Filling the retrofit policy void
The imperative to engage in evidence-based deep retrofit grows by the day. With the UK government dragging its heels, Peter Rickaby finds signs of hope in local initiatives, and in burgeoning Irish efforts.
The retrofit imperative abhors a vacuum: local initiatives are filling the national policy void.
I have often lamented the lack of domestic retrofit policy in England. It is a topic that the UK Government seems incapable of engaging with coherently. Improving the energy efficiency of twenty million homes is at the heart of the challenge of climate change and critical to meeting our national emissions targets. But the ‘flagship’ Energy Company Obligation (ECO) programme gets ever smaller and ever more narrowly focused on fuel poverty, and on the delivery of single improvement measures. The series of retrofit disasters (in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Preston and at Grenfell Tower, amongst others) has sapped confidence, inhibited investment and seen many closures. The consultation on the next round of ECO proposes ‘innovation credits’ for multi-measure retrofits – as if we haven’t known that whole-house retrofit is best since Retrofit for the Future, almost ten years ago. The single beacon of hope is Each Home Counts, struggling to impose a retrofit Quality Mark on an unenthusiastic industry that grew up delivering single measures badly but reluctantly acknowledges the need for change.
I took heart from a recent discussion of retrofit standards with the Scottish Government. Scotland has a challenging but realistic retrofit programme based on an assessment of the housing stock, an appraisal of the improvements each dwelling type needs by 2050, and a ‘fabric first’ approach, which despite lack of resource is setting off in the right direction. Similar programmes continue in Wales, where scale retrofit programmes are now the norm, and from where some of the best lessons about how (and how not) to insulate solid walls in exposed areas have emerged.
In Ireland, SEAI’s exemplary Deep retrofit programme is coming to the end of its first year. The programme has taken the ‘no insulation without ventilation’ maxim seriously and combines good standards of insulation with demand-controlled centralised mechanical extract ventilation (DC cMEV) or MVHR. Since many homes in Ireland have no mains gas, domestic electric heat pump technology is probably as advanced as anywhere in Europe. When I want a domestic heat pump consultant, supplier or installer, or just to learn how to use the technology properly, Ireland is the go-to place.
This article was originally published in issue 26 of Passive House Plus magazine. Want immediate access to all back issues and exclusive extra content? Click here to subscribe for as little as €10, or click here to receive the next issue free of charge
Where does that leave those in England? All is not lost, because quietly, following nudges from Green Deal Communities and RE:NEW in London, city authorities have been stepping into the policy void with their own initiatives. The GLA’s Energy for Londoners programme retains a focus on fuel poverty but is working with retrofitWorks to adopt a robust approach. A retrofit coordinator will be deployed on every project, homes will be subject to whole-house assessment, and wholehouse medium-term retrofit plans will be formulated, even if they cannot be fully implemented immediately. Assessment and upgrading of ventilation, whenever fabric measures may reduce the infiltration rate, is also part of the approach. Similar programmes are emerging in other cities, notably Manchester, Bristol and Oxford, and others will not be far behind.
As localisation continues, the next challenge will be to mobilise the repairs, maintenance and improvement (RMI) industry, which is three times the size of the retrofit industry, to improve energy efficiency in towns, villages and rural areas. The local companies and tradesmen who form the RMI industry are skilled but often reluctant to embrace new techniques. Marshalling their skills to integrate retrofit with RMI work will require new incentives and new approaches to funding, training and quality assurance.
Against this backdrop of local retrofit, involving many small organisations, standards are important. The emerging standard to support the Each Home Counts Quality Mark is BSI’s PAS 2035 Specification and Guidance for Domestic retrofit. PAS 2035 builds on Ireland’s excellent NSAI SR 54: 2014 Code of Practice for the energy efficient retrofit of dwellings and goes a few steps further. It will require: whole-house assessments; risk assessment of projects to determine the standards that apply and the required qualifications for project managers and designers; assessment and upgrading of ventilation; designs that take account of the interactions and interfaces between measures; and monitoring and evaluation. For more complex projects PAS 2035 will also require comprehensive improvement option evaluation, moisture risk assessments in accordance with BS 5250 and the preparation of medium-term retrofit plans.
The UK retrofit environment, while not benefitting from a coherent national policy, is not stagnant. The retrofit imperative abhors a vacuum: local initiatives are filling the national policy void. Much is going on in the devolved nations and at city level, and retrofit programmes are being localised. Meanwhile Each Home Counts is putting together the necessary infrastructure of standards and quality assurance.