoring that protection by replanting.
And it turns out there is an additional reason to put that timber back there. That timber could be how we will build our cities of the future, with the savings redeployed from flood mitigation financing the now-small incentives required by the construction industry to do so.
And there could be enough projects around already, from single houses to public buildings to towers to infrastructure, to create the cultural demand for CLT-based building.
A New Forest strategy would provide an actual incentive for the property industry to indirectly invest in the solution to flooding, by constructing houses from timber, and investing in local timber supply chains to do so. To do so sustainably would require using our forests, and our latent capacity for new forests, properly. To reforest areas strategically would help prevent debilitating flooding. By preventing that flooding, we can redeploy the financial capital otherwise set aside to mop up into enabling that timber housing. The public sector has a leadership role to play, in terms of calibrating both sides of the lever, incentivising and legislating, as well as leading through its own ‘snowplough’ projects, yet there are huge opportunities for private businesses and third sector organisations too.
We solve the housing crisis by solving the flooding crisis, and vice versa.
I hope to pursue this idea whenever I get the chance again, but please feel free to adopt and adapt too—that’s why I’m posting it here. Let me know how you get on, or feel free to constructively critique any aspect. Each challenge will help.
 Caveats: There are clear dangers with such a high-level description, with ideas untroubled by practice, skating over numerous complexities. It would be, of course, a hugely long-term venture, as well as multi-perspective, which almost any organisation, public or private, struggles to pursue at the moment. I could go a lot further into the inherent difficulties, into the choice of suitable timber and particular locations; into the length of time it takes to regenerate woodland, industry, know-how or demand; into the challenge of running public projects across electoral cycles or divisional boundaries, or in private equity contexts where shareholders expect short-term return to take priority over long-term sustainability; into the challenge of ‘total budgeting’ or measuring various non-financial forms of capital and shared value; into the intransigence of the construction industry or the civil service; the lack of capability in British forest management, timber business and local planning; the problems governments have with behaviour change campaigns required to stimulate demand; the particular firms, small and large, most likely to push on (or block), and so on. There will be answers to all those deeper questions not voiced here, but to address them properly would mean locating them in real projects in real places with real people. I hope to do so, but that’s not for this article. This article is about that simple core idea, such that others might adopt and adapt. Do get in touch if you want to talk more.
 Name: The original ‘New Forest’ was created, not without controversy, by William the Conqueror about 1000 years ago. I’m borrowing the name to recognise that we’ve created forests before, as well as laid waste to them.
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