Sustainable BuildingsRetrofittingThe Challenges of Psychology in Retrofitting

The Challenges of Psychology in Retrofitting

Karl Dickinson
Karl Dickinson
Change matters. It takes courage. As a writer - and citizen - I am inspired by stories of those who challenge the 'we've always done it this way' attitude. We can do better - it's time to listen to those who go against the grain.

At CityChangers, we value the learning we can gain from bottlenecks, problems, and conundrums. Knowing the challenges and discovering the blockages provides a ground on which we can search for solutions. We’ve noticed a bunch of barriers around psychology in retrofitting that seem to block progress. Anyone considering setting up a retrofit programme would do well to keep these points in mind.

Lack of Understanding

Have you glimpsed at our sustainable buildings glossary? We need it because retrofitting terms and techniques are largely unfamiliar to the layperson. In which case, how can we really be expected to jump on board the refurbishment fun bus?

For example, one poll “found that 70% of people hadn’t heard of heat pumps. As for landlords: 21% are unable to “define what net-zero will look like in their housing stock”.

Architect Fintan Smyth was a central figure in developing the Republic of Ireland’s national retrofit strategy and financing program. He believes the lukewarm demand for energy renovations is caused not by extreme cost but by a lack of comprehension.

There is hope though; aggregated for subsequent savings made on utilities, repayments for retrofitting his own home costs just €75 a month extra. That’s quite reasonable when most people “probably spend that much on a mobile phone bill”.

A Matter of Trust

Aneaka Kellay of Carbon Co-op explained how the organisation encourages their members “to invite their friends and neighbours around” to see and feel first-hand the outcomes of an energy efficiency retrofit.

These advocates are pillars of our community and therefore those we trust. That’s good leverage. But do you know anyone in that situation? They’re rare, and therefore so is this kind of opportunity.

Conversely, a lack of trust can be horrendously detrimental. Tenants in social housing may be vulnerable, isolated, fearful of change. 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”.

However, this assumes a good relationship already exists and that property owners themselves have a clear grasp of the ins and outs. This cannot be assumed. Plus, do tenants have a say on the matter? They may react badly to being told their homes will change if they lack the power to influence the decision or design.

An “I’ve Done Enough” Mentality

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) published UK housing: Fit for the future? in 2019. Like us, it advocates for doing whatever you can, however minor. It all helps.

But Fintan Smyth disagrees. He sees lethargy seep in after minor changes are implemented, as if people feel they’ve already done their bit. Indeed, demand for the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) scheme declined quickly after the easiest-to-refurb properties were done; costs shot up as demand fell adding yet another barrier.


COVID-19 hit the economy hard. Deprivation narrows priorities. While most of us might care about the future, in dire situations retrofitting becomes a middle-class playground; ironic, given it is poorer households in danger of energy poverty that are most in need of energy savings.

So, how do we make it more affordable? Campaign groups maintain that tax breaks for near-net zero retrofits would solve the stagnation. Sadly, muted public discourse seems to keep it off the main agenda.

Founder and Director of Retrofit Action For Tomorrow, Harry Paticas, started a petition in 2020. He wants retrofits to be VAT-free to “act as a major stimulus to the market with the potential of achieving significant reductions in carbon emission”. It didn’t even get 2,500 signatures.

A throw-away culture has conditioned our mentality to expect everything new. Pristine is prestige. This even applies to property and, it seems, trumps an ecological outlook.

Fear of Change

Ah, the ol’ favourite. Fear of change can be used to explain almost anything, but it really does prevent the initiation of building refurbs. Reasons include:

  • Doubt that properties can look at least as good as before work commenced.
  • Potential encroachment on (limited) interior living space: “heat pumps take up room and insulation may require ceilings to drop slightly.”
  • Overestimating the level of disruption, which people wish to avoid.
  • The perceived hassle or refusal of gaining permissions to alter properties – especially historic builds – from councils and landlords.

Bad Experiences

Sometimes it’s knowledge, not anxiety or ignorance, that stands in our way.

