If we rush into mass retrofit without proper research, we will make the same old mistakes with the UK’s housing

Neil May

The world-leading, growth-fuelling, planet-saving, highly innovative sustainability programme for new build, launched by the last government as the Code for Sustainable Homes, was a disaster.

I sat on the Technical Advisory Group and chaired several meetings so had a fairly good insight into the process. Why was it a disaster? Because it had the wrong aims, the wrong methodology, and was completely detached from the reality of the industry and user behaviour. We ended up with lots of expensive, ill-functioning, ugly, unhealthy and un-environmental buildings and we will be living with the consequences of this for many years to come.

We ended up with lots of expensive, ill-functioning and ugly buildings and we will be living with the consequences of this for many years to come

One of the defining aspects of the government and also – particularly – the construction sector over the past 30 years is its loss of memory. Consequently we make the same mistakes (albeit in a different context) again and again. It is a recurring nightmare. The danger is that we are about to enter that nightmare again in the retrofit of buildings in the UK. The new world-leading, growth-fuelling, planet-saving, highly innovative programmes which are the Green Deal and Energy Company Obligation (ECO) are in real danger of making the same errors.

These are to do with unrealistic expectations, a lack of proper tools, processes and skills, and an unwillingness to admit error or to learn from mistakes. We already have insulation being remediated or removed from buildings and even some buildings being demolished as a result of poor retrofit from the past few years.

Fortunately the government has started to grapple with some of these issues, and both industry and building owners have been more cautious about rushing into mass retrofit. However the economic and political pressures to deliver something tangible quickly are strong and if we are not careful will overwhelm attempts to introduce really effective long term sustainability measures. So what do we do?

First, we need much more understanding of the reality we are trying to address. We have failed to undertake proper research into building performance over the past 30 years, including the reasons for good and bad performance and their unintended consequences.  What knowledge there is has largely been privatised.

We make the same mistakes (albeit in a different context) again and again. It is a recurring nightmare

We need a properly funded, public good, entirely transparent and independent, high quality research and development organisation or group of organisations to inform us of this reality and to give direction to legislative and innovation programmes. This knowledge centre can become the memory we so desperately need in this sector.

Second, we need to re-examine what we mean by sustainability. A definition that is based upon only energy or carbon is likely to create major problems for health, heritage and social structures. We also need to disentangle sustainability programmes from short term economic growth targets, as these quickly undermine sustainability and ruin good ethical businesses.

Finally, we need honesty and openness in industry. We have to have the courage to admit our mistakes. Only this way can we learn how to build and retrofit better, start to build up trust again, and awake from the recurring nightmare into a more hopeful day.

Neil May is managing director of Natural Building Technologies