Sustainable Buildings Retrofitting The Challenges of Retrofitting

The Challenges of Retrofitting

Karl Dickinson
Enthusiastic about real change that impacts real lives. Believer in the power of the individual; it can make all the difference. I enjoy connecting with people who have the wildest ideas and the enthusiasm to bring them to life.

Telling the average person on the street to upgrade their draughty, crumbling home to save energy and, ergo, the planet might be too abstract to inspire action, met with responses like: “What difference can I really make? Why should I when countries and corporations continue to pollute so heavily?” Despite appearances, this proves that the challenge of retrofitting isn’t attitude, it’s that people are disempowered, disconnected, uninformed, and hard-up.

An intense heat from the afternoon sun lazily drags its way through the window. It feels like standing close to a bonfire. Days like these are increasingly common. Global warming is tangible. Buildings are partly responsible, releasing a significant 39% of carbon emissions and 38% of greenhouse gasses.

Fixing and upgrading our leaky, inefficient, energy-hungry, and wasteful properties offers an alternative. But when it comes to putting retrofits into action, we’re dragging our heels. Why? The need is so urgent, the consequences of inaction so dire. Using examples from the UK, where there’s a lot of talk around retrofitting, we look into the barriers preventing a universal shift towards much-needed property refurbishments.

The Price Tag

Claiming retrofitting is elitist seems extreme. But deep retrofits can easily cost upwards of €75,000. Many of us don’t have that kind of cash lying around.

Then there are the hidden costs. Take the UK: Value Added Tax (VAT), which applies to retrofits, is set at 20%. It adds a substantial markup. Conversely, newly erected properties are VAT-free. Even though commercial housing developers are constructing more than 300,000 fresh properties with poor heat resistance per year! Even though people are already dying from heatwaves – 2,500 in 2020 – costly future-proofing refurbishments are instead forced on to environmentally conscious homeowners instead.

Look at this in context: “The alternative is to completely demolish the existing property for as little as £7,500” and rebuild, writes Duncan Baker-Brown. No surprise then that 50,000 buildings are pulled down in the country each year. But the embodied carbon released from dismantling and reconstructing is what we want to avoid. And there’s no way we can replace the country’s 29 million existing homes – they need to be remodelled!

Why aren’t there more financial incentives and support schemes? Siddharth Sareen, Associate Professor in Energy and Environment at the University of Stavanger, researches energy transition. “It’s just a very strange thing,” he pondered in our conversation, how some believe the “argument that you can’t really clean things up without putting some people into quite difficult financial circumstances, you can’t subsidise everything with taxpayer money”. Those in positions of privilege perpetuate this attitude. Their profits roll in. Our natural and living environments continue to suffer.

Ingrained Inequity

Sid explains that new, energy-efficient builds in Bergen, Norway “come up for close to 10 million Kroners, almost a million Euro each”. In other words, the wealthy benefit from readymade comfortable living, while low-income households are trapped in energy slums.

These expensive havens of energy efficiency in Bergen have rooftop solar panels that feed nearby storage units. Solar-charged homes. Solar-charged batteries. Costs saved. Money made. “They can arbitrage the grid and sell it on when the prices are good”, Sid tells us. “What they’re doing, though, is making money for people who can afford a million Euro house. And that’s not everybody, right?” You said it, Sid!

Prohibitive expense drives a wedge in society’s energy poverty divide. An estimated 3,000 people die of cold each year in the UK because they have to make the decision between eating and heating. Passive retrofitted homes would eradicate this conundrum. We’re not there yet.

In Norway, Sid tells us, more than a million people – 20% of the population – rent in what is an expensive market. As with many countries, these are people who do not “necessarily have much of a way to address that the building has a G rating.” This is common the world over. Upgrading to energy-efficient standards is down to the landlord. If they’re personally not living there, they often don’t bother.

The Knowledge Gap

Have you glimpsed at our sustainable buildings glossary? We need it because retrofitting terms and techniques are largely unfamiliar. For example, one poll “found that 70% of people hadn’t heard of heat pumps”. In which case, how can we really be expected to jump on board the retrofit train?

We could get informed by friends and family who have been through the process. But do you know anyone in that situation? They’re still rare.

A report by REMOURBAN puts the onus on landlords to “simplify technical details and make sure the tenants understand. It is your job to make everything clear to them”. But landlords too are ill-informed: 21% are unable to “define what net-zero will look like in their housing stock”.

What if we try to manage the project ourselves? Siddharth Sareen notes that “the paperwork required gets so elaborate that either you need to be in on those sorts of technicalities yourself – so you’re probably quite a highly educated person – or you can hire somebody”. Once again, the question of elitism raises its accusative head.

The Expertise Gap

At least we can rely on the pros, right? Look on the website of any company offering retrofit installations and you’re likely to read about how the team has expanded considerably recently. This tells us two things:

  1. There’s a strong business case – and firms will not charge modestly for their services.
  2. We are not training people fast enough to keep up with demand. Projects will be slow to progress.

“In an ideal world you need contractors who’ve got a proven track record on retrofitting.”

Peter Keig, Eco-Energy NI Ltd – constructor of 2012 UK retrofit property of the year.

To retrofit just the UK’s social housing to net-zero standards by 2050 we’ll need another 500,000 additional trained tradespeople. The Climate Change Committee identifies this skills gap as a prime barrier to reaching Paris Accord levels. It calls on the government to offer a national programme of “support to train designers, builders and installers”. But, in fact, state initiatives are mediocre at best. Strange, considering the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy predicts the “UK low carbon economy could grow by an estimated 11% per year between 2015 and 2030 – 4 times faster than the rest of the economy.”

