Open mike So we’ve finally got serious about making existing homes greener. That can make a big difference to social housing, says Jeffrey Adams – but only if we mix ambition with pragmatism

BRE’s plans to develop a measurable standard for retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient is welcome but it is among many recent announcements from commercial bodies and quasi-quangos. When it comes to social housing, there is an urgent need for the government to provide targets that are affordable and achievable – and a commitment to deliver them. The private sector will then help to finance it.

We also need to have realistic targets. Let’s go for 50% now and the rest later. A carbon reduction of 50% can be delivered at a much lower cost than 70% or 80%. What politicians should do is treat the refurbishment in two “fixes” – a property will probably have major repairs twice in the next 40 years in any case. So a pragmatic solution is to carry out a 50% refurbishment the first time, then do the more expensive work later when technology is cheaper and better (but to include enabling measures in the first fix). Renewables will be cheaper in the future, and energy becomes more expensive, so returns will improve. Indeed, new sources of energy may reduce the need for an 80% reduction.

Carbon reduction can be done as part of the Decent Homes programme and can be completed within an additional week, as United House has demonstrated in Islington. This was a council property that was refurbished using energy-saving technologies new to both London and to social housing.

The first fix should include:

  • Upgrading the heating with a condensing boiler, radiator thermostats and time and temperature controls
  • A foam-lagged hot water cylinder
  • Draught strips
  • Improved external wall and roof insulation
  • Low-energy lighting
  • Prevention of heat venting up any chimneys
  • Enabling technology to simplify the installation of second fix renewables.

If we promote more cost-effective solutions, retrofitting is less likely to be included in the public spending cuts expected next year. Green living has to be made available to everyone, rather than the privileged few who can afford green bling. Let’s hope the politicians who have been so keen to exhibit their domestic greenery believe this too.

Tenants should be helped to make the most of their green refurbishment, and some of the savings made from lower energy bills should be given to landlords to help pay for the upgrades. Landlords could also benefit from tariffs that favour electricity generated by renewable systems, with an added incentive if they exported that energy to the grid. Again, the government needs to build these returns into wider incentivisation programme to help RSLs pay for retrofitting.

A heating engineer told me that a call-out used to mean a visit to a cold home. Nowadays, the customer will answer the door in T-shirt and shorts and complain that the house is only 20ºC


Forget the greenhouse effect, we need to consider the hothouse effect. Most people in this country live in houses heated to 23ºC. I was talking to a heating engineer recently who told me that years ago a call-out meant a visit to a cold home. Nowadays, the customer will answer the door in T-shirt and shorts then complain that the house is only 20ºC. So residents will need to understand that low-energy bulbs, fuel-efficient boilers and insulation are not enough. When our homes were heated by coal, the average home temperature was 16ºC; then along came gas and we now expect to live with an average temperature of 23ºC. There is a danger that when we refurbish our homes, we will live at 25ºC, with no carbon savings.

But first, retrofitting needs to get under way on a national scale. Many people with the lowest incomes live in homes that are the most expensive to run, and the state is helping to pay their bills. Would it not make more sense to use the PFI to deliver a solution?

We now need a “green giant” to champion the issue. We need decisions and someone to make them who will not disappear in the midst of political change.

And 50% is a good starting point.

Original print headline - Half-way houses