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Mahmoud Alsaeed


Mahmoud is one of the directors of the Housing Studies Association in the UK and a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield. He previously worked as a practising architect and urban planner with several years of professional experience in the consulting engineering industry in one of the leading firms in the Middle East and North Africa.

He holds a Bachelor's degree in Architectural Engineering from Al-Ahliyya Amman University in Jordan, a Master of Science in Urban Planning and Design from Qatar University and a Master of Social Science in International Cooperation in Urban Planning from Grenoble University. He is also certified as a Green Associate by the United States Green Building Council, a Certified Green Professional by the Gulf Organisation for Research and Development and an International Associate by the American Institute of Architects.

Mahmoud's current research project focuses on the environmental sustainability of social housing in the UK at the University of Sheffield. His research interests include sustainable design and planning, sustainability in housing, and social housing policy and planning.

Research topic

Updated sumaries

August, 22, 2023

March, 17, 2022

September, 17, 2021

Environmental Sustainability of Future Social Housing


Environmental sustainability and social housing are important issues that are intertwined and hindered by unsustainable practices in the design, construction and operation of housing. Social housing is an important aspect in the UK, forming 18 per cent of the total housing stock, which accounts for 6.6 per cent of national energy consumption and contributes to 4.4 per cent of carbon emissions. To address these complex and interlinked issues, the UK government has launched multi-faceted strategies, including the ambitious target of achieving net zero emissions by 2050 and a decarbonised housing sector by 2030. At the same time, mandatory and voluntary sustainability standards and a reformed housing policy have been adopted to support the achievement of these targets. However, critical assessments in recent Environment Committee reports have shown that progress towards these national targets has been very slow. This lethargic progress is attributed to several challenges. These include complicated and fragmented regulations and procedures, a pervasive lack of clarity among industry professionals on environmentally sustainable social housing, and a vague path towards energy efficiency and carbon neutrality.

The core aim of this research project lies in the overarching intention to challenge and subsequently reform existing paradigms of practice that are perceived as ineffective due to their complicated and fragmented nature. The need for an innovative, realistic and simple framework for the development of sustainable social housing is, therefore, a key element in addressing the current challenges. This objective is guided by a series of critical questions, such as What standards for environmentally sustainable social housing are needed to promote simple and effective practices? What is the current perception and structure of housing and sustainability practices? How do we define and measure the environmental sustainability of housing? What tools can be used to achieve an efficient and environmentally sustainable housing sector?

A qualitative study forms the methodological basis of this project, serving as a foundation for the primary conceptualisation of sustainability and housing policies, their development paths, as well as the contemporary methods for measuring environmental sustainability in social housing. This investigation is complemented by various methods, such as semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders, including housing associations, sustainability specialists and architects. These interviews provide important insights into prevailing practices in the field. And informing the in-depth analysis of three case studies on sustainable social housing practices. The findings are then validated through focus groups, which are an important tool to test the credibility of the study findings and the proposed framework.

The planned outcome of this project is aimed at housing developers and planners in the form of a policy and practice framework that addresses the environmental sustainability of social housing and provides practical design and planning guidance for achieving an environmentally sustainable social housing sector in the UK. This framework will be significant for its potential to trigger nationwide change, support practical developments in housing sustainability and encourage future studies into achieving sustainable social housing through simplified and effective codes and standards.

Keywords: social housing, environmental sustainability, sustainability practices, sustainable social housing.

Reference documents

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Figure 1. Project 5 research design, revision 2, 2023.


Environmental sustainability of future social housing


Excessive resource consumption and other unsustainable practices have in recent decades contributed to the current global climate emergency. Unsustainable practices are especially prevalent in housing design, construction and operation equally in new and retrofit projects. In the UK, the social housing sector forms up to 18 per cent of the entire housing stock (4.2 million units in 2021), consumes up to 5.3 per cent of the country’s energy and causes 3.6 per cent of its carbon dioxide emissions. To achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and build a decarbonised housing sector with a minimum C rating on Energy Performance Certificates (EPC) across all homes by 2030, the UK government has developed several initiatives (decarbonisation fund), policies and procedures (among many, the Code of Sustainable Homes, Energy white paper, and the National Design Guide are most notable). However, in 2019, 48 per cent of UK housing providers thought that government sustainability policies and target objectives were unclear. These unclear expectations, complex and fragmented sustainability codes and standards, widespread misperception of environmental sustainability tools and concepts, and a vague energy-efficiency transition pathway have also hindered UK sustainability progress.


This project challenges existing methodological practices, which the project argues are ineffective due to the practice policy’s complexity and fragmentation. The project assesses methodological and practice policy effectiveness in terms of their roles and effect on social housing sustainability in the UK (both retrofit and new construct). The project aims to answer the following questions: (1) what is the current perception and structure of housing and sustainability practices?; (2) how do we define and measure housing sustainability?; (3) what tools can be used to achieve an efficient decarbonised housing sector?; and (4) what should the standards for future homes look like to promote simple and effective practices?


The first of this project’s three aims is to identify sustainability and housing policies, codes and standards and determine their development timelines and impacts on the investigated topics. Its second objective is to develop a comprehensive understanding of sustainable social housing practices and the emerging concept of decarbonisation by investigating housing and sustainability policies, definitions, principles and theories. The third objective is to examine and map the landscape of current sustainability tools, codes and guidelines in the UK.


To accomplish its aims, this project adopts a mixed-methods approach. The project conducts a qualitative investigation to form a theoretical base and establish definitions, principles and policy timelines. The project’s qualitative instruments include desk study, focus group discussions with experts in the field, and semi-structured interviews with housing practitioners. The project’s quantitative approach aims to map the current-practices landscape and measure how effectively current practices meet environmental sustainability targets. The project’s quantitative tools include questionnaires (end-users and practitioners) during the planned secondments, and analysis of decarbonisation progress using statistics.


