Mark Elton

Opinion Piece by Mark Elton

“It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand!” Designers involved in the retrofit of our existing buildings, a group once christened the ‘retrofitterati’, will have felt that sense of hope  for a sustainable retrofit industry before, only to see those dreams fade away in a ‘red tape’ bonfire. But the climate change clock is still ticking and the UK Government’s commitment to the Climate Change Act and its 2050 deadline has somehow not only remained intact but has actually been tightened, with a commitment to reduce emissions to zero within the next 30 years. With some 30% of national greenhouse gas emissions and over half of all heat energy demand coming from our existing homes, even if all new construction became zero carbon overnight, we clearly still have an enormous challenge to decarbonise our stock whilst improving fuel poverty, health and well-being.

The good news is that the technologies required to meet this challenge by and large exist – the problem has been the lack of political and financial incentive. So, are we seeing signs that this may be changing at last? Certainly, when even the BBC are writing headline articles about the need for the retrofit of our homes then clearly the mood has shifted. Government departments are again sponsoring pilot projects for deep retrofit scheme and we will soon see the roll out of the Green Homes Grant Scheme giving vouchers to homeowners of up to £5000 to spend on energy efficiency improvements. Even within the architectural profession there seems to have been a change in attitude. The RIBA was largely ignoring retrofit a decade ago, as were most of the architectural publications, no doubt because it was not glamorous enough. With a new generation inspired by climate change activism, however, demand for change has never been higher. Even the Architect’s Journal has carried a high-profile campaign called RetroFirst to promote the re-use of buildings in place of demolition even though, to my mind, it does not make enough distinction between the urgent need for energy efficient retrofits and simple refurbishment for re-use. Nevertheless, their quest to remove the burden of VAT from refurbishment projects is one to which we can all rally.

So how do we make the resurgent interest in retrofit count this time? How do we avoid some of the quality issues that have dogged retrofit schemes in the recent past and how do we encourage a wider and sustained uptake of whole building retrofit to the standards needed to meet our climate change commitments? Hopefully, the answer lies in PAS 2035:2018, the new Publicly Available Specification for the Energy Retrofit of Domestic Buildings with the potential to revolutionise the entire retrofit process. The government have proposed to make compliance with the Standard a mandatory requirement for all projects in the long-term and it will be mandatory on projects using ECO funding from summer 2021. The PAS 2035 approach introduces the role of Retrofit Co-ordinator to oversee retrofit projects from analysis to completion, enshrining deeper understanding of the building fabric and any proposed retrofit solutions in order to avoid the high profile problems of the past. Perhaps most importantly of all it introduces the idea of the Medium Term Retrofit Plan, a bespoke mapping for a particular building of the path towards comprehensive, retrofit that is then stored in a data warehouse for future reference.

Building owners and investors need to believe that the trajectory towards 2050 is that of continuous raising of standards and therefore see ‘deep’ retrofit as sensible future-proofing. If, through the development of the Medium Term Retrofit Plan, it is properly conveyed that measures taken now might inhibit their ability meet a building’s required performance standards over the course of the next 30 years, then we can try to avoid the ‘lock-in’ effect of policies based only on incremental improvements. For example, where buildings are retrofitted to meet the minimum Building Regulations elemental U-value of 0.3 W/m2k today, it is not likely to be cost-effective to re-visit in, say, 10-20 years’ time to further enhance thermal insulation standards. In fact, it is quite likely that the baseline measures simply lift a building into a bracket that means it can be heated to comfort standards whereas the heating provision may have been ineffective before. The comfort ‘take-back’ in this scenario may not actually realise the desired carbon emission savings as residents naturally seek to enjoy warmth that had been unattainable before. The higher emissions that might have been all but eliminated through higher performance retrofit are now ‘locked-in’ for the coming critical decades.

In the 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in their Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) highlighted that each building retrofitted in a sub-optimal way, commits us to a high climate-footprint future. Research by Diane Ürge-Vorsatz and colleagues found that by 2050 the size of the lock-in risk is equal to almost 80% of 2005 global building heating and cooling final energy use. This is the gap between a scenario in which today’s best cost-effective practices in both new construction and retrofits become standard after an incrementally-improved transitional period, and the scenario in which levels of building energy performance are changed right now by higher policy ambitions. During the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, the revelations about the lack of understanding within the architectural and construction teams on designing for fire safety have been quite shocking. The consequences were tragic and the industry is understandably bracing itself for fundamental changes to fire safety practice to the way buildings are evaluated as being safe. Sub-standard retrofit practices also have consequences and though they may not be as viscerally devastating as the events in west London, their long term contribution to a warming planet could still be catastrophic.

So, as the industry emerges from lockdown with a renewed appetite for retrofit as part of a new greener economy, we need to work together – policy makers, building landlords, retrofit designers, co-ordinators and installers – to make a success of PAS 2035:2018 and avoid another lock-in, this time to a high emission burden.

Mark Elton is Associate Director at Cowan Architects

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