12 August 2020

As many as 5.8 million renters in the UK are experiencing damp and condensation issues and a significant number - 2 million people – have suffered health problems as a result, says a report by the online news outlet, Landlord Today.

The UK housing crisis is affecting thousands of families, with the country’s poorest and most vulnerable living in cramped and sub-standard accommodation. Research commissioned by the National Housing Federation (NHF) representing social landlords found that 1.4 million people are living in sub-standard properties.

Until recently, tenants had little clout when it came to challenging landlords, but recent changes in legislation mean that tenants can now sue landlords when the necessary repairs required to prevent coldness and damp aren’t carried out.

Landlords can avoid the potential onslaught of legal action from tenants if they take preventative measures. Modern ventilation options offer a cost-effective solution. Let’s take a closer look at what causes damp in the home and the role of ventilation in its prevention.

What is damp and what are the causes?

Damp and mould are caused by excess moisture. The most common form of damp is condensation, which forms when warm moist air touches a cold internal wall or surface, such as a window. It happens when there is excess unwanted moisture in the air that has no way of escaping – usually caused by steam from cooking, drying clothes indoors and showering or bathing. Damp can also be caused by leaking pipes, rising damp in basement or ground floor properties, or rain seeping in from a damaged roof or window frames.

Damp causes mould to grow on walls and furniture, and can cause wooden window frames, floorboards and skirting boards to rot. Mould spores are known to be detrimental to health. The World Health Organisation (WHO) warns that dampness in living quarters is a strong and consistent indicator of risk for asthma and respiratory symptoms.

Research has found that living in a damp and cold home also has an impact on mental health, with higher levels of anxiety and depression. The UK’s leading mental health charity, MIND, says that 4 out of 5 people with mental health problems report that their housing has made their mental health worse.

The right to a damp-free home

The new Homes (Fitness for Human Habitations) Act 2018 came into force in March 2019. It gave tenants in England the right to sue landlords for damp or mouldy homes, but then it only covered tenancies starting or renewed from that month onwards.

As of the 19th March 2020, it was extended to all existing periodic tenancies - including social housing - in England. Damp isn’t the only thing covered. The new law also extends to repairs, natural lighting, ventilation, water supply, drainage, and facilities for the preparation and cooking of food.

Landlords, including local authorities and housing associations, will now be open to much more scrutiny when it comes to damp and mould in their housing stock. They will need to look closely at preventative solutions, particularly around ventilation, to prevent a surge in the number of legal cases being made against them.

The role of ventilation in the prevention of damp and mould

The most common underlying cause of damp and mould in the home is poor ventilation. Homes that can’t adequately ‘breathe’ trap moisture, which leads to condensation, damp and the build-up of mould.

An effective ventilation solution ensures that moisture created in a property is extracted and replaced with fresh air. It minimises the risk of damp and mould, reduces indoor pollutants and generally improves the quality of indoor air, thus mitigating health risks.

Energy efficiency and ventilation in social housing

It isn’t just newly built homes that have been affected by the drive to improve energy efficiency. Older properties are also being retrofitted with double glazing, as well as cavity wall and loft insulation. Until recently there has been a complete lack of attention to the impact this has on ventilation. As homes have become more airtight, IAQ has suffered.

A government report in 2018 exploring the barriers to thermal retrofitting in social housing noted that a risk of moisture and condensation did not put social housing landlords off improving energy efficiency.

Interviews with 40 social housing providers highlighted the belief that tenants play a significant role in condensation problems. It was recognised that occupant behaviour needed to change after thermal retrofit work – especially relating to ventilation.

However, improvements around energy efficiency in social housing have been systematically carried out without properly addressing ventilation issues. This approach has undoubtedly exacerbated the issue of damp and mould, but it can still be addressed.

The ideal ventilation for social housing retrofits

dMEV - decentralised Mechanical Extract Ventilation - in particular is proving a preferred ventilation system for retrofitting by social housing providers, largely due to its cost-effectiveness and ease of install, but also because it requires no input from occupants. The continuously running ventilation solution is designed to replace intermittently running extractor fans in kitchens and bathrooms. It addresses the need for continuous ventilation in high occupancy homes and can easily be retrofitted. Low running costs and low noise also make it an excellent choice for compliance from occupants (i.e. tenants not turning it off).

Read more about why dMEV offers a radical solution in our previous blog post on fan installation in social housing.

Social housing providers must take note and listen

Damp and mould are costly, both in terms of repairs and to the health of occupants. Previously private renters had to turn to local authorities to report poor housing conditions via a system that was difficult to navigate. Equally social housing tenants had no means of holding their local authority or housing association to account.

The new law enabling tenants to sue landlords for damp and mould provides an opportunity for the improvement of housing stock. Updating ventilation solutions to ensure tenants no longer have to suffer damp homes is cost-effective for social housing providers and is the right thing to do for public health.