This project’s expected outcome is a policy and practice framework that addresses the environmental sustainability of social housing and provides practical design and planning guidelines for achieving a ‘decarbonised’ housing sector in the UK. This framework will be significant due to its potential to trigger a national wide change, support practical developments in housing sustainability and to prompt future studies on achieving sustainable social housing through simplified and effective codes and standards.


Keywords: UK social housing, sustainability tools, sustainability practices, construction codes, housing decarbonisation.

Reference documents

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Research diagram_Environmental sustainability of future social housing_R1


Environmental Sustainability of Future Social Housing


Environmental sustainability and resource efficiency are vital concepts to improve and protect our planet. Both concepts are also relevant to housing design, construction and use. With the support of local housing communities, the UK social housing sector is set to increase rapidly. In the UK, housing accounts for 30 per cent of the total energy use, 27 per cent of UK carbon dioxide emissions, while at the same time, social housing forms up to 18 per cent of total housing stock. Therefore, we must reconsider new ways of building sustainable and affordable homes that improve the quality of the built environment and create better places for people to live.


This project addresses two challenges. On the one hand, it establishes a clearer conceptual understanding of low-cost sustainable housing by investigating the definitions, principles, and theories associated with its construction. On the other hand, it examines sustainability practices currently in use by looking at the sustainability tools, guidelines, codes, and standards for achieving low-carbon homes. Consequently, this project will answer the following questions in the UK context: how do we define and measure housing sustainability? What tools can be used to achieve low-carbon housing? How do we achieve a decarbonized housing sector?


A mixed methods research design will be used. Qualitative instruments, including a literature review and case studies analysis, will identify current sustainability definitions, meanings and methods of practice. Meanwhile, quantitative instruments focused on statistical reports and sustainability codes aim to review the existing assessment methods and develop a comprehensive understanding of sustainability assessment principles.


The planned outcome of this project is to develop a comprehensive framework that promotes the sustainability of social housing. This framework will be developed in collaboration with relevant stakeholders, including local social housing communities. It will include a theoretical database that defines the theories and principles of “low-carbon design and planning of housing”; at the same, it will form a clear, practical guideline for achieving “decarbonized housing” by improving current standards and codes of practice, therefore bridging the gap between theories of housing sustainability and actual practices of housing construction in the UK.


Recent activity

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Sustainable social housing: a myth, trend or an inescapable fait

Posted on 09-01-2024

The study of indirect connotations in metadata, especially those generated by artificial intelligence, is a curiosity catalyser. Therefore, I undertook a comparative analysis of the frequency with which key terms such as social housing, sustainability, affordable housing and housing renovation were queried in search engines worldwide between 1 November and 31 December 2023. This data set, known as a “trend” or “interest over time” is measured on a 100-point scale. During this period, sustainability scored an average of 70 points on trend, while social housing and housing renovation slightly recorded 1 point each and affordable housing by 3 points (see Figure 1). It is also worth noting that similar results appear when the time frame is extended to a full year or even five years. Interpreting this data with a degree of scepticism and caution, it appears that sustainability retains its prominent position as the dominant trend. Meanwhile, other vital issues that directly impact our society do not attract comparable interest.   Assuming the previous introduction has captivated your interest. Let me explain why this date and these terms. The date is related to my secondment to Housing Europe, where I gained in-depth experience working with dedicated professionals dealing with the various challenges in the housing sector. Meanwhile, the terms are critical objectives of the RE-DWELL project, which derive from its primary goal of creating a framework for affordable and sustainable housing across Europe. This confluence of dates and terms leads us to a compelling question: what if we were to summarise these terms into a single adjective for a genre of social housing? And then, what constitutes an environmentally sustainable social housing? The following sections, therefore, draw on the insights gained during the secondment to answer these questions and offer a nuanced perspective on the interplay between sustainability, social housing and regulatory frameworks.   What constitutes an environmentally sustainable social housing?   “It has affordable rent, but also affordable energy, that means heating, cooling, lighting and obviously the means of the family. One that is accessible, in term of meeting the individual requirements of occupants. Also one that is in reach of key services, employment, shopping, medical services […]. Access to nature, ensure that resident have access to fresh air, also consideration to acoustics and noise. […] But if we look at sustainability I suppose not from the perspective of occupants but the society, […] it needs to limit the production of energy  needed.” (S. Edwards, personal communication, November 2023).   A triad of connotations can be derived from this. First, affordability and social housing are so closely intertwined that discussion of the latter presupposes consideration of the former, especially when viewed from the perspective of the welfare state. Secondly, the definition from the perspective of the urban fabric goes beyond the material structure and encompasses the city's intangible services. This is directly related to economic aspects such as income, employment and trade. Thirdly, another critical element of sustainable social housing is the well-being of residents. Not just physical health but also mental health, as demonstrated during the last pandemic.   “There are two components for social housing […], below the market level [rent], and allocated through decision and rules taken by or agreed upon by local authorities [allocation]. The sustainability component is interesting […] as we consider it only as the environmental part, while doing so, we forget that sustainability is supposed to embrace the three component of environmental, social and economic. If we focus on the environmental aspects, the question […] is how we can manage to combine these three components, so we can built-renovate homes using the sources of the planet. Then […] how much we can build to meet the demands - the availability aspects. The third point is the affordability […], because everything has an impact on the ability to deliver homes at affordable price.” (J. Dijol, personal communication, November, 2023).   To this extent, I argue that environmentally sustainable social housing epitomises a multifaceted system deeply embedded within the fabric of welfare state services. It substantiates its sustainability through an intricate balance featuring economically viable and socially equitable attributes. This housing system articulates affordability in rental structures, facilitates access to natural environments, ensures proximity to pivotal services and infrastructure, implements judicious energy production and utilisation practices, underscores the imperative of decarbonisation, and intricately aligns with the tripartite foundations of sustainability—economic, social, and environmental. Significantly, this sustainable housing framework adeptly navigates societal demands while steadfastly adhering to the imperative of preserving the planet's finite resources. It looks at the new construction and considers issues such as sustainable renovation.   The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive: regulations to support or to hinder   Regulations are a vital tool in sustainable social housing provisions. It has the ability to standardise, optimise and organise the structure of the sector to deliver the intended goals. One notable example, is The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD). The EPBD is a crucial instrument to drive sustainable housing development. While regulations are traditionally seen as catalysts for progress, this narrative contends that they can also pose substantial obstacles. To contextualise this contention, it is essential to recognise the intricate links between housing construction, renovation, affordability and energy efficiency. The EPBD, alongside other directives, is a cornerstone in pursuing sustainable housing by promoting a more energy-efficient built environment. However, a critical examination of the EPBD reveals pertinent critiques. Critics argue that the occasional vagueness and lack of clarity of some of the Directive's provisions can lead to inconsistent implementation and interpretation across member states.   Furthermore, concerns have been raised that the penalties for non-compliance with the Directive are insufficient, which could reduce the effectiveness of the Directive in motivating Member States to meet energy efficiency targets. The flexibility granted to Member States in implementing the EPBD requirements has led to regulatory variations that pose challenges for cross-border businesses and hinder a harmonised approach to energy efficiency. Stakeholders argue for a stronger emphasis on renovating existing buildings in the EPBD, as the current provisions may not provide sufficient incentives for Member States to prioritise energy performance improvements to existing buildings. Additionally, critics emphasise the potential social and economic impacts, including increased costs for building owners and tenants. Balancing the Directive's energy efficiency targets with affordability and feasibility considerations is a multi-faceted challenge that should be carefully considered in pursuing a sustainable housing policy.   The way forward   The creation of sustainable social housing is not a myth or a far-reaching goal. However, it is a fact that requires comprehensive regulations and extensive co-operation between policy makers, practitioners and the public. Such collaboration enables a more holistic understanding of the challenges and opportunities associated with sustainable social housing and ensures that different factors are considered in the decision-making process. This will help to align policy with the realities on the ground and ensure that regulations are both effective and feasible. It also promotes social acceptance and buy-in for sustainable initiatives. As societal needs, technologies, and environmental considerations evolve, ongoing collaboration is important to ensure that housing strategies can be adjusted and refined to meet changing circumstances.   While natural collaboration is an optimistic notion, proactive steps, such as large-scale projects, are essential. A notable example of such collaboration is The European Affordable Housing Consortium (SHAPE-EU) project, developed and coordinated by Housing Europe. SHAPE-EU aims to support affordable and social housing providers, public authorities and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in developing effective renovation strategies and tools. This proactive approach recognises the challenges posed by the lack of policy measures, the realities of the market and the actual capacity for growth, and points a way forward in the search for sustainable and affordable housing solutions.   Acknowledgements The time I have spent at Housing Europe has provided me with invaluable insights into social housing development. More importantly, meeting and working with dedicated and professional colleagues was truly inspirational. I have received tremendous support from all the teams and must therefore thank everyone at Housing Europe, especially Alice Pittini, Sorcha Edwards, Julien Dijol and Joao Goncalves.  