While energy upgrades cause few detrimental impacts, it does happen. Wind power is cheaper than solar, and rooftop turbines are now available, but they hum irritably, causing headaches and anxiety. We were promised comfort, and that’s not it. No wonder some people say no thanks!


The European Commission’s Renovation Wave proves its commitment to getting “35 million buildings renovated and up to 160,000 green jobs created”. So why are supply chains so excruciatingly slow? This is a repercussion of retrofit components still being considered specialist equipment.

All-in-one hybrid solutions like the Dutch Energiesprong modular system are still in a minority. The EU has launched BRESAER, which “will include combined active and passive pre-fabricated solutions” into lightweight walls. Neither provide non-building envelope parts like smart technology or heat pumps, so the problem of low-demand-slow-supply persists. Many projects naturally drop away.

Poor Leadership

Looking through the resolution for the USA’s Green New Deal, we could only find one commitment to retrofitting, in which all existing buildings will be upgraded “to achieve maximum energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability, including through electrification.” Although this was proposed in 2019, two years later it still wasn’t binding. Again, we’re expected to be patient whilst being told that time is running out.

Your Home in a Changing Climate was published by Arup in 2008. More than a decade ago, they were calling for the government to take the lead on retrofitting: “There remains a lack of single, focused responsibility for supporting and promoting adaptation in existing homes.” Little has changed.

This creates a blockage for three reasons:

  • A them-and-us mentality. Why should individuals make moves to decarbonise when their leaders aren’t showing signs of urgency?
  • A lack of trust. Government-backed programmes carry a lot of weight. Without them, how do people know where they can turn for reputable work?
  • It’s an unknown. Lack of leadership translates as ‘no awareness campaign’. How can people be expected to participate in something they know nothing about or have little understanding of.

Arup argues that national campaigns that encourage retrofitting should accompany other “mitigation messages”, such as summer drought awareness campaigns. This not only influences short-term response but also long-term planning if property owners are given actions they can follow up on.

For the same reason, they urge governments to add understanding of climate change mitigation on the school curriculum, to engender future generations of retrofit-aware property developers, owners, and occupiers.

Problematic Priorities

More and more of us are driven to do what is right for the environment, hence the increasingly popular ban on plastic bags. A paper from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands attributed people’s “pro-environmental behaviour” to three factors:

  • It is driven by the approval of those whose opinion we value.
  • It results in an outcome the individual finds desirable.
  • There are actions we can personally do.

Societal expectations can bleed into the refurbishment sphere. Whether we respect or fear the opinion of our social group, we might feel pressured into giving our homes a makeover for the wrong reasons. And that can lead to doing it in the wrong way.

Defining your priorities can help here. Aneaka told us: “I think environmentalists in particularly can be a bit puritanical” – in as much as they might endure the cold for the sake of saving energy. “But actually, being warm and comfortable – I don’t think there’s anyone that doesn’t like that.”

Emissions as a Misplaced Motivation

We need to change how we frame post-retrofit consumer behaviour. Upgrading the homes of those facing the most extreme fuel poverty won’t – or shouldn’t! – change their habits.

These households should be encouraged to continue to heat their homes using the same amount of energy – that which they can afford.

In more affluent situations, this behaviour is a psychological phenomenon known as the direct rebound effect. It is always viewed as negative and ill-informed; individuals are criticised for creating a “performance gap” by not cutting their emissions output, often because they feel less guilty about using renewable energy thank fossil fuels. But consistent energy consumption – whatever the source – for low-income homes simply means the refurb gives them a higher standard of comfort.

If we demonise the most vulnerable for using a reasonable amount of power, we undermine the human benefits that retrofitting can offer.

The Challenging Psychology of Retrofitting in a Nutshell

The benefits of retrofitting – however small or gradual – are undeniable. But plenty stands in our way. Whether it’s the social and financial divide, anxiety brought on by scare stories or past experiences, or a lack of trust and leadership, it’s still an uphill struggle to bring retrofitting to the fore. There’s a valuable lesson in that: for individuals, climate change commitments are not the driving force; what impacts our lives is. It’s up to all of us to encourage and motivate others so that psychological factors don’t get in the way. Positive and proactive – that’s the CityChanger way.

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