Retrofit is being dumbed down, and the results of ignorance can be disastrous


There has been a lot of rumpus recently over what makes up our energy bills. It’s surely obvious that the energy tariff actually becomes less of a priority if you are hardly using much energy in the first place.

There are two factors that make up our energy bills – the tariff you pay and the kWhs you use. The tariff set by the energy company is determined by the absolute costs of energy, the costs to produce and deliver it and then the profits on top.

Whilst politicians play politics they suggest you’d best shop around to keep your bills as low as possible i.e. dealing with the tariffs. It is far more important to insulate yourself from future rises by keeping your kWh use down. 

If you are in an existing property and have already optimised your energy behaviour, that means retrofit.

There has been lots of research and articles on the barriers to retrofit and I don’t intend to revisit them all here, but I would certainly like to address one barrier that comes up every time I run a retrofit workshop for professionals.

Ignorance is replacing a boiler on a solid wall without insulating behind that boiler

I run an exercise to list all barriers so that we can seek to address then in the training, and the ever-present is ignorance. By this they mean householders being uneducated, unaware, or uninformed. However, the more I work with householders, the more I realise this isn’t quite the issue professionals think it is.

We start our retrofit journey with the public by offering up titbits to get householders minds in the right place: “turn the thermostat down”; “only boil enough water for one cup’; “swap your light bulbs to low energy” etc. Don’t get me wrong, this advice is massively important, but this is where we stop, and after people have followed it, they think they’re done. They’ve “saved the planet”.

If we are lucky householders then pick-up on the single-measure campaigns such as loft or cavity wall insulation or perhaps leap to a technofix or a renewable technology which again are not necessarily wrong, but if not implemented as part of a whole-building plan big errors could creep in. Such a plan makes sure each measure does not sterilise a building to further concurrent or later opportunities, but builds towards a complete future version of the existing building.

Ignorance is being blind to the overall needs of a property and focusing purely on a few different measures.

Ignorance is replacing a boiler on a solid wall without insulating behind that boiler, or not making sure the flue is long enough to cope with external insulation later. It is working in and around ground floor joists without insulating between them before the replacing the floorboards.

It is re-rendering a property without investigating external wall insulation, renewables etc. to maximise the cost of scaffolding. And this leads us back to the workshops - we’re happy to stick our neck out and say the professionals in the industry don’t know as much as they think they know.

Who is there with the decision maker at the right time to advise? When the main sources of knowledge over the past 10 years have been the media, vested commercial publications and previously funded organisations such as the EST, it’s not surprising.

You might find that the most informed householder has made significant progress, learnt the reality and become a Superhomer to share their knowledge and are more useful to talk to than a professional.

They are rare gems, but as a Superhomer myself, I can assure you that very few professionals travel to see them.

Responsible and appropriate retrofit isn’t simple and it shouldn’t be dumbed down or the results will miss the mark.

Neither is it too complicated, as long as we recognise that some intelligent thought needs to be undertaken to consider the mix of measures, how they fit with each other over time before rushing in.

The success or failure to retrofit our housing stock isn’t going to be determined by whether David Cameron bins the “green crap” or whether the take up of the Green Deal picks up - luckily. It’s going to be determined by whether trades and professionals step up their game and understand how their specialisms fit with the needs of the building over the longer term.

Russell Smith is founder and managing director of Parity Projects