We have developed several innovations which will not only help us achieve this goal, but will, we hope, provide the inspiration for others to do so.
The first is the unprecedented use of Passivhaus. Previously we have achieved EPC ratings of A or B in the new homes that we build, but at Hill Rise, if we are successful in achieving planning consent, we will build all 180 homes to Passivhaus standards, as well as offsetting the carbon used in construction. The Passivhaus is the most sustainable form of housebuilding that exists, typically using no more than 120kWh/m2 of energy per year for heating, electricity and hot water. Consequently fuel bills are reduced by 70% and residents benefit from zero drafts, natural ventilation and a comfortable temperature throughout the year. Hill Rise, which is due to commence in late 2022, will be the UK’s largest rural Passivhaus development and will pre-empt the RIBA Standard by nine years.
Blenheim Palace hosts some of Europe’s most important ancient oak woodlands, some dating back almost 1,000 years. This represents a huge responsibility, and one which requires an investment, not only of resources, but of time and ideas.
In the UK’s largest ever woodland project to be funded by both public and private resources, Blenheim has entered into a partnership with the construction firm Morgan Sindall to create nine new woodlands, which will sequester approximately 8,700 tonnes of CO2e each year. The project will also provide vital habitats for local wildlife, a reduction in erosion on arable land and improved water quality into the local rivers. A forest school building will also be constructed, along with 15 km of public footpaths. By 2027, we plan to have planted 600,000 trees on 358 hectares across the Estate.
Another innovation is the creation of an environmental sensor network. Environmental sensor networks, which provide live, virtual connections between people and the environment, are an increasingly common research tool in environmental science. In 2019, we created a pilot network of sensor nodes and data stations to understand whether local communities would potentially partake in a citizen science approach to monitoring air quality, specifically particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide resulting from vehicle emissions.
We had a very positive response and are now working with others to make the network more accessible to local schools with a view to them using the tool to measure and monitor air quality and interpret real time data through digital maps. Ultimately the tool will enable residents, schools and organisations to understand and manage the impact of climate change, which, we hope will bring about behavioural change.
Given the success of the pilot project, we plan to extend it, to gather and process information on noise, weather (wind, rain and temperature), water (pollution, depth and flow), car traffic and speed, live locations of buses, availability of rental bikes and cars, and location and availability of EV charging points. With enthusiasm and input from the local community, there may be many more ways in which we jointly deliver on our environmental objectives.
Innovation does not come without its challenges. The information unveiled by the environmental sensor network may not be palatable; but hard truths focus the mind. Passivhauses will require higher build costs; but we know that our customers support energy efficiency. The woodland will replace arable land; but will deliver the enhanced biodiversity which is so important to the survival of our ecosystems.
There’s no standing still in the race against climate change, and our work has potential for further innovation. A culture of innovation breeds innovation: the excitement of achieving a ‘first’, of seeing the direct benefits and watching its broader adoption are inspirational. As the custodian of some very special land and a major employer, we feel a responsibility to invest our resources, and to share our knowledge and experiences, especially on a local level where our insistence on sustainability in our supply chain are a strong force for change.
The most influential factor in the drive for change is necessity. And necessity is the mother of invention. We are also fortunate in working with trustees and a family who understand the issue and have invested in addressing it, and our partnerships, with Morgan Sindall, Pilio, Nicholson’s, the Forest Canopy Foundation, local schools, neighbours, customers and suppliers has been invaluable.
While not all businesses have that opportunity, many can learn from what Blenheim has achieved, and we are keen to share our understanding as the progress continues.