Combatting damp, mould and condensation to create safe and healthy homes

Good governance, information management, proactive communication and education can help landlords maintain compliance – and potentially save lives – by tackling damp, mould and condensation (DMC).

condensation and black mould on internal window

The Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023 and Awaab’s Law were introduced following an inquest into the tragic death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak in December 2020. It found that he died from a respiratory condition caused by ‘extensive’ mould in the one-bedroom council flat in Rochdale where he and his parents lived. Following the inquest, the Regulator of Social Housing conducted a nationwide survey and found DMC in nearly a quarter of a million homes in the social housing sector. To help ensure homes are safe and in good condition, many social housing providers are looking to specialist contractors to create healthy homes for their residents.

Consequently, the Awaab’s Law consultation was launched by the Government in January 2024. It proposes introducing new strict time limits for social housing providers and forcing them to take swift action in addressing dangerous hazards such as DMC. New legal requirements would mean social landlords must investigate hazards within 14 days, start fixing within a further seven days, and make emergency repairs within 24 hours. Those landlords who fail can be taken to court, where they may be ordered to compensate tenants.

As a specialist contractor, we know how important it is to tackle this issue in a timely manner. Our dedicated response teams are experienced in undertaking comprehensive investigations and designing solutions that deliver safe and well-maintained homes free from DMC. But we also know it’s easier said than done. DMC is a problem that can creep in unnoticed, and at a time when maintenance budgets are under pressure, it’s not surprising if it’s not always identified in good time.

It is not simply about meeting statutory, legal or regulatory requirements and expectations. It’s about challenging how we have historically dealt with DMC and developing a more effective, customer-focused approach. The key is prevention. While traditional approaches to prevention tend to focus on residents’ lifestyles, we believe it is unhelpful to think in terms of ‘blame’. In the long term, the best way to prevent DMC cases is through good governance, information management and proactive resident engagement and communication, which will help identify and quantify cases and streamline how landlords respond to and treat problems to ensure the safety and well-being of residents.

Good governance

Early identification of DMC is critical, and proactive maintenance is essential. Good governance of this issue requires rigorous information management at every stage, from routine inspection to identification and mitigation and beyond. For example, it’s also essential to have follow-up procedures to assess whether remediation has been effective so lessons can be learned and applied in future.

At the same time, each case needs to be treated individually – even where similar cases have been seen before – so false assumptions are not made. Behind each report of DMC, there is a person or people who may be suffering, which should be the focal point. All cases should be handled with total sensitivity to ensure people feel well-informed and supported and have their needs considered in the process.

Digital technology – knowledge and information management

Forward-looking landlords undertake regular, proactive assessments of their entire housing stock to identify areas of concern, with particular attention paid to kitchens and bathrooms, ceilings and windows. Given that DMC is a seasonal issue to some extent, a rolling programme of surveys over the year is a good way to get a comprehensive view of the condition of properties. This allows for a risk-based approach based on accurate data.

Logistically and financially, it’s not always possible to undertake stock surveys on the frequency and scale that would be ideal, especially for landlords with portfolios of a hundred thousand plus properties. That means a more targeted approach is required.

There are new digital solutions that can help housing providers adopt a proactive approach to maintenance checks and ongoing monitoring. By introducing smart sensors and monitoring systems, housing providers can access real-time data on the humidity and temperature levels in their properties, thereby enabling early interventions to pre-empt the problem.

By acting early, housing providers can also stop costs from escalating. Damp is less likely to become an expensive headache to fix and living conditions are improved for tenants. Sensors also provide a simple solution for understanding and proactively meeting residents’ complaints. Smart sensors can provide a clear audit trail, recording accurate and regular environmental readings specific to each property and room, facilitating a golden thread of information from project commencement to completion.. And because the data can be analysed remotely, there’s less need for intrusive on-site investigations.

Data collected from the smart sensors will also play a role in future regeneration projects. Analysing the data for trends and patterns can show housing providers which regions or properties are particularly prone to DMC (such as those in coastal areas) and ensure those properties have the right insulation and ventilation installed – resulting in happier and healthier residents and living spaces, as well as potentially lower bills for housing providers.

Further development is required, but AI has a future to play in being more efficient in reacting to DMC issues within residents’ homes. AI will be able to diagnose imagery supplied by residents and diagnose the requirements, further automating the process to ensure the correct intervention, helping landlords manage large volumes of properties more efficiently and safely.

Proactive communication and education

One of the key elements of any successful work programme is resident liaison, keeping residents informed of what’s happening and why throughout the process. The work is ultimately being done for their benefit, but it pays to go the extra mile to ensure they are supportive of the project.

It should be pointed out that tenants are often unaware of the problem or its extent. When they are aware, they are often reluctant to report issues for fear of being blamed. That’s why early and continuous resident liaison is critical to promote awareness of the causes of DMC issues and encourage residents to ventilate as required and heat their homes more efficiently. Crucially, they should also be encouraged to seek help if they are unsure what to do. And they should be reassured that their landlord is on their side.

Industry is investing time and money in innovative resources and technology to help educate residents, which will help to prevent DMC cases in the future, saving registered social landlords money and time while keeping people safe and healthy in their homes. Regarding education, the best advice is to provide regular information over the long term rather than having one big campaign that is soon forgotten about.

In this spirit, United Living has launched an educational gamification platform built in Minecraft – in partnership with Skewb Climate – which has received excellent feedback as an interactive and fun way to learn. The sessions with young children often occur alongside our social value commitments to educating current residents and their children, the residents of tomorrow.

Education through retrofit is also a key element. Through dedicated site teams and Resident Liaison Officers (RLOs), industry is engaging homeowners, guiding them through the work, and helping them understand the benefits of energy efficiency measures. As a result of this regular contact, residents’ knowledge of their properties has increased, ensuring the energy measures deliver safe and well-maintained homes free from DMC.

At a time when social housing providers are facing the challenge of providing healthy homes to residents under difficult circumstances, new industry standards and best practices will likely emerge. United Living and other leading industry players will play a key role in providing landlords with the right expertise to manage and treat DMC in properties to ensure that homes are fit for habitation. Awaab Ishak’s death was a tragedy, and we must do all we can to ensure it never happens again.

Steve Wallin, Director of Responsive Services, United Living Property Services

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