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COP28: 'Trying to try' is simply not good enough

Posted on 01-12-2023

Over 28 years ago, the Conference of the Parties (COP) convened in Berlin, Germany, marking the commencement of an annual gathering that brings together global leaders, delegates, observers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), industry representatives and members of indigenous peoples and local communities. The main purpose of these meetings is to assess the progress made in combating climate change and to negotiate the implementation of further measures.   Before we get into the details of this year's COP, it is important to take a brief look back at the last COPs. COP 25 in Madrid emphasised the resilience of the global climate process and the Paris Agreement despite setbacks. However, it also became clear that governments have not made sufficient commitments to combat and mitigate the consequences of climate change. At COP 26 in Glasgow, the Global Coal Phase-out Agreement was discussed, and the Global Methane Pledge was signed, with over 100 countries committing to a 30% reduction in methane emissions by 2030. At COP 27 in Sharm El Sheikh, it was agreed to set up a fund for loss and damage and to define the details for implementing the Santiago Network. In addition, food security was recognised as a critical issue for the first time.   "It's simply not good enough for us to be 'Trying to try'. […]Turn the badge around your necks into a badge of honour, and a life belt for the millions of people you are working for." Simon Stiell, UNFCCC Executive Secretary. Opening ceremony of COP28, 2023.   A few months ago, I was informed that I could attend this year's COP as an observer representing the University of Sheffield, so I take the opportunity to share what I have observed so far. COP28, hosted by the United Arab Emirates, began yesterday – 30 November 2023 – with a minute of silence to mourn the passing of Pete Betts, a British climate negotiator known as one of the architects of the Paris Agreement. And Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi-British scientist who was instrumental in tackling climate change and helping in setting up the Loss and Damage Fund. As at previous COPs, the Presidency's action plan focused on implementing the pillars of the Paris Agreement, which aim to accelerate the energy transition, improve climate finance, put nature, people, lives and livelihoods at the centre of climate action and underpin everything with full inclusiveness. Simon Stiell emphasised that while we are taking steps, these are more "baby steps", and the six-year window of opportunity is closing fast - the window of opportunity in which we will exhaust our planet's capacity to deal with our emissions. The window of opportunity in which we will break the 1.5-degree barrier. Jim Skea, Chair of the IPCC, on the other hand, explained that it is crucial to use science effectively to meet the challenges and to design climate action based on science, but without forgetting that science alone is no substitute for action.   The highlight of the first day was the operationalisation of the long-awaited Loss & Damage Fund, which aims to compensate vulnerable nations for the impacts of climate change. Numerous countries pledged financial resources to the fund, including the United Arab Emirates with USD 100 million, the United Kingdom with up to GBP 60 million, Japan with USD 10 million, the United States with USD 17.5 million for the new fund and a further USD 7 million for other loss and damage financial mechanisms. Finally, the European Union pledged 225 million euros, including the German contribution of 100 million US dollars.   Despite the initial positive momentum, the challenges of previous COPs remain. These include the lack of clear and ambitious targets, disparities in responsibility, and an absence of robust enforcement mechanisms. Overcoming these challenges will be crucial to ensure the future effectiveness of global climate efforts. Let us hope that this COP will be different and bring about real change, as we cannot afford to waste any more time.

