Sustainable BuildingsRetrofittingThe Social Benefits of Retrofitting

The Social Benefits of 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.

While marketing it as a decent money saver, we rarely focus on the social benefits of retrofitting. Does that mean that they’re so minute as to be obsolete or do we just need a shift in perspective?

One thing is for sure, we should be retrofitting at a greater speed. In Europe, we currently renovate just 1.5% of building stock each year. If we are serious about carbon neutrality targets, we need to give 90,000 buildings an energy makeover every week. One way to pique interest is to help people relate to the advantages personally.

Social benefits come in two categories: direct benefits of the retrofit, and the status quo we maintain, which a failure to retrofit would endanger. A report by Bankers for NextZero[1] noted that “people who experience their home or place of work being retrofitted are more likely to make sustainable lifestyle choices”. So, retrofits positively influence behaviour, but in what other ways do we benefit from them socially? Plenty, as it transpires.

If You Can’t Stand the Heat… Retrofit

Retrofitting reduces harmful GHGs like carbon dioxide. Good news for the environment. But what does it mean on a societal scale?

Let’s start big: it saves lives.

Hyperthermia can be deadly. It is the failure of the body to regulate its own temperature and can be brought on by extreme hot and cold. Radical temperatures already kill 5 million humans annually, accounting for 9.4% of all deaths around the world. Over the past three decades, 37% of heat-related deaths were attributable to human activity.

Some argue that global warming will reduce the risk of cold snaps, but the trade-off is extreme heat, which will kill more people than are saved from a winter’s chill.

Creating an airtight, insulated building envelope, retrofitting to passive standards, and installing a decent cooling and ventilation system allows us to maintain a regular, comfortable occupancy all year round. It works for homes, offices, factories, malls, cinemas, historic builds… anywhere indoors, we’re protected from the extremes.

As we spend most of our time (90%) inside buildings, this counts for a lot. Our homes are where we eat, sleep, spend time with loved ones, raise our families, socialise, convalesce, and increasingly work. Being comfortable, happy, and able to function counts for a lot.

Housing As Healthcare

The C40 Knowledge Hub speaks of “housing as healthcare”. Improvements to our homes offer better living conditions and therefore reduce threats of respiratory disease. Optimum ventilation staves off damp and mould and a city’s airborne pollution, leading to, for example, “a 2.5% decrease in asthma attacks”. And as the World Health Organization found “800 million people spend at least 10 percent of their household budgets on health expenses” with 100 million of them facing expenses “high enough to push them into extreme poverty”, anything we can do to improve help will have a profound impact.

Additionally, fewer people making trips to medical services saves on:

  • Inconvenience,
  • health insurance premiums,
  • the expense to national healthcare programmes, which can be reinvested for significant social gain,
  • appointments that can be used by others.

While COVID-19 is still very much on people’s minds, they may be pleased to hear a reduction in indoors CO2 cuts the risk of infection. For those with coronavirus anxiety, this is an emotional as well as a physical plus point. And retrofitted cinemas, libraries, and restaurants are safer public places to be.

Placating Nature’s Nasties

It’s not just about the weather. The safety provided by seismic retrofits protects us from buildings collapsing and crushing during earthquakes. Think of the families and friends spared heartache, the tourist industries that avoid a devastating blow to visitor numbers, and the expense spared from international relief efforts. The latter inevitable requires aid and expertise being flown in – so by not doing that we have a smaller carbon footprint, too.

Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, landslides, and tidal waves; we are at the mercy of many natural disasters. The effects include depression, detrimental impacts to relationships, a reduced ability to work, and a failure in the capacity of health services. The poorest in developing nations, claims the World Bank, are the most vulnerable as they often live in ramshackle, self-built homes on undesirable and disaster-prone land.

The same source notes that these abodes “in many cases could withstand an earthquake or hurricane with a few small improvements” and retrofitting them “is fast” and “cost-effective”. The challenge remains, however, that governments are reluctant to be seen to invest in ‘slums’ and it can be difficult to run a legitimate retrofit programme for informal constructions.

The Deafening Sound of Silence

There are unintended consequences to home renovations, both positive and negative. Dr Sofie Pelsmakers found that, if we’re prone to loneliness, the soundproofing effect of wall and window insulation can make us feel cut off from others. However, she also notes that the heat-retaining triple glazing that may be part of this problem offers added security.

There is a way around this. It’s not for everyone, but coliving is a great way to promote sustainable living. Condensing living space and pooling resources makes retrofitting possibilities more affordable and reduces that sense of isolation.

A Boost to Employment

Alex Steffen claims we have a moral obligation to prevent what he coined ‘predatory delay’: the hindrance of the world’s wealthiest to change their climate-damaging practices. They say an abrupt rather than gradual shift would damage profits, jobs, and provision of goods and services. Yet, the delay condemns us all to an uncertain future. By retrofitting, we can conserve all these elements.

Energy efficiency is an economic stimulus. Small- and medium-sized enterprises have much to gain from investment in retrofitting as, according to the European Commission, “they contribute more than 70% of the value-added in EU’s building sector”. That’s almost one-tenth of the region’s GDP.

