Sustainable BuildingsRetrofittingDo It Yourself: How to Start Retrofitting

Do It Yourself: How to Start 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.

The decarbonising effects of retrofitting older buildings will do a lot to slow or even prevent the global heating process. But where do we start? How do we know what measures individual properties require, what really works, or when each step should be taken? Never fear, CityChangers is here! We’re going to give you the lowdown on kicking off your very own refurb.

Depending on the conditions of your property, retrofitting may be a simple job or the most disruptive project you ever undertake. Doing it well will take planning, finance, coordination, and expertise. It needn’t be daunting, though. Whether installing prefabricated units in a matter of days, or future-proofing skyscrapers over many months, decent preparation before you start retrofitting will help it go smoothly when the work is underway.

Here we’ll break down into steps what you should consider prior to commencement. While it’s possible to implement simple budget-friendly changes yourself, we’ll be talking about projects where trained operatives alter the very fabric of a building.

Step 1: Do Your Research

Get informed. That’s the baseline. Without a decent basic footing, property owners grope for the best option(s) but seldom strike the right chord.

Find out what your property requires and how it can be achieved through an initial energy audit assessment. This does require professional knowledge but can determine whether a makeover is actually needed, and what exactly will work in an individual room or building.

BDI-BioEnergy International’s Chief Innovation Officer Edgar Ahn has ‘modernised’ 27 biodiesel sites so he knows the process well: “A retrofitting project should always start with a thorough evaluation of the technical status quo. Hence, weaknesses are identified, goals defined, and possible solutions developed.” Bear that in mind for any property – from housing to factories to public buildings.

For commercial sites in particular, Edgar recommends analysing potential profit impacts too, factoring in “downtimes of the existing production plant”. Then there’s the damage to competitiveness potentially caused by not undertaking a refurb – such as legal proceedings for climate code breaches, shunning corporate social responsibility (i.e. what your customers expect), and operational inefficiency. This produces a template upon which to plan your retrofit.

Ask around. Get an understanding of the processes, timelines, technologies, expertise, and costs involved. This will prevent any nasty surprises from arising.

If you know someone who has been through the process, ask them what worked, what they’d do differently, what technologies they used, what was required of them post-completion, and for details of any contractors they’d recommend (or avoid!).

Step 2: Understand Your City’s Regulations

Planning permissions, building codes, energy efficiency certificates, city regulations and retrofitting policies: it’s important to gain an understanding of how changes to your property fit in with the local urban arena.

As innocuous as it may seem, an improper alteration to a building may be met with ire from the authorities; you may even be made to reverse it at your own expense. A little bit of homework can save a lot of bother later on. Of course, if you’re going to hire architects and builders, they can probably help you out in this regard. Always ask (more on that later).

Step 3: Define Your Goals

Now you know what’s what, it’s crunch time.

What do you want to gain from your renovation? Passive-standard efficiency? Renewables generation? Better ventilation, improved soundproofing, more natural lighting? Maybe better airtightness, seismic durability, or water economy? Are you mainly hoping to slash utility bills, secure your home, be eco-friendly, or run your home on a roomful of gadgets?

There are seemingly hundreds of options. Sorry folks, but the bottom line is, it’s your responsibility to decide what you want. But chances are you started with a pretty good idea anyway.

When you know what you want to achieve, you need to pool the funds that make it possible.

Step 4: Finding Finances

You might be financing the refurbishment from your own pocket, but most of us will have to turn to grants and loans. For the uninitiated, finding the right one(s) can be a headache.

Siddharth Sareen, Associate Professor in Energy and Environment at the University of Stavanger, told us of schemes – such as those in Barcelona and Lisbon – that are set up to provide information points to assist with the process. “They have desks, have pop-ups where people can come. They have them down at the neighbourhood scale instead of one centralised thing.” Ireland’s Green Hub already offers an end-to-end service, meaning they do everything from planning to applying for grants, to the material retrofit.

You can seek support yourself. Private finance is widely available and attractive. Banks increasingly offer green mortgages. One lender from Guyana offers “competitive interest rates, fast approvals, a 25% discount on lending services, and no late payment fees”. Start by having a no-obligation talk with your bank. Be mindful of repayment rates and schedules.

The good news is that this level of competitive pressure is forcing governments to take note. Central finance initiatives will continue to become more appealing. Check with your local authority for up-to-date options. And when you have the money, it’s time to find the right people for the job.

By the way, if you want some pointers on how to finance retrofits, read all about it here.

Step 5: Build a Team

National and regional funding schemes can also be reliable resources for finding approved professionals. However, such all-encompassing money-and-information programmes are still uncommon.