Conferences, Reflections

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Do we truly need a framework?

Posted on 13-11-2023

Over the course of three days, the RE-DWELL network met again in Delft with the hope that this gathering would not be our last, as the RE-DWELL conference is set to take place in Barcelona on May 16-17, 2024. A heartfelt acknowledgement is extended to the TU-Delft team, particularly Marja Elsinga, Marietta Haffner, and Tijn Croon, for their remarkable efforts and impeccable organisation of such a workshop. The workshop was not marked as another academic meeting but also as a transdisciplinary meeting in which the ESRs, supervisors and representatives from partner organisations actively participated. The focal point of many debates, however, was the RE-DWELL framework and its structural components. This blog post, therefore, delves into the significance and applicability of frameworks in addressing challenges related to housing affordability and sustainability. What constitutes a framework and its function? The term "framework" embodies a broad concept that takes on varying meanings across different fields. From a linguistic perspective, it represents a system of rules, ideas, or beliefs used for planning or decision-making, akin to a supportive structure upon which decisions can be constructed. In the realm of architecture, a framework serves to establish common practices, a set of principles, and a detailed description of singular or multiple activities. These activities often revolve around addressing a design challenge, translating it into practical language, and utilising architectural elements to surmount the challenge. Notably, building standards, regulations, and policies can also be viewed as types of frameworks, as they share the overarching goal of establishing common practices and achieving specific outcomes. In contrast, within the realm of social science, a framework takes on a different connotation. It typically refers to a theoretical or conceptual structure that forms the bedrock for understanding and analysing complex social phenomena. This framework aids researchers in organising their thoughts, framing research questions, and interpreting findings. Social science frameworks manifest in various forms, often drawing from established theories or perspectives within the specific field under investigation. While this blog post merely scratches the surface of framework typologies, it is essential to recognise their diversity. Some noteworthy examples include the conceptual framework, which centres on the theoretical structure supporting the understanding of a research problem; the theoretical framework, comprising a set of concepts and propositions guiding research; and the programming framework, a pre-established set of rules and tools for building software applications. Deciphering the RE-DWELL Framework As of now, the precise nature of the RE-DWELL framework remains elusive. However, it can be asserted with confidence that it does not conform to a mere checklist, a tick-box approach, or resemble systems like BREEAM or LEED. Instead, the RE-DWELL framework operates with a simpler structure, aiming to unify language, create a common ground, and establish a transdisciplinary perspective on the interconnected fields of housing, sustainability, and affordability. Do we truly need a framework? In short, yes, absolutely, we need a framework. The absence of a formal and universal language that brings all stakeholders to the same table persists as a challenge rarely addressed. Establishing such a framework requires concerted efforts and collaboration among the ESRs, supervisors, and partners. Crucially, it necessitates dismantling the borders that each field has erected around its knowledge. This is with hopes of promoting simple and effective practices to achieve the desired affordable and sustainable housing in Europe. Finally, let us maintain optimism and look forward to meeting again in Barcelona!

Workshops, Reflections

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Serious Games in Housing Research

Posted on 10-07-2023

A Reflection on the Reading Summer School   The Collins Dictionary explains that summer school is the conduct of comprehensive and intensive educational activities that rapidly raise participants' awareness or deepen their knowledge of various topics. And that is precisely what the Reading Summer School did. The summer(-ish) summer school was an excellent opportunity to review, discuss and address several important topics, including evidence-based housing, financing models for affordable housing and innovation in housing research. These topics align perfectly with the research projects of my fellow RE-DWELL(-ers). Chapeau! Dr Lorraine Farrelly and Leonardo Ricaurte for putting together such an intensive and comprehensive programme. Although, it is intriguing to write about all the activities of the Summer School. However, the focus of this blog is on the use of games in housing research as a decision-making support tool.   A serious game in research refers to the use of gaming principles and technologies to explore, analyse and address different aspects of topic-related issues. It involves developing and applying interactive and immersive game-like simulations or tools to explore, understand and potentially solve real-world challenges. From a housing perspective, games have gained popularity in recent years. The earliest example of their use can be traced back to the late 1990s when researchers at the University of Southern California used SimCity to study the relationship between land use regulations and housing affordability. By adjusting zoning regulations and development restrictions within the game, they could observe the impact on housing supply, housing prices and neighbourhood characteristics.   What was that game? And how does it work?   On the third day of the Reading Summer School, a serious game session was conducted - designed by Dr Alexandra Paio and Androniki Pappa. The theme of the game was "Building together RE-DWELL affordable and sustainable housing assessment framework ". However, the purpose of the game was to establish a transdisciplinary dialogue bringing together academic and industry views on the development and delivery of affordable and sustainable housing. At the same time, it aimed to help researchers identify and explore new links and connections between the identified challenges, the actors involved and the housing development processes from the three main themes of RE-DWELL (design, planning and building, community participation and policy and finance). It also highlights the differences between top-down and bottom-up approaches to decision-making that affect the outcomes.   Five teams were formed, each consisting of three researchers, one supervisor and two industry partners. Three types of cards were developed from individual projects. The red cards were derived from the research questions and were designed to review and explain the themes of each question and the research field behind it. The green cards, on the other hand, focused on the methods and tools that can be used to answer the identified research questions. The blue cards represent the impacts the research questions intend to achieve. Teams were asked to select a research question, then use the green cards to find answers to the questions, and finally connect the cards with an impact as the outcome. This puzzle-building technique perfectly stimulated discussion among the team members. At the end, dual connotations were derived from the game. First, the academic view focuses on the validity of the method and the structure of the research questions. Meanwhile, the industry partners and housing sector stakeholders focus on the simplicity, clarity and usability of the outcomes. Only by linking both perspectives can "good" results be achieved that address the challenges in housing.   Why is it important?   Unlike monofocused methods, serious games in housing research can serve multiple purposes, with data collection and analysis taking a central place. Researchers can design games that collect data from participants to gain insights into their housing preferences, behaviours and decision-making processes. These games can simulate scenarios related to housing affordability, location choice, energy efficiency, sustainable design and other relevant factors. The collected data can inform policy decisions, urban planning and housing interventions. Serious games can also be used to evaluate the impact of different housing policies or interventions. By creating virtual environments and scenarios, researchers can model the impact of policy changes on housing markets, affordability, social equity and sustainability.   From an engagement perspective, games can engage the public and raise awareness of housing issues. By developing interactive and accessible games, researchers can communicate complex concepts and challenges related to housing engagingly and understandably. This approach can facilitate community participation and promote informed discussions on housing issues. In line with engagement, games can be used as teaching tools for housing professionals, policymakers and students. They can simulate real-life situations and provide a risk-free environment for learning and practising skills related to housing design, urban planning, property management and housing policy development.   What is the next step?   Serious games in housing research offer a dynamic and interactive approach to exploring and addressing various housing-related topics. By combining the immersive nature of games with the complexity of housing problems, researchers can gain valuable insights and engage stakeholders in finding innovative solutions. The game played at the summer school was the first step in building the planned framework. Over the next few months, various adjustments will be made to overcome the initial challenges, and perhaps guidelines for using games in housing research will be established.

