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Overheating risk for office-to-resi conversions, says Zurich UK

The relaxation of planning rules in the UK could lead to serious problems of overheating in poorly designed homes, experts have warned. From this week development rights are being expanded to allow vacant shops, restaurants, gyms and disused offices to be converted into residential accommodation without having to apply for planning permission.

The idea behind the move is to encourage the regeneration of city centres that have emptied during the pandemic as offices were deserted and shops closed down. However according to Zurich UK, the insurance company, allowing commercial property to be developed into flats without checks could result in poor quality homes that would overheat in the summer.

“A rush to redevelop shops and offices left empty by the pandemic could create a swathe of sub-standard homes that are vulnerable to climate change”, said Zurich UK. During heatwaves, self-contained bedsits and studio flats could even become uninhabitable, according to the insurance group. “Apartments with a single aspect may not allow for through ventilation as part of a natural cooling strategy”.

Overheating is not the only problem: properties in built-up areas are also at risk from flash floods caused by heavy rainfall on concrete surfaces, they said.

“While we recognise the need for more affordable housing, we have concerns about the standard of some homes built under permitted development, where we already see a disproportionate volume of claims,” said Paul Redington, Zurich’s major loss property claims manager. Many are escape-of-water claims in office to resi conversions, due to the failure of plumbing systems not designed for service hundreds of kitchens and bathrooms.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) also expressed concern. In a joint statement issued with Zurich, Tony Mulhall, associate director of the land professional group at RICS, said that “the post-Covid city may need to quickly adapt to new modes of behaviour, which could see many building types adapted for purposes not originally intended”.

Improve shading and add ceiling fans say Zurich and RICS

Zurich and RICS want developers to be required to improve shading by building in features, such as installing shutters on windows and use of reflective surfaces as well as improving glazing, draught proofing and providing ceiling fans. Leak detection and suppression devices should also be fitted.

According to the Climate Change Committee, an independent body which advises the UK government, one of five homes in the country already overheats and, as global temperatures continue to rise, the death toll from overheating is expected to triple by 2050.

According to Zurich UK, over 64,700 flats have been created from disused offices in the last five years. In Q1 this year applications for office-to-resi conversions increased by 28% as “developers snap up blocks left vacant by an exodus of workers from city centres”.

The UK government rejected the criticism, saying that the reforms “will transform unused buildings into much-needed new homes, and all new homes must be of high quality and meet national space standards and building regulations, including ventilation requirements”. Zurich UK’s “claims are based on unfounded assumptions”, said a spokeswoman.