For more on the psychological barriers of retrofitting, jump to our dedicated article about these kinds of challenges.

Lack of Political Commitment

The UK government aims to reduce GHGs by 80% by 2050 but evidence of commitment is scarce. Sure, they plan to install 600,000 heat pumps each year up to 2028, saving one-third of the energy compared to gas boilers, but one-off moves like this are a drop in the ocean.

Green grants, bonds, loans, and low-interest finance are starting to seep into the financial landscape. Largely due to private investment. Lacklustre central bankrolling means these come in fits and starts. Again, they tend to stall due to complicated application processes – if city citizens know they exist at all! Without government backing and promotion to amplify the engagement, initiatives aren’t trusted, and uptake is slow. And without accredited bodies in place to give approved financial advice, property owners are at a loss where to start.

Luckily, we’ve got you covered! Start right here and we’ll set you on the right track.

Inadequate Policy

Strong leadership is needed to develop, inform, and lead the retrofitting movement. This just isn’t happening because our elected representatives are not held accountable.

Suffice to say, energy efficiency measures behind closed doors are not as politically gainful as grandiose media-grabbing decarbonisation projects such as the latest hydro plant. This to an extent explains why the UK has been slow to replace the underwhelming Green Deal. However, localised policymaking is stepping in to take up the slack; many counties have turned to retrofitting programmes as part of their green recovery plans.

Councils, theoretically, know regional needs and people best, so can tailor measures accordingly. But as is clear on this interactive map there’s a long way to go.

And, argues the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, better coordination is needed between government and industry. In fact, Arup advises, we need to go further, collaborating with charities, community organisations, and professional and housing institutions to improve public awareness and uptake.

The UK’s Home Heating Cost Reduction Obligation requires energy suppliers to “promote measures which improve the ability of low income, fuel poor and vulnerable households to heat their homes”. Retrofits included. Landlords, since 2018, cannot rent out properties to new tenants if they are below an E-rating efficiency level. But these are effectively superficial in policy terms, being neither proactive nor enforced.

Slow to Scale Up

The expense linked with comprehensive retrofits damages demand. Inadequate demand creates a reluctance to invest. This investment vacuum means innovation stalls. Lack of innovation fails to fire people’s interest. And if people aren’t interested, they won’t pay exorbitant costs: the market doesn’t grow; industrialisation doesn’t occur; costs don’t fall. Only the wealthiest with a personal passion for improving properties are left to indulge in refurbishments as passion projects.

Therefore, in sourcing retrofit hardware, we can face excruciating periods of waiting: a repercussion of retrofit components being considered specialist in supply chains. Plus, if people have to coordinate multiple fixtures, which is a lot of work, it puts people off. However, this is an issue all-in-one or prefab options don’t have.

Hybrid solutions like the Dutch Energiesprong modular system make retrofitting simpler, more attractive, quick to install… and something laymen can comprehend. Great in theory, if there were more options on the market.

When Retrofitting Just Doesn’t Work

We have become consumers by instinct. It seems the more we have the more we want. Undoing this takes time and effort. We have to want to change.

On the Rebound

The direct rebound effect describes the habit of using more energy on purpose because we know a property and its contents are running cleaner. Bloomberg gives the example of a household using two instead of just one air con units after cooling capacity is made twice as efficient. We’re spending the same as before, so not losing out financially. But the energy savings we make are counteracted. We’ve not progressed. The motivation for the makeover is purely comfort; the environmental benefit is questionable.

Getting it Wrong

Retrofit measures, in theory, offer almost instant results. But piecemeal amendments added without a comprehensive impact assessment can lead to contradicting ‘upgrades’. Triple glazing installed in an insulated property bolsters airtightness and heat retention. But without appropriate ventilation, moisture is trapped inside, leading to condensation, damp, and mould. Furthermore, inappropriate materials can be operationally detrimental.

While affordable home-use data kits are available for obtaining insights into inefficiencies, applying the analyses to develop a targeted and complementary whole-house retrofit requires specialist expertise. There just aren’t enough to go around!

Time is Money – A Long Return on Investment

While the cost savings are a major draw for retrofits, slow ROI can realistically make it a hard sell: households want to see financial returns within 3 years, and commercial properties typically within 6.[1] As we’ve explored in another article, shallow retrofits offer cheaper energy bills – up to 20% – within 2 years, but the expense of whole-house refurbs take up to 7 years before starting to recoup the investment.

And as the Guyana Bank for Trade and Industry writes, “planning retrofits, securing the necessary permits, and completing construction can be a lengthy process that may interfere with a business’ normal operations”. That translates as lost profits. In fact, according to the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, the best time to mandate retrofits is “when a building is being sold or undergoing a significant renovation”. Or to put it another way, when the disruptions can be disguised by other chaos. Of course, this may never play out and the chance to halt climate change will pass us by.

The Challenge of Retrofitting in a Nutshell

Benefits of retrofitting – however small or gradual the improvement – are undeniable. But there’s plenty standing in our way. Whether it’s the social and income divide, or a lack of funds, policy, trust, and experts to carry out the work, it’s still an uphill struggle to bring retrofitting to the fore. Regardless of any climate change commitments.

As people and leaders wake up to the urgency, the practice will take off. We’ll see it commonly on our streets, schools, offices, police stations, everywhere. Until then, it seems, it’s up to us to encourage the enthusiasm and motivation of those who are already keen to make improvements. After all, that’s the CityChangers way.


[1] Volans, Re:Pattern and APPG on Fair Banking. (2021). Bankers for Net Zero briefing: The Retrofit Revolution. https://volans.com/our-work/

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