Summer schools, Reflections


Case studies

Contributions to the case study library


Contributions to the vocabulary

Building Decarbonisation

Participatory Approaches

Social Housing

Sustainability Built Environment

Area: Design, planning and building

Decarbonisation, a term which echoes through the corridors of academia, politics, practical applications, and stands at the forefront of contemporary discussions on sustainability. Intricately intertwined with concepts such as net-zero and climate neutrality, it represents a pivotal shift in our approach to environmental sustainability. In its essence, decarbonisation signifies the systematic reduction of carbon dioxide intensity, a crucial endeavour in the battle against climate change (Zachmann et al., 2021). This overview delves into the multifaceted concept of decarbonisation within the context of the European Union. Beginning with a broad perspective, we examine its implications at the macro level before homing in on the complexities of decarbonisation within the realm of building structures. Finally, we explore the literature insights, presenting key strategies that pave the way toward achieving a decarbonised building sector. From a broad perspective, decarbonisation is an overarching concept that aims to achieve climate neutrality (Zachmann et al., 2021, p.13). Climate neutrality means achieving a state of equilibrium between greenhouse gas emissions and their removal from the atmosphere, preventing any net increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration (IEA, 2022). From an energy decarbonisation perspective, however, in a document provided by the Economic, Scientific and Quality of Life Policy Department at the request of the Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee, Zachmann et al. (2021) explain that energy systems require a fundamental shift in the way societies provide, transport and consume energy (Zachmann et al., 2021). In the construct of decarbonisation, as outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the focus lies on strategic directives aimed at reducing the carbon content of energy sources, fuels, products and services (Arvizu et al., 2011; Edenhofer et al., 2011). This complex process involves the transition from carbon-intensive behaviours, such as fossil fuel use, to low-carbon or carbon-neutral alternatives. The main goal of decarbonisation, therefore, is to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 and methane, which are closely linked to the growing threats of climate change (Edenhofer et al., 2011). Hoeller et al. (2023) explain that decarbonisation efforts within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) focus on harmonising economic growth, energy production and consumption with climate objectives to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change while promoting sustainable development (Hoeller et al., 2023). From a pragmatic perspective, however, according to the OECD Policy Paper 31: A framework to decarbonise the economy, published in 2022,  progress on economic decarbonisation remains suboptimal. This raises the urgent need for a multi-dimensional framework that is not only cost-effective but also inclusive and comprehensive in its strategy for decarbonisation (D’Arcangelo et al., 2022). D’Arcangelo et al. (2023) add that such framework should include several steps such as setting clear climate targets, measuring progress and identifying areas for action, delineating policy frameworks, mapping existing policies, creating enabling conditions, facilitating a smooth transition for individuals, and actively engaging the public. From an academic perspective, Weller and Tierney (2018) provide an explanation of decarbonisation, defining it as a twofold concept. Firstly, it involves reducing the intensity of fossil fuel use for energy production. Secondly, it emphasises the role of policy in mitigating the negative externalities associated with such use. They argue that decarbonisation is a politically charged policy area that needs to be 'just', while also serving a means to revitalise local economies (Weller & Tierney, 2018). Kyriacou and Burke (2020) expand on this definition, highlighting decarbonisation as the transition from a high-carbon to a low-carbon energy system. This transition is driven by the need to mitigate climate change without compromising energy security. Boute (2021), on the other hand, emphasises the long-term structural reduction of CO2 emissions as the core strategy of decarbonisation. Boute adds that the effectiveness of decarbonisation must be measured in terms of a unit of energy consumed across all activities. In the economic context, the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies concludes that decarbonisation aims to reduce the carbon intensity of an economy. This reduction is quantified as the ratio of CO2 emissions to gross domestic product (Henderson & Sen, 2021). Addressing methodological concerns, Buettner (2022) added that decarbonisation is often misused as a generic term. Moreover, Buettner highlights the diverse levels at which decarbonisation occurs, ranging from carbon neutrality (focused on reducing CO2 emissions), to climate neutrality (aiming to reduce CO2, non-fluorinated greenhouse gases, and fluorinated greenhouse gases) and, finally, to environmental neutrality (which reduces all substances negatively impacting the environment and health) (Buettner, 2022). The debate on the decarbonisation of the construction sector revolves around similar issues. The report on Decarbonising Buildings in Cities and Regions, published by the OECD in 2022, defines the concept as reducing energy consumption by improving envelope insulation, installing high performance equipment, and scaling up the use of renewable sources to meet the energy demands (OECD, P24). Another definition comes from a working paper by the OECD Economics Department, Hoeller et al. (2023) contend, it is necessary to consider direct emissions from household fossil fuel combustion and indirect emissions from the generation of electricity and district heating used by households (Hoeller et al., 2023). The comprehensive study “Decarbonising Buildings” published by the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) in 2022, defines the term as transforming the building sector to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Achieving this goal requires various technological solutions and behavioural changes to decarbonise heating and cooling, such as energy-efficient building envelopes, heat pumps and on-site renewables (CAT, 2022). Gratiot et al. (2023) consider decarbonisation as the process of reducing or eliminating CO2 emissions that contribute to climate change from a building’s energy sources. This involves systematically shifting buildings from carbon-intensive energy sources (e.g., gas, oil and coal) to low-carbon or carbon-neutral alternatives (e.g., solar, wind and geothermal). This process includes improving the energy efficiency of buildings through better insulation, lighting and appliances (Gratiot et al., 2023). Blanco et al. (2021) consider the decarbonisation of buildings and operation of buildings. This includes enhancing the energy efficiency of buildings and minimizing embodied carbon from building materials and construction activities of greenhouse gas emissions from the construction and operation of buildings. Achieving a decarbonised building sector is a multifaceted endeavour that demands extensive efforts in several key areas, such as energy sources, building envelope, building policy and transformation funds. The objective of the energy transition is to shift from reliance on fossil fuels to clean or renewable energy sources, primarily used for heating and cooling, such as heat pumps, district heating, hydrogen (Jones, 2021). Decarbonising the building envelope, on the other hand, involves improving the energy efficiency of buildings through better insulation, lighting and appliances. It also necessitates minimising embodied carbon from building materials and construction activities (CAT, 2022; D’Arcangelo et al., 2022). Incorporating effective policies into building construction is crucial. This includes adopting of performance standards and building codes that regulate the energy use and emissions of both new and existing buildings. These regulations directly impact the extent and pace of decarbonisation (CAT, 2022; Jones, 2021). Additionally, it is essential to establish a clear vision and climate targets for the buildings sector and operationalise them with a comprehensive policy mix that encompass emissions pricing, standards, regulations and complementary measures (Jones, 2021). The most significant challenge lies in financing the transition to a decarbonised sector. Therefore, it is imperative to mobilise finance on a large scale and collaborate with industry stakeholders. This collaboration is vital to facilitate the transition, overcome barriers, and manage the costs associated with deploying low- or zero-carbon technologies (D’Arcangelo et al., 2022). In summary, the overarching concept of decarbonisation primarily targets the reduction of carbon dioxide in economic and industrial activities, with a focus on energy production and distribution systems. At the building level, the emphasis lies in integrating low-carbon or carbon-neutral systems to minimise both direct and indirect emissions. Nevertheless, the literature examined indicates that other societal aspects, including social and behavioural factors, have not been thoroughly researched. This gap in knowledge could challenge the realisation of the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 and underscores the need for further studies in these areas.

