If retrofitting was viewed as an infrastructure project, might it finally gain the attention it deserves? If countries are to meet their Paris Climate agreement targets then dramatically reducing the energy demands from the built environment is essential. And there are all of the other benefits as well, including reducing fuel poverty, reducing demand for energy generation and creating a thriving green jobs sector. With so much going for it, why is so little attention paid to retrofitting in many countries?

UK housing: Fit for the future?

The infrastructure approach is a key recommendation of last month’s report by the UK’s independent statutory Committee on Climate Change, ‘UK housing: Fit for the future?’ https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/uk-housing-fit-for-the-future/. Retrofitting should be viewed along the lines of major road and rail projects, as an infrastructure priority, it recommended.

The key findings of that report were:

  • the UK’s legally-binding climate change targets will not be met without the near-complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from UK buildings;
  • emissions reductions from the UK’s 29 million homes have stalled, while energy use in homes – which accounts for 14% of total UK emissions – increased between 2016 and 2017;
  • efforts to adapt the UK’s housing stock to the impacts of the changing climate, for higher average temperatures, flooding and water scarcity, are lagging far behind what is needed to keep us safe and comfortable, even as these climate change risks grow.

For retrofitting, the report states: “Homes should make use of low-carbon sources of heating such as heat pumps and heat networks. The uptake of energy efficiency measures, such as loft and wall insulation, must be accelerated. Upgrades and repairs to existing homes should include plans for shading and ventilation, measures to reduce indoor moisture, improved air quality and water efficiency and, in homes at risk of flooding, property-level flood protection.”

Dr Alice Owen, University of Leeds: planning departments have been “stripped to the bone and beyond”.

Lots of room for improvement

As energy use and greenhouse gas emissions rise once more, the efforts in England in particular have been woeful. Last year, only 1% of new homes were at the highest Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) A rating level. For existing stock, the number of homes that were insulated was down 95%, with government funding at half its 2012 level. In England, this equated to €9 per person for home energy efficiency. Austria tops the table in Europe at €85; Scotland is a commendable €39.

For England and Wales, the annual funding gap to move the owner-occupier and private rented sectors (more than 80% of all homes) to EPC C is estimated at £5.2 billion, of which £1 billion of public finance would be needed to incentivise the rest of the investment.

Pedro Guertier, senior policy adviser at E3G, an independent climate change think-tank, says there is an urgent need to close the policy gap. It requires a long-term action plan, robust regulation that ensures all homeowners take action, and adequate funding, with incentives for householders, such as adjusting stamp duty to reflect the energy performance of homes.

Local authorities should have a key role, to tackle fuel poverty, encourage local supply chains and offer strong advice. At present, says Guertier, the advice is “half a phone line and a website”.

A lot of time, money and effort to date has gone into schemes that haven’t delivered. They have been piecemeal, it has been hard to work out eligibility and they have been complex to adopt. A lot, including the UK’s Warmer Homes fund, have been centred on gas connections and new boilers – so with the risk that what is put in today will need to be ripped out again in 10 or 15 years’ time.

The skills gap

Dr Alice Owen, associate professor, business sustainability and stakeholder engagement at the University of Leeds, emphasises the need to bring along the small builders and other specialists that dominate the renovation sector. There needs to be “positive action to support them, not just the hope they’ll magically see the light. All the technology investments in the world are no good if we don’t have the people to deliver.”

She feels that small businesses would welcome relevant regulations that level the playing field in terms of the quality and cost of projects. Local authorities should be enablers and advisors but their planning departments have been “stripped to the bone and beyond”.

Measurement to understand performance

Professor Will Swan at the School of the Built Environment at the University of Salford, says measurement is important to tell what’s working. The EPC ratings are used to drive policy but he is unconvinced they are the right criteria. Much of the work that is happening around energy and heating is still reliant on gas.

“Technically it is easy to retrofit a house in some respects, [the challenge] is how you scale that up,” says Professor Swan, which involves finance, supply chains, behavioural change, warranties, liabilities and so on. A survey of households in Greater Manchester that had gone through retrofits found that the most commonly cited benefits were aesthetics and a more comfortable home. Are we using the right messages, he asks, rather than having them driven by policy objectives?

Working out what to prioritise is important, says Professor Swan. “How do we know what to retrofit?” He feels the “much maligned” smart meters have a “huge potential” to help measure and prioritise. Using intelligent data, you could say to a householder, “you are using twice the energy of next door, would you like us to take a look?” This is the focus of the UK government’s Smart Meter Enabled Thermal Efficiency Ratings (SMETER) Innovation Programme to measure the thermal performance of homes using smart meter and other data.

Products tested in isolation do not always perform in the same way as part of a building-wide system and this has led University of Salford to build an initial energy house (main picture), with a second on the way, to act as a test environment for solutions. The first is meant to replicate a typical terraced house built in Salford in 1919, representing 21% of UK housing stock.

Working with 5plus Architects, Energy House 2.0 will allow the University to increase the scope of research by simulating extreme weather conditions from around the world, serving the global construction industry.

Ultimately, says E3G’s Guertier, there is the opportunity to reduce energy bills by 25%, equivalent to an average of £270 per year at today’s energy prices. In summary, it is worth turning again to the key findings of the Committee on Climate Change report: “Ensuring existing homes are low-carbon and resilient to the changing climate is a major UK infrastructure priority, and must be supported as such by the Treasury.” Is anyone in UK government listening?