Why residential retrofits are failing in the UK
David Thorpe | 13 December 2016
Retrofit projects to make homes more energy efficient are failing, especially within economies that rely only on financial values, according to the Sustainable Traditional Buildings Alliance (STBA).
It is backing a “Responsible Retrofit” program incorporating health and heritage to encourage a new attitude to giving old homes makeovers.
There are many unintended consequences of existing retrofit programs that lead to unhealthy indoor environments, condensation and mould, fabric decay and other problems that affect occupants. Often programs fail to meet their targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and energy use, and in some cases even result in an increase in both of these.
Part of the problem is that there is often not a whole house/building approach when retrofit measures are applied. But even when there is a whole building approach similar consequences can ensue. This is because there are different ideas of what is involved in a whole building retrofit.
So what are the different types of whole house retrofits?
An earlier STBA report called Responsible Retrofit of Traditional Buildings found that most of the problems that occur are at the interfaces between elements, technologies for building processes, or through interactions between measures, people and buildings, many of which are not fully understood.
This is not just a technical issue. Buildings, and people, behave differently and interact differently depending upon the social, economic and environmental context in which they find themselves.
All aspects need to be taken account of. The aim of retrofits should be to look for multiple wins: such as how to improve occupant health, the long-term condition of the building fabric, and make it easy to live in.
To achieve this they need to examine the way thermal energy is conducted through the building and where moisture travels and how it is managed, throughout the year-round weather conditions and patterns of occupancy. This is especially true where different materials meet each other.
When retrofits do fail, it’s not “just because we do not sufficiently understand traditional buildings, or have the wrong approach or the wrong standards or skills”.
“It is because we have an economic and political system which is driving misallocation of finance, land and housing, depletion of natural resources and pollution.”
What values should be incorporated then? STBA says we need to account for heritage, well-being, community, biodiversity and health – values which, for most people, more than money, give meaning to their world.
But the organisation is pessimistic this can happen without an ethical approach being taken to the allocation of finances for retrofitting, but it believes that this demands economies that “have sustainability and culture at their heart”.
That is why it is issuing a call to rethink the whole approach. It argues: “The process of retrofit, if carried out correctly, has great potential not only to repair the environment but also to improve people’s lives.
“Unless we start with the Whole House Advanced/Responsible Retrofit position our efforts will lead to unintended consequences and may be counterproductive even in the most narrowly measured terms.”
To this end the STBA has launched a Responsible Retrofit website, which is full of resources, one of the most useful of which is the Guidance Wheel.
This interactive tool represents over 50 measures that can be used in the refurbishing of the additional holdings and allows you to explore their interrelationships including the user’s interest, motivation and knowledge about the building:
Since its launch, it has been taken up by several other organisations, including the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and Construction Excellence Wales.
But until it is mainstreamed into the general drive to upgrade the performance of all older buildings, rather than just heritage ones, then piecemeal retrofitting, driven by economics, will prevail in the marketplace, and with it the risk of failure to deliver the desired outcomes.
David Thorpe is the author of:
- Best Practices and Case Studies for Industrial Energy Efficiency Improvement (with Oung, K. and Fawkes, S. UNEP, 2016)
- A London Conversation: Business Briefing on Green Bonds (The Fifth Estate, 2015)
- The One Planet Life (Introduction: Jane Davidson. Routledge, 2015)
- Earthscan Expert Guide to Energy Management in Buildings (Earthscan, 2013)
- Earthscan Expert Guide to Energy Management in Industry (Earthscan, 2013)
- Earthscan Expert Guide to Solar Technology (Earthscan, 2011)
- Earthscan Expert Guide to Sustainable Home Refurbishment (Earthscan, 2010)