Created on 06-11-2023

Author: M.Alsaeed (ESR5), K.Hadjri(Supervisor)


Area: Community participation

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, participation is “the act of taking part in an activity or event”. Likewise, it can also mean “the fact of sharing or the act of receiving or having a part of something.” It derives from old French participacion which in turn comes from late Latin participationem, which means “partaking” (Harper, 2000).  References to participation can be found in many fields, including social sciences, economics, politics, and culture. It is often related to the idea of citizenship and its different representations in society. Hence, it could be explained as an umbrella concept, in which several others can be encompassed, including methodologies, philosophical discourses, and tools. Despite the complexity in providing a holistic definition, the intrinsic relation between participation and power is widely recognised. Its ultimate objective is to empower those involved in the process (Nikkhah & Redzuan, 2009). An early application of participatory approaches was the Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) which exerted a significant influence in developing new discourses and practices of urban settings (Chambers, 1994; Friedmann, 1994). In the late 1970s increasing attention was paid to the concept by scholars, and several associated principles and terminologies evolved, such as the participation in design and planning with the Scandinavian approach of cooperative design (Bφdker et al., 1995; Gregory, 2003). Participation in design or participatory design is a process and strategy that entails all stakeholders (e.g. partners, citizens, and end-users) partaking in the design process. It is a democratic process for design based on the assumption that users should be involved in the designs they will go on to use (Bannon & Ehn, 2012; Cipan, 2019; Sanoff, 2000, 2006, 2007). Likewise, participatory planning is an alternative paradigm that emerged in response to the rationalistic and centralized – top-down – approaches. Participatory planning aims to integrate the technical expertise with the preferences and knowledge of community members (e.g., citizens, non-governmental organizations, and social movements) directly and centrally in the planning and development processes, producing outcomes that respond to the community's needs (Lane, 2005). Understanding participation through the roles of participants is a vital concept. The work of Sherry Arnstein’s (1969) Ladder of Citizen Participation has long been the cornerstone to understand participation from the perspective of the redistribution of power between the haves and the have-nots. Her most influential typological categorisation work yet distinguishes eight degrees of participation as seen in Figure 1: manipulation, therapy, placation, consultation, informing, citizen control, delegated power and partnership. Applied to a participatory planning context, this classification refers to the range of influence that participants can have in the decision-making process. In this case, no-participation is defined as designers deciding based upon assumptions of the users’ needs and full-participation refers to users defining the quality criteria themselves (Geddes et al., 2019). A more recent classification framework that also grounds the conceptual approach to the design practice and its complex reality has been developed by Archon Fung (2006) upon three key dimensions: who participates; how participants communicate with one another and make decisions together, and how discussions are linked with policy or public action. This three-dimensional approach which Fung describes as a democracy cube (Figure 2), constitutes a more analytic space where any mechanism of participation can be located. Such frameworks of thinking allow for more creative interpretations of the interrelations between participants, participation tools (including immersive digital tools) and contemporary approaches to policymaking. Aligned with Arnstein’s views when describing the lower rungs of the ladder (i.e., nonparticipation and tokenism), other authors have highlighted the perils of incorporating participatory processes as part of pre-defined agendas, as box-ticking exercises, or for political manipulation. By turning to eye-catching epithets to describe it (Participation: The New Tyranny? by Cooke & Kothari, 2001; or The Nightmare of Participation by Miessen, 2010), these authors attempt to raise awareness on the overuse of the term participation and the possible disempowering effects that can bring upon the participating communities, such as frustration and lack of trust. Examples that must exhort practitioners to reassess their role and focus on eliminating rather than reinforcing inequalities (Cooke & Kothari, 2001).

