Has the time come for a Build to Rent specific accreditation?

Tom Kibblewhite, Director of Proximity discusses whether having a Build to Rent specific accreditation is the way forward in the industry.

Tom Kibblewhite, Co-Founder, Proximity | BTR News
Tom Kibblewhite, Co-Founder, Proximity.

Tom Kibblewhite, Director of specialist-chartered surveyor Proximity explains the challenge posed by the essential amenity component of Build to Rent schemes, balancing viability with ESG, and asks whether the time has come for a Build to Rent specific accreditation.

By Tom Kibblewhite, Director at Proximity

Build to Rent remains one of UK real estate’s most resilient asset classes, despite, according to recent figures from the British Property Federation, seeing a first quarter contraction this year.

It forms a key component of the housing strategy and has expanded significantly outside of London, with a 13% year-on-year increase in 2023. However, while it’s positive to see continued optimism around Build to Rent, particularly in the regions, the climate remains challenging for developers, making it more important than ever to select the right sites for new schemes as development pipelines expand.

To create a successful Build to Rent scheme, with a thriving community and the surrounding ecosystem to allow that community to flourish, it must be located in the right place, usually within an established urban centre. But as cities grow and expand, those tight, constrained sites often sought for Build to Rent development are throwing up new and emerging challenges which developers must traverse.

ESG continues to gain traction – it is fast becoming the norm for funders to require that ESG be factored into the design and use of Build to Rent schemes, with projects that meet those requirements far more likely to secure funding. Developments that fail to put their best ESG foot forward are increasingly valued less favourably.

In seeking to achieve the right ESG credentials, developers must successfully balance profit and purpose, ensuring that new sites allow for the creation of effective schemes that are feasible, sustainable and able to secure the right accreditations, while being attractive to their target customer – by no means an easy task.

In this drive for improving micro-environments, Build to Rent schemes often include valuable external amenity spaces within their design; these spaces are carefully designed for planting, play and leisure for future residents to enjoy. Whilst the health and wellbeing benefits for residents and biodiversity is clear, the inclusion of these spaces does present challenges in other areas of the scheme.

So, what do developers need to bear in mind when assessing a potential site for a new scheme?

A key selling point for potential residents is the amenity offer and shared spaces, which might include lounges, green spaces and exercise provision; new schemes are often designed with more focus on community and communal areas, however density and tight plots often mean working with more restricted space. Developers should be thinking not only about the enjoyment of the space and the experience of those using it, but also about the impact of a lack of light on the health of the greenery. 

While talented architects are adept at working with tight sites, new opportunities must be assessed very carefully to understand the potential conflict with achieving minimum levels of daylight and sunlight to the apartments around these amenity spaces at the planning stage.

Where gardens are situated at ground-floor level, light will usually be impacted – can it be made to work, and will the greenery planted there thrive? For this reason, we see a lot of schemes with roof-based gardens and community spaces, ensuring that the light will allow plants to grow and develop. It is no longer the case that having some external space for residents is sufficient, planning case officers are keen to understand if the central courtyard amenity space will receive enough sunlight to avoid it feeling gloomy and uninviting.

Proximity has seen increased scrutiny by local authorities when considering Build to Rent planning applications. Increasingly they are wanting to understand the daylight and sunlight amenity within the completed apartment; what level of daylight will the living rooms have, for example.

It can be a difficult balancing act to achieve the minimum levels of daylight required to these new apartments across lower floors, particularly on smaller urban sites where scheme viability is often directly connected to the height of a scheme.

And there’s also the wellbeing side to consider – Build to Rent schemes must be ‘healthy’.

Wellness is a major consideration for all stakeholders and developers – and is a crucial part of ESG – and investors are keen for schemes to secure the necessary accreditations, like WELL or BREEAM to help demonstrate this. However, the reality is that those standards are not designed for Build to Rent schemes and securing the daylight credits available will prove very challenging. That isn’t saying it can’t be done, of course, but to do so, developers must ensure that the site has the necessary attributes to make the numbers stack up.

Flexibility and innovation will be key in tackling the issue as Build to Rent evolves – many developers have a ‘standard room layout design’; a plan or methodology that works for them and sometimes becomes synonymous with their brand. However, as the challenge posed to providing a development with good daylight and sunlight levels increases along with density, we are likely to see more flexibility in these models. What has been done before may well no longer prove effective when thinking about the next site in another city – the amount of daylight a scheme will achieve is dependent on the site it occupies and there may well need to be a trade-off between the light ratio and the number of units to ensure viability.

Where developers are seeking to demonstrate the quality of their schemes through independent certification, standard room layouts can make securing daylight credits much more challenging – lounge, kitchen, diners (LKDs) are often designed to be very deep, with a sole, single aspect window. Has the time now come for a Build to Rent specific accreditation that takes account of the wider amenity benefits that the development offers? 

We think so.  

Designing to achieve good daylight can be a challenge; early (RIBA stage 2) input on massing and layout can result in avoiding significant re-designing in the run up to planning submissions. 

Build to Rent has moved the dial on the quality of homes available to renters. The responsibility to create ever-more sustainable schemes that also deliver social benefit to the communities in which they reside and border is clear. Undoubtedly ESG has been a major catalyst for positive change in real estate, though it often puts design at odds with other priorities. Developers must be able to deliver light-filled homes, while balancing energy efficiency and reducing carbon output – yet they mustn’t infringe on the neighbours’ privacy or impede their own light.

Balancing viability and purpose can be challenging, but with the right advice in the early stages, the willingness to be flexible and a focus on what residents want from Build to Rent schemes, developers will ensure that they’re creating attractive, thriving and sustainable schemes.