The European Green Deal is the EU’s plan for decarbonising by 2050, setting targets for transport, energy, and building stock. There’s a huge emphasis on transitioning the workforce towards green construction skills, and they’ve made a good start: full-time construction industry employees dedicated to retrofitting residential property in the region stand at 4.6 million with a further 1.9 million on non-residential projects. Climate change won’t go away – we need to sustain green construction to manage it, so these are secure jobs.

It’s an added bonus to the economy that working in a green building improves productivity by boosting cognitive function.

Equity and the Climate Gap

Paying energy bills via direct debit is often a cheaper option. Rather than commit to long-term energy contracts, people living hand-to-mouth, dependent on social security or informal work, may opt to top up prepayment meters when they can. This makes them susceptible to higher tariffs. It’s an age-old story: those who have less pay more.

In our article about multi-family housing, we look at how low-income households and communities of colour are disproportionately more affected by climate change. Socio-economic factors contribute to this climate gap. Prioritising these groups, as Europe’s Green New Deal does, is as much a way of plugging the gap as it is about future-proofing. Efficient homes require less heating, cooling, and artificial lighting. In some cases, charges cease altogether alongside providing a great deal more comfort. This frees up income they can channel into essentials such as food and hygiene. The result is a greater sense of dignity and confidence.

We can even go a step further, by helping the poorer segments of society switch to renewables. New York’s NYSERDA pilot in Brooklyn links households with district-generated solar power, tackling energy poverty in the process. Pooling solar panels for larger means of power generation makes builds less dependent on the grid and residents less vulnerable to fluctuating energy prices. It is just important we don’t fall into the common mistake of thinking a change in energy provider, or cheaper bills are the same as reducing emissions.


Air pumps
Image credit: Pexels / Ready Made

According to Historic England, heritage buildings “add to the unique character of places and play an important part in society, enhancing our wellbeing and quality of life”.

What do you notice about buildings that have air pumps affixed? As good as they are for occupants, they’re pretty unsightly (just look at this carbuncle!).

Be careful that heating, ventilation, and cooling systems (HVACs) don’t alter the appearance of our treasured building stock, which some retrofits do. We have a relationship with the visual of these buildings. We attach emotion to them, especially heritage places of cultural or historical significance. The chance of the appearance being tampered with can prevent us from taking the necessary steps. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Brittany Coughlin is a Principal, Energy & Sustainability Specialist in Vancouver. She points out that retrofits can be done in a way that we “keep the character of our city and our neighbourhoods.”

“Heritage and character buildings are valued by many Vancouver residents, and are an important component of defining neighbourhood identity and character.”

City of Vancouver website

Vancouver municipality recognises the social importance of the character of the built environment as it future proofs, and how this can increase neighbourhood resilience. As such, the city administration has established:

  • bylaws to support homeowners retain the original charm as they renovate.
  • Incentives for developers, allowing them to make heritage buildings denser (e.g. converting a large house into flats) as long as they protect the original features.

Buildings Can Be Fun

We crave green spaces but parks in cities are not the be-all-and-end-all. Our buildings can also be places for relaxation, contemplation, and play. Greening offers respite from the heat, filth, and noise of bustling urbanity.

Adding greenery to roofs offsets the heat island effect, provides shade and pleasant places to sit and walk[2], and invites nature to our built environments. It even works in arid climes: xeriscaping is landscaping with little need for ongoing irrigation, achieved either through improved water retention or planting suitable vegetation.

Urban greenery opens a window into the world of knowledge for curious young minds. The Secret Garden atop Birmingham Library, where “plants and herbs” grow, provides “a source of wonder for kids and an educational opportunity for their parents to explain where food comes from and how to eat healthily”.

On the Flip Side – Society Influencing Sustainability

It’s worth mentioning that social pressures also benefit retrofitting. This occurs on both a commercial and domestic stage. Market forces have a big part to play in the popularity of energy makeovers.

We’ve spoken before about how renters are beginning to expect sustainable standards from landlords. Investors are also increasingly looking to green their portfolios, both in terms of honing in on eco-friendly purchases or pushing for the greening of their current stock.

Personal consciousness, societal expectation, corporate social responsibility policy, and the attraction of higher return on investment are all leverages for a private buy-in of energy-efficient retrofits. Alternatively, image and reputation can be damaged if we don’t prepare for the future:

“People need to be asking themselves what happens if they haven’t made changes and business is impacted.”

Paula Kirk, Arup

Social circumstances play a part in our confidence to retrofit, according to a report by the European Commission. Younger individuals are more likely to make upgrades themselves, feeling confident in their personal abilities, whereas older populations prefer to turn to a professional – and one they know they can trust! This magnifies the bottom line: we must make sure whoever conducts our retrofit knows what they’re doing. But if they do it right, the benefits are bountiful.

Social Benefits of Retrofitting in a Nutshell

Upskilling, job creation, a bustling green economy, comfortable living, reduction in energy prices and poverty, a decline in demands on healthcare, a return to nature, and a resilient community prepared for a climate of the future are all game-changing co-benefits of energy-efficient retrofits. So let’s stop just talking about carbon and see the full picture – it makes retrofitting hard to resist.

[1] Volans, Re:Pattern and APPG on Fair Banking. (2021). Bankers for Net Zero briefing: The Retrofit Revolution.

[2] Cindrić, H. (2018). Cities Alive: Rethinking Cities in Arid Environments. Arup.

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