Created on 17-02-2022

Author: A.Pappa (ESR13), L.Ricaurte (ESR15), M.Alsaeed (ESR5)


Area: Policy and financing

A universal definition of social housing is difficult, as it is a country-specific and locally contextualised topic (Braga & Palvarini, 2013). This review of the concept focuses on social housing in the context of the UK from the late 1980s, which Malpass (2005) refers to as the phase of ‘restructuring the housing and welfare state’, to the early 2000s, known as the phase of the ‘new organisation of social housing’. In response to previous demands for housing, such as those arising during the Industrial Revolution, and recognising the persistent need to address the substandard quality of housing provided by private landlords in the UK (Scanlon et al., 2015), the primary objective of social housing has historically been to enhance the overall health conditions of workers and low-income populations (Malpass, 2014; Scanlon et al., 2015). However, this philanthropic approach to social housing changed after the Second World War when it became a key instrument to address the housing demand crisis. Private initiatives, housing associations, cooperatives and local governments then became responsible for providing social housing (Carswell, 2012; Scanlon et al., 2015). Social housing in the UK can be viewed from two perspectives: the legal and the academic (Granath Hansson & Lundgren, 2019). Along these two perspectives, social housing is often analysed based on four main criteria: the legal status of the landlord or provider, the tenancy system or tenure, the funding mechanism or subsidies, and the target group or beneficiaries (Braga & Palvarini, 2013; Carswell, 2012; Granath Hansson & Lundgren, 2019). From a legal perspective, social housing maintained its original goals of affordability and accessibility during the restructuring period in the late 1980s. However, citing the economic crisis, the responsibility for developing social housing shifted from local authorities to non-municipal providers with highly regulated practices aligned with the managerialist approach of the welfare state (Granath Hansson & Lundgren, 2019; Malpass, 2005; Malpass & Victory, 2010). Despite the several housing policy reviews and government changes, current definitions of social housing have maintained the same approach as during the restructuring period. Section 68 of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, updated in 2017, defines social housing as low-cost accommodation provided to people whose rental or ownership needs are not met by the commercial market (HoC, 2008; 2017, pp. 50-51). The Regulator of Social Housing, formerly the Homes and Communities Agency, has adopted the earlier definition of social housing and clarified which organisations provide it across the UK. These organisations include local authorities, not-for-profit housing associations, cooperatives, and for-profit organisations (RSH, 2021). In contrast, the National Housing Federation emphasises the affordability of social housing regardless of the type of tenure or provider (NHF, 2021). From an academic perspective, Malpass (2005) explains that during the restructuring phase, social housing was defined as a welfare-supported service – although it did have limitations, which meant that funding principles shifted from general subsidy to means-tested support for housing costs only, which later formed the basis for the Right to Buy Act introduced by the Thatcher government in the early 1980s (Malpass, 2005, 2008). The restructuring phase, however, came as a response to the housing 'bifurcation' process that began in the mid-1970s and accelerated sharply from the 1980s to 1990s (Kleinman et al., 1998; Malpass, 2005). During this phase, the role of social housing in the housing system was predominantly residual, with greater emphasis placed on market-based solutions, and social housing ownership concerned both local authorities and housing associations (Malpass & Victory, 2010). This mix has influenced the perception of social housing in the 'new organisation' phase as a framework that regulates public housing intervention for specific groups and focuses on enabling non-municipal providers (Malpass, 2005, 2008; Malpass & Victory, 2010). Currently, as Carswell (2012) explains, social housing plays an important role in nurturing a variety of initiatives aimed at providing ‘good-quality’ and ‘affordable’ housing for vulnerable and low-income groups (Carswell, 2012). Oyebanji (2014) sees social housing as any form of government-regulated housing provided by public institutions, including non-profit organisations (Oyebanji, 2014). Additionally, Bengtsson (2017) describes social housing as a system that aims to provide households with limited means, but only after their need has been confirmed through testing (Bengtsson, B, 2017 as cited in Granath Hansson & Lundgren, 2019). To a great extent, social housing in the UK can be seen as a service system that is intricately linked to the welfare state and influenced by political, economic, and social components. Despite being somehow determined by common factors and actors,  the relationship between social housing and the welfare state can sometimes be complex and subject to fluctuations (Malpass, 2008). In this context, the government plays a vital role in shaping and implementing the mechanisms and practices of social housing. While the pre-restructuring phase focused on meeting the needs of the people by increasing subsidies and introducing the right to buy (Stamsø, 2010), the aim of the restructuring phase was to meet the needs of the market by promoting economic growth (privatisation, market-oriented policies and reducing the role of local authorities) (Stamsø, 2010; Malpass, 2005) . The new organisational phase, on the other hand, works to meet and balance the needs of all, with people, politics and the economy becoming more intertwined. Welfare reform legislation passed in 2010 aims to enable people to meet their needs, but through 'responsible' subsidies, leading to a new policy stance that has been described as 'neoliberal' thinking (Hickman et al., 2018). However, there are still no strict legal requirements for the organisation and development of social housing as an independent service system, and most of the barriers to development are closely related to the political orientation of the government, rapid changes in housing policy and challenges arising from providers' perceptions of existing housing policy structures (Stasiak et al., 2021).

