5 big challenges for the UK home retrofit sector – and what it’s doing to tackle them

Existing house

The home energy efficiency sector is at a key point in its evolution. The new Conservative government’s ambition to retrofit UK homes is modest, with an election pledge made to insulate 1m homes with low cost measures over its present term. A number of the simplest homes to retrofit have now had their lofts and cavity walls insulated, but the job is still far from finished and the 7m homes that are of solid wall or non-traditional construction remain largely untreated and costly to heat. At the same time stories are emerging of retrofits that are failing to deliver promised energy savings, and in some cases resulting in homes that are colder and damper than they were prior to intervention.

Retrofitting the seemingly standard UK home is proving to be anything but a standard process, and experience is increasing the sector’s awareness of the complexities and the pitfalls. Last month the Stoke-based Centre of Refurbishment Excellence hosted Retrofit Live, a two-day conference bringing together expert building physicists, designers, contractors, product manufacturers and housing providers to debate the big challenges in retrofitting the nation’s existing homes. Here’s how the sector is addressing five of those challenges.

1. Managing the risks

“If you’re going to do retrofit at scale anywhere you need to build in some systems for risk management, because retrofit is inherently risky” says Peter Rickaby, director of energy and sustainability consultant Rickaby Thompson Associates. Rickaby has worked to come up with a risk management process for the Greater London Authority’s RE:NEW domestic energy efficiency framework.

Part of this work has involved the development of a triage matrix, which allows scoring of the risk level of individual measures and combinations of measures. “It gives you a score before you even start talking about whether people are competent to install the measures,” says Rickaby. The matrix sits alongside other aids ranging from checklists to the support of a retrofit co-ordinator to give an integrated approach.

2. Understanding moisture in buildings

“Dampness and mould is a huge issue in buildings globally,” says Neil May, founder of Natural Building Technologies (NBT) and an honorary senior researcher at the Energy Institute at University College London (UCL). Sweden, which already has a centre, has estimated that more than 80% of damage to its buildings has been caused, directly or indirectly, by moisture, with mould and other moisture problems having the potential to cause not only damage to buildings but also to human health.

A cross-industry advisory group has taken the issue forward in the UK, and reform of standards, legislation and primary guidance is in the pipeline.  May, who is working with NBT and UCL on a research project on internal wall insulation, is also working on the first steps in establishing a national moisture centre for the UK.

3. Gathering evidence of value

“There’s a challenge in demonstrating rock solid, peer reviewed evidence” says James Hubbard, climate change consultant at sustainability specialist ERM. Hubbard has looked at the findings emerging from research carried out by charity National Energy Action (NEA) for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) into so called ‘boiler on prescription’ schemes. These schemes involve improving the energy efficiency of homes where residents are suffering from medical conditions that are exacerbated by cold, damp living conditions.

There has been growing interest in successful initiatives such as Warm Homes Oldham and Gentoo Group’s boiler on prescription scheme, which are demonstrating impressive results in reducing residents’ visits to their GP. Such initiatives’ potential to ultimately produce financial savings for the NHS prompted the government to announce £3m of funding in March for preparatory work on a national programme.

The DECC research identified more than 100 local schemes already in operation across the country, around half of which are led by local authorities, with charities and not-for-profit bodies also heading up initiatives. But its survey of current local schemes found nearly half of respondents are having to reduce their programmes this year in the face of austerity funding cuts. Robust evidence, gathered using a coherent methodology, could be important in building the value proposition for local and government initiatives into the future.

4. Giving clients confidence

“There are instances where people are doing good workmanship but are not aware of the consequences of what they’re doing. They are effectively doing the wrong job. There has been a push for numbers, when quality is what counts,” says Kerry Mashford, chief executive of the National Energy Foundation.

In particular, questions are being raised about the quality of some cavity and external wall insulation installations. BRE has carried out a study looking at the unintended consequences of solid wall insulation, which has identified 126 consequences, many of which are moisture related. BRE director Colin King says many of the consequences have arisen ultimately from government policy, which has put in place simple systems to deliver numbers of installations at lowest price, without taking into account property specific factors like design, context and location.

The next five years will therefore see a focus on knowledge, testing, performance guarantees and warranties, Mashford says. “This will all give people confidence and break down barriers to market acceptance.”

BRE has reported to government on its findings and has recommended 12 major changes to the way in which the sector works.

5. Developing retrofit specific technologies and products

“It’s a factory on wheels,” is how Q-bot director Tom Lipinski describes the Q-bot. Q-bot is a robot technology which offers a high-tech alternative to taking up ground floor floorboards in order to fit insulation, a job that traditionally takes around a fortnight.  The Q-bot fits under the floorboards and sprays insulation into place while occupants remain in situ.

A theme of last year’s Retrofit Live conference was the need for the sector to develop products and processes that are purpose-designed for retrofit rather than new build. Q-bot is one example of innovation in the sector. The cost of insulating the ground floor of a home is around £2,800 and the work currently takes five days, although Lipinski says that will reduce to no more than two days as expertise and technology progresses. The technology has been trialled with two London housing providers and is looking good but continues to evolve, with a new robot introduced around every three months.


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