‘Life changing’: the social housing helping to cut heating bills in Norwich

Even on the coldest day of the winter so far, tenants of a pioneering housing scheme say they do not need to turn on their heating. A blast of Arctic air has brought a dusting of snow to the Goldsmith Street housing scheme in Norwich, but inside “it’s like summer”, according to Jayed Abdas Samad, 32, a Just Eat delivery rider.

At a time of health fears for more than 3 million households struggling to pay for heating, Jayed and his neighbours can provide a glimpse of how much better it would be if the UK’s homes were properly insulated and ventilated.

On the street a man scrapes snow from his windscreen dressed in shorts, and people come to the door dressed in T-shirts. The 105-home development was hailed a “modest masterpiece” when it won the Stirling architecture prize in 2019. But more importantly now, these triple-glazed homes with 60cm-thick insulated walls, are saving tenants money.

With three young children, Jayed and his wife, Jakia, 33, a part-time beautician, need all the financial help they can get. “The price of everything is going up, but food delivery fares are going down. Last year I got £100 a day, now it’s only £60 or £70.”

Jakia says: “We can’t save because all of the money goes on bills. A five-litre bottle of cooking oil cost £5 last year now it’s £10.” But while others are facing soaring energy bills, this part of their budget has been capped by the design of the home.

Jayed says: “We don’t have to put the heating on so it’s cheaper. We feel very lucky.”

The family were the first tenants to move into the housing when the scheme was completed in 2018. At the time it was the UK’s largest social housing estate built to Passivhaus standards – an ultra-low energy approach developed in Germany where it is the norm for new buildings.

In the UK, Goldsmith Street is very much the exception, although a handful of other councils and housing associations are now also building Passivhaus homes. The death of two-year old Awaab Iskwak in mouldy Rochdale flat has exposed the squalid state of much of England’s housing stock, with up to 450,000 homes hit with problems of condensation and mould.

Peter Osborne, 37, who suffers from an illness that prevents him working, is convinced that the warmth and ventilation of his new flat has improved his health.

He says: “I’ve reduced some of my medications since coming here. Our previous flat had damp issues. It was depressing to be told by the landlord that it was our fault. Here we can dry clothes indoors in a day with no heating on.”

He shares the flat with his wife and full-time carer Kier, 33, and their 17-year-old cat Kirby.

Even with the heating off it is a balmy 22C in the sunlit flat. “It feels like a holiday villa,” Peter says.

The couple were initially sceptical about the claim that design alone could help heat the flat in winter and cool it in summer. Now they are keen to proselytise its benefits.

Kier says: “In the summer you can stop recycling the heat from flats above and below, but when that’s off in the winter it uses all our warmth to heat the air up.”

Even after October’s price hike their monthly energy bill is still only £78 and before it was only £30. The Passivhaus Trust, which campaigns for the approach, estimates that while on average annual energy bills are capped at £2,500, in a Passivhaus home average annual bills are £947 – more than 62% cheaper.

Peter says: “This flat has been life changing for our finances. We’ve actually saved for things and paid back debts. And we’ve had a couple of vets bills recently that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to cover.”

“Before coming here I would have been embarrassed to say I live in council property because some of the blocks around here feel left behind, whereas here you feel cared for. It would be really good if more council places were built like this.”

Around the corner in Haslips Street, Shauna Frost, 55, who cares for people with dementia, feels the same. “Who wouldn’t be proud of this house?” she asks, sitting in the lounge of a two bedroom house she shares with her daughter Samantha and her boyfriend.

Here the temperature isn’t quite as warm as Peter’s flat, but Shauna says it is comfortable enough. “We’re facing our first winter here and not putting the heating on so we’re saving money. And the filter system is amazing. We try not to smoke inside because the air is so nice we don’t want to spoil it.”

She digs out a large instruction manual in a lever arch file that comes with the house. “They do what they say on the tin these houses, they’re very clever.”

She adds: “I think we’re very privileged to have this. I will never leave even if I have to get a stair lift.”