It’s time for collective action on retrofit

Gail Scholes of Zenergi explores the challenge for builders and housing associations on retrofitting the UK’s ageing housing stock to meet modern energy standards.

With 28.1 million homes in the UK, the challenge of reaching net zero is significant. We need a retrofit solution that decarbonises at scale and is affordable.

The cost of retrofit to net zero is estimated to be between £25,000 and £30,000, but in reality it is much higher. To bring this cost down, we need to invest at scale in the supply chain, emerging products and technologies, and drive a cultural change that leads us towards net zero.

The possible implications are vast, and they differ for each housing sector involved in the retrofit movement.

Social housing

Housing associations provide around 5 million houses in the UK, meaning they have a critical role to play in the decarbonisation of housing.

Many are just at the start of this journey, but early decisions are key to a successful strategy. It’s important to develop the decarbonisation plan with not only the business values but also the right investment in practical and social terms.

Asset-rich, cash-poor

Elderly homeowners can often find themselves tied down to large family homes where rooms remain largely unoccupied, due to the financial strain of heating the whole property to a comfortable level.

These unoccupied rooms therefore become unkempt with a lack of maintenance leading to issues such as damp, mould and drafts. Conscious of the conditions but restricted by physical ability, the conditions remain untreated and continue to deteriorate.

Many of these properties will have been lived in for decades and will have collected many possessions in the loft. Assuming that the elderly homeowner is unable to sort these items, the loft is left cluttered, restricting the opportunity for retrofit operations. So, when considering retrofitting these homes, it is equally as important to consider practical aspects which will delay the process if not addressed.

Rogue landlords 

Another critical issue to consider is the rogue landlords operating in the private rental sector accommodating those that want to remain under the radar. Our most vulnerable in society become easy prey for living in some of our worst housing conditions, often in properties that are not registered and will not see any investment in improving living conditions.

Attempts to tackle this issue have been carried out before. Legislation such as The Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 have been enforced to keep this issue contained, however cases are still falling through the cracks.

With the decarbonisation rollout now in sight, further legislation will need to be introduced. To ensure this is carried out correctly, a push in recruitment will be needed to man the operation and carry out checks and surveys. Alternatively, financial incentives could potentially encourage these rogue landlords to invest in insulating homes and improving living conditions.

Leaving the care system 

For those who have gone through the care system, reaching the age of 18 is an overwhelming step. Having lived in sheltered accommodation their whole lives, they will have to quickly adapt to living alone and the responsibilities that come with it. In terms of energy usage and bills, this will be a foreign concept and the approach to net zero won’t make this any clearer.

To resolve this issue and prepare young adults, practical education and awareness needs to be introduced. Similar to the elderly sector, organisations that specialise in looking after this particular social group, will need to also work with decarbonisation plans. With this support network at hand, young adults will become more climate conscious and will be able to contribute to the elimination of greenhouse gases.

Looking forward 

Achieving net zero targets is essential but there is a long way to go.

Unfortunately, the solution is not singular. Different sectors and social groups need different incentives and guidance to ensure the retrofitting of existing buildings.

For many groups this will revolve around financial aid and support, however, for others this will entail support networks and the correct education.

It is also difficult to help clients to understand what they should be proactively doing. When new Government schemes to part fund heat pumps are balanced against energy suppliers offering more affordable gas boiler replacements, further guidance and incentives should hope to resolve this.

Gail Scholes is head of public sector and housing at Zenergi