Created on 17-06-2023

Author: M.Alsaeed (ESR5), K.Hadjri(Supervisor)


Area: Design, planning and building

Sustainability of the built environment The emergence of the contemporary environmental movement between the 1960s and 1970s and its proposals to remedy the consequences of pollution can be seen as one of the first steps in addressing environmental problems (Scoones, 2007). However, the term “sustainable” only gained wider currency when it was introduced into political discourse by the Club of Rome with its 1972 report “The Limits to Growth”, in which the proposal to change growth trends to be sustainable in the far future was put forward (Grober, 2007; Kopnina & Shoreman-Ouimet, 2015a; Meadows et al., 1972). Since then, the use of the term has grown rapidly, especially after the publication of the 1978 report “Our Common Future”, which became a cornerstone of debates on sustainability and sustainable development (Brundtland et al., 1987; Kopnina & Shoreman-Ouimet, 2015a). Although the two terms are often used indistinctively, the former refers to managing resources without depleting them for future generations, while the latter aims to improve long-term economic well-being and quality of life without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs (Kopnina & Shoreman-Ouimet, 2015b; UNESCO, 2015). The Brundtland Report paved the way for the 1992 Earth Summit, which concluded that an effective balance must be found between consumption and conservation of natural resources (Scoones, 2007). In 2000, the United Nations General Assembly published the 8 Millennium Development Goals (UN, 2000), which led to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) published in 2016 (UN, 2016). The 17 SDGs call on all countries to mobilise their efforts to end all forms of poverty, tackle inequalities and combat climate change (UN, 2020; UNDP, 2018). Despite the rapidly growing literature on sustainability, the term remains ambiguous and lacks a clear conceptual foundation (Grober, 2007; Purvis et al., 2019). Murphy (2012) suggests that when defining sustainability, the question should be: Sustainability, of what? However, one of the most prominent interpretations of sustainability is the three pillars concept, which describes the interaction between the social, economic and environmental components of society (Purvis et al., 2019). The environmental pillar aims to improve human well-being by protecting natural capital -e.g. land, air and water- (Morelli, 2011). The economic sustainability pillar focuses on maintaining stable economic growth without damaging natural resources (Dunphy et al., 2000). Social sustainability, on the other hand, aims to preserve social capital and create a practical social framework that provides a comprehensive view of people's needs, communities and culture (Diesendorf, 2000). This latter pillar paved the way for the creation of a fourth pillar that includes human and culture as a focal point in sustainability objectives (RMIT, 2017). Jabareen (2006) describes environmental sustainability as a dynamic, inclusive and multidisciplinary concept that overlaps with other concepts such as resilience, durability and renewability. Morelli (2011) adds that it can be applied at different levels and includes tangible and intangible issues. Portney (2015) takes Morelli's explanation further and advocates that environmental sustainability should also promote industrial efficiency without compromising society's ability to develop (Morelli, 2011; Portney, 2015). Measuring the built environment sustainability level is a complex process that deploys quantitative methods, including (1) indexes (e.g. energy efficiency rate), (2) indicators (e.g. carbon emissions and carbon footprint), (3) benchmarks (e.g. water consumption per capita) and (4) audits (e.g. building management system efficiency) (Arjen, 2015; Berardi, 2012; James, 2014; Kubba, 2012). In recent years, several rating or certification systems and practical guides have been created and developed to measure sustainability, most notably the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) introduced in the UK in 1990 (BRE, 2016) and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) established in the US in 2000 (USGBC, 2018). In addition, other overlapping methodologies and certification frameworks have emerged, such as the European Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) in 2002 (EPB, 2003) and the European Framework for Sustainable Buildings, also known as Level(s) in 2020 (EU, 2020), amongst others. The sustainability of the built environment aims to reduce human consumption of natural resources and the production of waste while improving the health and comfort of inhabitants and thus the performance of the built environment elements such as buildings and spaces, and the infrastructure that supports human activities (Berardi, 2012; McLennan, 2004). This aim requires an effective theoretical and practical framework that encompasses at least six domains, including land, water, energy, indoor and outdoor environments, and economic and cultural preservation (Ferwati et al., 2019). More recently, other domains have been added, such as health and comfort, resource use, environmental performance, and cost-benefit and risk (EU, 2020). Sustainability of the built environment also requires comprehensive coordination between the architectural, structural, mechanical, electrical and environmental systems of buildings in the design, construction and operation phases to improve performance and avoid unnecessary resource consumption (Yates & Castro-Lacouture, 2018).

Created on 24-06-2022

Author: M.Alsaeed (ESR5), K.Hadjri(Supervisor)



Alsaeed, M., & Hadjri, K. (2022, August). Environmental sustainability of future social housing. In New Housing Researchers Colloquium (NHRC) at the European Network for Housing Research (ENHR) Conference 2022, Barcelona, Spain.

Posted on 30-08-2022



Alsaeed, M., Hadjri, K., & Nawratek, K. (2024, March). A comparative analysis of UK sustainable housing standards. In 7th Residential Building Design & Construction Conference, Pennsylvania, USA.

Posted on 17-07-2024



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