Sustainable Buildings Retrofitting What Not to Do: How to Avoid Common Retrofitting Mistakes

What Not to Do: How to Avoid Common Retrofitting Mistakes

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.

Are you keen to retrofit? That’s what we like to hear. But hold your horses! Do you know what you’re doing? We mean, really know. Being ill-prepared may result in not-so-efficient changes, wasting more time, money, and energy than is necessary. So, whether you’re planning a project or running a campaign, this how-to guide will open your eyes to the most common retrofitting mistakes and how to avoid them.

Let’s be honest, future-proofing property can be something of a minefield. Awareness of the potential pitfalls offers valuable contingency. It means you can plan well and hit the best possible energy efficiency standards with minimum fuss. Aneaka Kellay from Carbon Co-op has seen it all! She has furnished us with a plethora of advice gained from her experience in the field.

Mistakes at the Property Level

Uncoordinated Changes

Money equals power. It’s as true for retrofitting as anywhere. In our guidance for involving residents in retrofits, we discuss the level of choice enjoyed by those with their own secure capital. Aneaka told us: “A lot of people say ‘I want solar panels, and I want to have low carbon heating’” because that’s all they know. This betrays an understanding of the property’s real needs or the range of options available.

Attempting to retrofit without appropriate know-how can result in poor performance or contradictory measures, especially if done piecemeal. The classic mistake is improving heat retention and airtightness without understanding moisture management – a stagnation of airflow leads to moisture build-up, culminating in damp and mould and possibly respiratory illness. Consider insulation and ventilation a partnership.

We need to ensure that those who can buy a great level of choice don’t make decisions they might regret. This is how:

  • “Find out how much energy you’re using. Reduce that first”, Aneaka advised.
  • “Take a fabric-first approach.” The novelty of techie hardware solutions may be attractive but maximising the efficiency of the building itself should be the priority. This is where real gains can be made.
  • “You need to insulate first.” In fact, in 2019 this became part of the UK’s Publicly Available Specification (PAS) 2035 framework: it’s now a standard.
  • Perform a house-wide energy assessment to determine what measures really work.
    • Commercial contractors and community organisations like Carbon Co-op provide this service. Seek one out in your local area.
    • Affordable DIY home kits are also available, but it is imperative that you seek support in interpreting the data. This provides insights into cool spots, draughts, and other inefficiencies. Target the problem areas.

Listen to Your Inner Child

Imagine you’re going on a journey with a 5-year-old. Think of all the questions they would ask. Each answer triggers a new question. It’s the wisdom of youth; curiosity is how we learn about the world.

Failure to ask questions will haunt you. Don’t embark on a retrofit without knowing the timeline and cost implications. It would be a mistake thinking you can live as normal with the work going on around you, or even to assume you can be there at all.

Avoid the sleepless nights; ask the questions that are bothering you. When new ones arise, ask those, too. No matter if it’s before the work starts, during, or towards the end.

Turn to the experts: the architect you’ve hired to plan the job, the builder(s), the agency advocating on your behalf. It’s part of their role to help you comprehend the changes to your property.

The best person to ask is the most honest one – someone who has lived through a retrofit of their own. Aneaka gave us a shortlist of helpful ‘Q’s to ask them, a grand starting point for getting the basic ‘A’s you need:

  • What were your retrofit priorities?
  • What was your budget? Was it fixed?
  • Did it provide a financial return? (E.g., saving money on energy bills.)
  • How did you procure the work?
  • Did you use DIY or builders/professionals?
  • Did you do the retrofit in one big job or parcels of work? (In other words, was it a deep or shallow retrofit?)
  • How did you manage the balance between time/cost/quality?
  • How did you cope with the disruption?

Institutional Mistakes

Miscommunication

Buildings account for around 40% of carbon emissions worldwide. A massive 80% of energy is wasted. Inefficient building envelopes are to blame. The unaware occupant could use more energy than needed without realising it.

How do we change that? Through more retrofits and better awareness. But how? Public meetings are an efficient means to disseminate information. Even so, they are proven as “not a very good way of engaging the community because not everyone will want to come to a meeting”, Aneaka recalls from experience. “Often the loudest voices speak and it’s a bit stifling.”

Stage 3 of Carbon Co-op’s Retrofit for All toolkit offers a number of solutions:

  • Hold a variety of events at different times and places to account for lifestyles, accessibility, anxieties, and provide chances to communicate with experts.
  • Allow for verbal, visual, and written communications to suit all needs and preferences.
  • Written communications need to be available in diverse formats, from brief summaries to detailed descriptions.
  • Give residents the option to participate in the design process. Once engaged, many are proven to be committed advocates and more robust to disruption.
  • Provide a retrofitted space – a pilot – for people to visit, walk around, ask questions.
  • Any action taken should be done early, well in advance of any retrofit commencing.

