05 - 07 March 2024 | ExCeL, London

05 - 07 March 2024 | ExCeL, London

Opinion Piece


An opinion piece by Lynne Sullivan OBE RIBA, Chair of Good Homes Alliance and Chair of National Retrofit Hub Interim Board

Numerous industry reports since the UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act have highlighted the challenge of buildings heating – which accounts for nearly 25% of all UK emissions – and called for consistency in government policy to tackle the necessary reductions.  However, previous buildings retrofit programmes have had limited success and in terms of actions and impact, current sectoral programmes fall woefully short, amounting to less than half the manifesto pledged spend of this parliament and targeted principally at the social housing, rented sector and those in fuel poverty.  I and colleagues are now drawing together a network of industry colleagues to create a not-for-profit  National Retrofit Hub to hold the evidence base for what works for decarbonisation retrofit and to act as a coordinating body to help facilitate local delivery of retrofit at the level and scale needed to meet the challenge.

Although retrofitting our existing buildings stock for energy efficiency has been referenced umpteen times in recent policy statements it is a notable omission in terms of clear targets for an industry roadmap, other than a proposed cutoff date for EPCs for all domestic buildings of level ‘C’ by 2035 – a rating which has been widely discredited as a suitable  benchmark, in need of urgent reform, most recently by the Chair of the Climate Change Committee.  The UK Heat and Buildings Strategy emphasised that energy efficiency and flexibility improvements should be made prior to or alongside the installation of a low carbon heating system, whilst signalling the government’s intention to improve the SAP/EPC system to be fit for the purpose but there is no clear indication of when, nor the level of clarity this will bring to the issue of ‘appropriate’ performance standards.

In 2020 this was the key driver for recommendations I made on behalf of the Green Construction Board as part of our response to the Clean Growth Grand Challenge to ‘halve the energy use of all buildings’.  The halving of energy demand was recently supported as an appropriate benchmark in the CREDs report from leading academics – but there is an urgent need to have a clear view of what that translates to as an industry target for retrofit programmes.  Subsequently, for the 2021 National Retrofit Strategy which I co-authored with others in the Construction Leadership Council working groups, we identified this as a core challenge – identifying fabric efficiency measures for different property types, and the type and availability of low carbon heating systems and adequate ventilation. We also recognised that addressing this, and the lack of verified outcomes and data, was a barrier to uptake of retrofit, confidence in the lending and finance community, and in some cases the cause of unintended consequences and subsequent failures.

National Retrofit Strategy V2 launches

A key part of this is to streamline data through a digital building renovation plan system to enable knowledge of property types, retrofit measures and their impacts on energy, carbon and health to be gathered and disseminated, all of which is enabled by data protocols and increasing innovations in smart metering and consumer interfaces.

Whilst there are only a handful of major contractors in the UK retrofit space, approximately one third of all construction output even now is in the ‘Repair, Maintenance and Improvement’ sector – and the potential economic benefits to UK PLC of a major retrofit programme brings with it co-benefits include upskilling our workforce for decarbonisation retrofit, and improvements to the health of occupants of substandard homes, currently estimated to cost the NHS up to £2bn per annum.  The National Retrofit Strategy proposes a programme of actions to achieve 21% CO2 savings by 2030 and retrofit decarbonisation measures to 27m homes by 2040, crucially with early investment in skills and leadership including definition of standards for different building types appropriate for decarbonised heat and to meet lender requirements.  To operationalise the Strategy – and not for the first time in the last 15 years – we called for the formation of a National Retrofit Hub to map the existing landscape of activities and interventions, to establish a data and knowledge hub and by collaborating across themes and sectors to produce a toolkit for a streamlined process to support delivery at a local level of major retrofit programmes for both public and private sectors.  Whilst first recommended in the IGT Report of 2009, the core function of a Hub was set out in reports such as the Green Construction Board’s Hub Scoping Study of 2013, the Chief Construction Advisor’s report on Solid Wall insulation in 2015, the Each Home Counts Review of 2016, and most recently in the Skidmore Net Zero Review.

As the founding Board of the Hub our primary aim to achieve retrofit scaleup is to nurture collaboration of all the groups and skills involved in retrofit, on a scale not previously seen, and this is a call for you to engage with us as we formulate the working groups and develop the governance of the National Retrofit Hub. 

At the Good Homes Alliance Annual Conference last autumn we had a session on the energy supply systems’ challenges for decarbonisation when some of our member organisations explained the importance of systems integration at scale and measures integration at buildings level, particularly in relation to the opportunity for optimising time of use tariffs and for grid capacity planning assuming achieved energy demand reduction.  I was fascinated to hear from other speakers that managing the challenges of capacity and peak load (particularly re the role of microgrids) relies heavily on greater precision on prediction and reduction of demand – exactly what we aim to achieve through better decarbonisation retrofit.  The National Grid have evidenced a business case for retrofit to demonstrate, through more accurate and reliable prediction of performance in use, the value of delivered energy demand reduction over investment in grid infrastructure.  The case for systems integration, and scaling up of decarbonisation retrofit, has never been more urgent and I hope many of you will engage with the National Retrofit Hub to bring your knowledge and insights into our outputs which will benefit all owners and residents, the industry ‘small’ and ‘large’, and most of all the economic, social and environmental opportunities.  https://nationalretrofithub.org.uk/

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