Sourcing independent know-how is easier said than done. The number of trained retrofitting builders is increasing, but they are generally hired by private construction firms. While undoubtedly ethical and accountable, don’t forget they’re trying to make a sale.

Speaking honestly with construction firms establishes who is able to implement your desired renovations. Shop around and get a feel for who you trust. Ask your potential retrofitters for testimonials. We’re more likely to retrofit if we can step into an upgraded space ourselves and see, feel, and even smell the difference it makes. Many developers have show-homes you can investigate, so exploit that opportunity. Sometimes it’s occupied; ask the people who live and work there what the everyday reality is like. They may even be able to offer a before-and-after comparison.

If you’re the property owner, use the level of engagement from professionals as an assessment tool – ask yourself: can I work with this person/company? If the answer is no, they don’t listen and aren’t forthcoming with information, they’re not a good fit.

Step 6: Establish Communication

Sound communication is critical, whether individuals are embarking on a retrofit of their own volition, or a housing association plans to make upgrades for their residents’ comfort.

From the offset, establish a respectful, open dialogue. Decent, honest, effective communication at each step of the way prevents unnecessary delays, expenses, and disappointments. It ensures all upgrades complement each other. It also sheds light on things no one tells you about retrofitting – we’ve got an article about exactly that here.

Make sure to inform any neighbours of what disruption they may experience, from noise to dust to vehicles blocking access. It’ll help to keep them sweet.

Businesses also do well sharing their aims and outcomes with communities and stakeholders, according to Net Zero Challenge: “Setting targets publicly allows for accountability and opening your business actions to continuous observation often leads to better overall performance.”

Step 7: Create a Roadmap – Together

You’ve already spoken extensively with the retrofitters. Now make sure that everyone involved knows, understands, and shares your aims.

If possible, assemble the entire team for a briefing to establish an agreed order of work and timeline, considering:

  • When the work will start and how long each element will take.
  • Wait times – accounting for slow supply lines and availability of technicians.
  • Coordinating the work of different parties in shared spaces – there’s only so much room for so many elbows.
  • If and when and for how long occupants should vacate.

Unhappy with the estimated duration? Negotiate before signing any contracts.

If you’ve opted for a shallow retrofit, it’s at this stage you can determine how the work you do now can be built on in future: with careful planning, quick wins can be added incrementally, reinforcing a whole-house efficiency over time. The important thing is to prioritise what is most needed now. Refer back to your assessment to pinpoint the area(s) of highest energy consumption and potential for reductions.

When all the planning is complete, the project can be paid for, and the right people are in place, all knowing what’s required of them, then your retrofit can commence. But there are a couple of follow-ons it’s worth remembering.

Next Steps:

Maintain Communication

Throughout the planning and retrofitting stages, ask any questions you have at all times. It’s the basis for staying informed. As the building resident or owner, even if you’re not the foreperson or project manager, it makes sense to be involved.

Wherever you are in the ecosystem, speak regularly with all other agents in the project: occupants or their representatives, the construction company, advisors, funders, and energy suppliers. Have regular updates touching on progress and delays. Ask how they’re dealing with these.

Excellent communication is critical. Well-delivered projects have clear lines of responsibility across teams who are committed to the retrofit’s objectives. When all parties understand what is required and why, it leads to better results.

UK Government’s Retrofit for the Future guide (2014), published by the Technology Strategy Board.

A cooperative fellowship of tradespeople will happily work towards a shared goal. A smooth collaboration will expedite the project and quickly fix any glitches.


After the retrofit is complete the work doesn’t end. There is a responsibility for upkeep that is transferred to the occupants. Following a few simple rules will keep efficiency, and the building envelope, interior, and equipment in tip-top condition:

  • Basic maintenance like small repairs.
  • Cleaning filters regularly.
  • Monitoring and using smart technology in the right way.
  • Turn devices off after use.
  • Signing up for the right energy provider/plan.
  • Keeping the thermostat at a regular, low temperature.
  • Unclog guttering.

Some mistakes may be made where habits are hard to break. For example, workers in an office upgraded to passive house standards shouldn’t be switching on a portable electric heater in winter; it just isn’t necessary. Education is the answer. Just talk it out. That honed communication you set in motion at the beginning really comes in handy here.

Start Retrofitting in a Nutshell

There are plenty of steps to consider when initiating a retrofit. As it becomes more common, and all-in-one solutions flood the market, much of the hassle will be consolidated into simply choosing the right company and project manager for your job – they’ll take care of the rest. For now, a lot is about planning ahead. Get that right, and your retrofit should play out smoothly. All you need do is look forward to a more affordable, more comfortable existence.

You Might Also Like