Mar 20, 2019 Last Updated 5:04 PM, Mar 20, 2019

Breaking the mould in UK social housing

Published in Housing
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Damp and mould are constant, and as of yet, unanswered threats to the UK’s social housing stock. Byron Dixon OBE, Scientist and Founder of Micro-Fresh – an ingredient that was originally formulated to prevent the growth of mould on products in transit from the far corners of the world – discusses the extent of the issue and how plaster manufacturers need to consider a new solution.

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Mould issues continue to be a nagging problem for social housing providers; not only in terms of maintenance and refurbishment costs but also the recognised threat to the health of tenants.

Temperature, humidity and inadequate air circulation are key drivers for mould growth which affect both plaster and plasterboard to cause aesthetic and structural deterioration often.

The inhalation of mould spores can lead to asthma and other pulmonary conditions such as aspergillosis as well as other irritations and allergic responses such as sick building syndrome, which has symptoms of headaches, itchy skin, sore eyes and rashes. Scientists at Rutgers University have conducted research that even suggests a compound emitted by mould could be a contributing factor in the development of a neurological condition that increases the risk of Parkinson’s disease. I personally developed asthmatic symptoms from living in social housing which suffered from damp and so this is a topic that is very close to my heart.

Without a change to the current ways of thinking and working, social housing residents will continue to suffer, and the cost of removing and repairing the damage will remain a problem. Furthermore, damp and mould negatively impacting plaster is likely to become more prevalent as occurrences of flooding are expected to increase.

As a relative newcomer to the plaster and wider construction industry, and from the position as a scientist to boot, it was a huge surprise that there is still little official research relating to how different wall structures react to varying drying regimes, how moisture moves in liquid and vapour form on plaster, and how long potential pathogens grow and survive. It’s madness to think that many landlords are still relying on residents opening their windows or using an extractor fan to reduce moisture levels.

One of the challenges is that, at the moment, mould is only tackled at a later stage when it has visibly formed on the plaster. This is clearly not ideal when looking to create housing that will be fit for purpose for as long as possible, with minimal refurbishment or repair costs, let alone ensuring the health of the tenant. There is no strong thrust towards identifying the threat earlier or even prevention at the time of application.

This need for an anti-mould solution was behind my decision to personally invest in research to determine whether the properties of Micro-Fresh – which reduces bacterial growth by 99.9% on fabrics and textiles – could be applied to plaster.

Creating what would be considered a good alternative to current solutions meant overcoming barriers including price-point, limitations such as high humidity or temperatures over 52º, whether the chemicals involved are sustainable and safe to human skin, and ensuring that no moisture or water would impact the product during transit or when in storage.

A number of tests of different Micro-Fresh formulations in various conditions were conducted. The results happily reported that in comparison to existing super-hydrophobic coatings that need to be sprayed onto plaster in two applications, the successful Micro-Fresh formulation can be integrated into a raw material to create a composite.

The use of silver in plaster products that are already on the market makes them expensive to produce. Furthermore, this additional cost is often passed on to the contractor or social housing provider and, ultimately, rules them out of being applied to large-scale projects such as whole social housing developments.

Our solution was a formulation that uses silver or zinc but in an ionic or chelated form, complexed with a derivative of cellulose. This can be introduced into the paper skin of plasterboard or combined with the semi-anhydrous gypsum plaster during mixing. The result was the creation of MF 1911, a spray application for plasterboard, and MF 2111, an additive to be added into the manufacture of plaster. Both formulations demonstrated no mould growth during humid testing conditions. As well as being something of value to plaster manufacturers, we were pleased that there was an opportunity to offer the formulation as an additive to be stocked by merchants as a standalone product.

The benefit to the social housing provider and the contractor is that it takes the hassle out of installation and specification of the plaster to ensure an efficient and consistent result. On the other hand, the positive for the industry is that this is not only an effective solution but also a non-invasive method. Current solutions rely on an external application which, of course, adds another step into the construction process, and therefore, additional time and cost.

The other factor likely to be holding back the success of existing anti-mould options is that as fungicides; they are toxic in their own right. By working with natural substances and avoiding the use of nano-technology, the Micro-Fresh solution can be considered ‘green’. By also achieving a registration with the Biocide Product Regulations (BPR), UK manufacturers can have added confidence in what they are working with which also means they are more likely to invest in an anti-mould solution.

These credentials remove the harmful fungicides that tenants would otherwise be exposed to making them similarly important to the social housing provider. The argument could even be made that there would be a potential reduction in CO2 due to there no longer being a need for the ongoing ventilation of properties.

It’s clear that construction, particularly in relation to social housing in the UK, is ripe for innovation and that there is demand. This line of thinking in terms of mould is significant when you look at the damage and cost that it causes to properties and even more worryingly, the tenants. However, a proven solution is now waiting to be picked up and introduced to the market. Manufacturers, landlords and developers need to take a single and combined approach to make an impact as quickly as possible, and through our own research, we’ve proven that there is a scientific way of doing just that.

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