Overlooking the Vulnerable

Rented housing is a big domain with a lot of potential. Sadly, many private landlords still aren’t retrofitting their inefficient properties, because they think they won’t directly reap the benefits.

If they do make improvements, they can attract higher rent-payers who seek eco-friendly lifestyles. We could consider the pricing of low-income earners out of refurbished rentals as a form of climate-driven gentrification. This vulnerable stratum of the population has little choice, power, or voice. They are bounced between poorly equipped accommodation, often facing ill physical and mental health due to poor housing conditions.

Solutions are needed at a policy level. The Institute for Human Rights and Business recommends a strong legal framework to protect against inadequate housing and to cap rent increases.

Governments can reinforce renters’ rights. In the UK, for example, it is no longer permissible for landlords to take on new tenants unless they provide efficiency standards of an E-rating or higher.

Some landlords happily retrofit for the sake of their tenants and building stock. Others are persuaded with grant funding, Aneaka says. A regulatory body that inspects the work, makes tougher enforcement, and penalises landlords that do not comply would help bridge the energy gap. Bristol’s Centre for Sustainable Energy found that a combination of enforcement and support to understand what’s required of them also works.

The message here is to engage landlords and point out what they have to gain. A happy, respectful tenant and a jump in the value of the property (anything up to £24,766 in the UK) should be engaging enough.

Lazy Intermediary Measures

On a district scale, low carbon heating is seen as the easy answer. From a logistical viewpoint, it makes sense. Rather than improving each individual building – what a headache! – centrally replace the energy source feeding the grid.

As we inevitably move towards renewables and do away with coal and oil, our existing power generation system will need to be upgraded. But to rely on this alone, as Aneaka says, “is a bit of a false economy, because people are going to have to spend more money on electric heating”.

“I think a lot of fuel poverty organisations focus on income maximisation, supporting people to switch energy suppliers to get a cheaper rate on the bills”, Aneaka reflected. But “alongside income maximisation, it’s really important that we improve our housing, so it’s warm, healthy, low carbon, and affordable to heat.” She adds: “I worry that people might get a cheaper rate on the bills, but they’re not going to turn their thermostat up.” Rather, that money saved will “go into food and other essential supplies; they’ll probably still be living in really difficult conditions”.

So, what steps can we take?

  • Stop viewing savings and ROI as the main motivation.
  • Concerned groups should collaborate. That involves frank discussions and an exchange of expertise. Those who know who and where the most vulnerable are are not necessarily those who know how best to future-proof a property.
  • Coordinate a program of retrofitting alongside infrastructural change.
  • Review policy to improve building standards to be “strengthened around fabric-based energy efficiency improvements – that’s insulation, airtightness work, and ventilation”.
  • Educate stakeholders. Carbon Co-op speaks directly to residents to fully inform them around decarbonising their homes, advocating for the quality of living, not saving money.
  • Money talks. Point out what landlords have to gain: a retrofitted house can fetch up to £24,766 more.

Leave No Human Behind

As gas boilers and coal fireplaces give way to heat pumps and insulation, tradespeople will see their work shrivel with clear economic implications.

The solution is simple. There’s a ready-made workforce, they just need to be retrained as experts in the emerging green construction industry. According to Aneaka, the IPPR recommends creating policies to “pay those that have to be trained as a result of climate change”. Electricians and plumbers could become “air source heat pump engineers”, for example. In the Your Home in a Changing Climate report, Arup goes a step further: “government should work with training providers to ensure professionals have a suitable ‘adaptation skill set’”.

What Not to Do in a Nutshell

Encouraging a little restraint can save a lot of tears (and carbon). Problematic outcomes are avoided when we take the time to plan improvements, spend wisely, and understand what works best for individual properties. Evaluating our options and data paves the path to perfection.

We also need to ring in institutional changes. Effective communication will enable us to establish and meet the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalised in society. Policy change and designing an inclusive framework ensures they are not cast aside by gentrification and exploited by slum landlords. National or regional authorities can take the helm with retraining programmes and twinning retrofits with decarbonising energy distribution. In the end, we can all benefit from better cost-efficiency and climate protection.

For a more in-depth dive into retrofitting mistakes and how Carbon Co-op’s members overcame them, we recommend these webinars and videos available for free on their website.

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