Scottish tech company to deliver research project into health and wellbeing impact of social housing

From left - Simon West and Maureen Eisbrenner, and Dr Parag Rastogi
From left - Simon West and Maureen Eisbrenner, and Dr Parag Rastogi

Glasgow-based building performance technology company, arbnco, has been awarded funding by Innovate UK to explore how its technology could be utilised to improve the health and wellbeing of tenants in social housing. 

The project is being led by Leeds City Council and the City of York Council, and is part of the GovTech Catalyst programme, which enables public sector bodies to harness new and emerging technologies. The academic partner in the project is The Mackintosh Environmental Research Unit at The Glasgow School of Art.

It will explore how technology could be used to understand indoor environmental conditions within council housing stock, and the effect it can have on tenant health and wellbeing. The aim is to help tenants make positive lifestyle and environmental changes where necessary, and equip the council with real-time information to aid property management and provide better quality accommodation.    

arbnco is one of five organisations to lead a feasibility study into how technology can be used to improve the health and wellbeing of tenants, through promoting better indoor air quality within council housing stock. If successful, phase two will further develop and test the product before bringing to market.

The project will see arbnco explore how the sensor technology it currently provides to the commercial and public sector real estate market could be adapted for use in domestic properties. That technology analyses the air quality of indoor environments and provides real-time data on parameters such as temperature, humidity, CO2 levels, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds – the invisible gases that often emit an odour. The platform can send alerts directly to occupants or building managers, such as councils, when these parameters exceed normal limits. 

Numerous studies have linked poor air quality to an array of damaging health effects, and the World Health Organisation estimates that breathing in polluted air results in approximately 7 million deaths per year. 

Indoor environment technology could help the councils to detect issues such as damp before they start to negatively impact tenant health, reduce costs on repairs and maintenance, and highlight whether certain types of build quality are more susceptible to environmental problems. It can also help to inform whether they need to reconfigure properties, such as through the provision of communal drying spaces.  

arbnco is working on the research study in partnership with academics from Glasgow School of Art, and National Energy Action, a charity committed to eradicating fuel poverty. Social researchers from NEA will engage with council tenants to examine tenant preferences, needs and whether they would be comfortable with in-home sensor technology, and the parameters to be measured.

NEA will also help to build up a picture of energy vulnerability status across council properties. Statistics from the 2016 English Housing Survey, show that 15.6% (63,858) of social housing tenants across the Yorkshire and the Humber region were living in fuel poverty; making up almost a quarter (23.7%) of all fuel-poor households in the region. Together with the councils, the project hopes to be able to utilise data gathered from sensor technology to better support tenants, and understand what interventions might be necessary to manage indoor environment and energy use more effectively.

The academic lead on the project will be Professor Tim Sharpe, an international expert on indoor air quality and Director of the Mackintosh Environmental Architecture Research Unit at The Glasgow School of Art. The research will study the varying property archetypes and examine construction methods to develop a ‘risk factor index’ that identifies the most appropriate parameters to measure health and wellbeing in properties. The team of academics will focus on the key indicators of common issues within housing such as black mould, fuel poverty as well as any issues that will affect specific groups such as the elderly or those with long-term conditions. 

Professor Sharpe commented:

“Finding ways to reduce energy consumption and improve indoor air quality has never been more critical. This is a great opportunity to use our research expertise to help Government and Industry partners explore how innovative technologies can be developed to better understand living conditions in homes, and have positive impacts on energy consumption and health.” 

Simon West, co-founder and director at arbnco, said:

“We’re really excited to be part of this pioneering R&D project with Leeds and York city councils. Where councils have adopted indoor environment technology in their housing stock previously, the motivation for doing so has often centred purely around property management. This project has the health and wellbeing of tenants firmly at the heart of it.

“Air quality is rapidly becoming one of the biggest societal concerns of our time. The impact of projects like this one could be critical in helping to reduce the harmful effects that can be generated from the indoor environment, and could help to alleviate strain on our health and social care systems.”

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