Emma Osmundsen / Managing Director / Exeter City Living Ltd  / 
Popping above the Parapet and Promoting healthy working relationships

story / Interview / September 9, 2019

I’m Managing Director of Exeter City Living, which is a wholly owned, private development company of Exeter City Council, in South West England. I am tasked in delivering high performance, low carbon, healthy and climate resilient developments that generate ‘profit for purpose’.

My career trajectory has been steady. I started off, post university, as a chartered building surveyor, progressing into development in my mid 20’s. My career has been split between the private sector working in commercial development and the public sector.

I joined the public sector because I had a strong sense of vocation for public service. I am passionate about improving the lives of citizens and combining this with my development expertise has enabled me to become one of the leading sustainable developers in the UK. The great thing about the public sector is that when compared with the profit driven private sector,  they are more inclined to experiment and pioneer new ideas. In my context this has meant that Exeter City Council has really provided me with a laboratory to trial different generations of Passive House (PH) developments to push to boundaries of sustainable development.

Exeter build all its social housing exclusively to the International PH Standard We take a triple bottom line approach to everything we develop; so it must be financially sustainable, delivering value for money, but  also socially and environmentally responsible. PH is fantastic because it eradicates  fuel poverty for our social housing tenants. That was a real strong social driver for us. Obviously the low carbon use of a PH meets our environmentally sustainability credentials, along with its climate change resilience. In terms of the financial strength of Passive House, yes, we do pay a modest premium for adopting a high performance standard, but in terms of the life cycle cost benefits, the benefits to the individual residents, and the Council as landlord completely outweigh those additional capital costs.

We house tenants that can now afford to pay their rent so we have far less rent arrears, as a consequence of people not having to pay much – or anything – for their heating. We have reduced void periods, as once people move into their PH they don’t want to move anywhere else. There are the indirect health benefits. The research we have done seems to show direct correlation between our housing and well-being. Particularly with regards to a reduction in asthma, respiratory issues and improved quality of sleep.

We have built over 100 certified passive house homes to date, with the UK’s first passive house leisure centre and extra-care village presently under construction . Exeter City Living, at the moment, has four sites under construction with a pipeline of 600 PH homes over the next 8 years. About sixty percent of our development pipelines is for market sale and the remaining is for affordable housing.

Within the construction site make-up, we aren’t that different in the UK, you seldom see females on site other than as clients or consultants. This as one of our industry’s weaknesses. There is an ongoing culture of masculinity and a reluctance to change from one generation to the next. Our industry needs to modernise. I really do think that women can often be a catalyst for change. Sometimes that can be quite challenging because people can be quite skeptical about women putting their head above the parapet and suggesting something different, especially if they are not in a position of influence or power.

I think women need to be quite savvy in terms of their networking and business relationships. It’s important to engage with key influencers and perhaps gift some of your  ideas to these people to try and get initiatives off the ground. It’s about having the generosity to give your best ideas to others, to plant the seed, then be in the position to nurture the idea to establishment.

What I do tend to find is sadly some women can be less generous than male colleagues in supporting, leading or championing other females. I think that’s an area that needs some consideration. We don’t do enough to support and enhance one another. There is a tendency to get a little over competitive with each other and I don’t think that that does us any credit. If we perhaps stopped fighting so hard for recognition and came together more collaboratively, we’d be a lot more successful and have a far stronger voice.

I do see on a frequent basis, the lack of confidence in women. We may have as much confidence as our male counterparts but our self-doubt often manifests itself as lacking in confidence. This can be really challenging. It’s about reassuring people that they’re good at what they’re doing, encouraging women to grab the opportunities that are out there, which they are more than capable of.

The lack of female role models enhances the perception that there is a glass ceiling in construction. Women often don’t identify themselves as leaders  in the built environment, because they don’t see enough  women in leadership positions. Or if they do see  women leaders they sometimes come across as being over-masculine in their behaviours. It’s about encouraging women to stretch themselves and to remain authentic. Be a leader, but you can still be yourself! You can express yourself in a communal, feminine way. I think that’s what the construction industry is missing out on.

Women have this great capacity to be very clever and very successful. I’ve navigated my career in part  through influencing key people, networking with the right people, and also taking a few risks. With my first PH project, I didn’t actually tell my bosses that it was PH. Because I wasn’t really sure it was going to work. So I worked on the basis that I would give it a go and even if we don’t achieve passive house certification, we would still  have a better performing development  anyway. When we got certification, I was able to say, “…by the way, this is one of the UK’s first PH buildings…”

My mother always told me to never forget my ps and qs. And I think there’s a lot to be said for that. Whilst in construction we can be very focused on the buildings and infrastructure, everything we do in the built environment is really about people. The successful  delivery of  project relies on effective working relationships and my advice is to nurture healthy relationships with your team, colleagues and all parties associated with your project.  This will lead to  success whatever sector or industry you work in.

 

Danielle was lucky enough to meet Emma at the South Pacific Passive House conference and again briefly in New York. Sometimes there is an energy to people that one just wants to latch onto or tap into. Emma is a brilliant advocate of Passive House. Her no-nonsense, direct and yet brilliantly dry presenting of what can sometimes be quite technical content, is extremely engaging to an audience – and she has, we’re sure, gained many converts to Passive House in her time.  And we have admired her words around women whilst editing her interview – because they get right down to the positive approach that we have always advocated. Women make such a positive impact on the industry and their diverse approach only enriches the solutions we come up with. And the more we celebrate each other and create awareness of the brilliant work women are doing, the more we can inspire the future leaders of the industry (who hopefully will be equal part women and men!) Thank you to Emma for her time and we can’t wait to see what Exeter City Living brings to the market and to watch it successfully change the game for affordable and sustainable housing. J & D. X

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