A home run

26th May 2022

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Joe Nisbet

Chris Carus tells Joe Nisbet why a community-based retrofit approach could be key to decarbonising our homes

The increasing cost of heating and powering our homes is currently front of mind for many. UK households are feeling the effects of a global energy crisis, caused by a worldwide squeeze on energy supplies that quadrupled gas wholesale prices last year. In response, Ofgem increased the energy price cap by £693 on 1 April, meaning energy firms have been able to increase bills by 54%. Europe’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels – to the sum of about US$1bn per day – means the war in Ukraine is likely to make the issue of increasing gas wholesale prices a pervasive one.

These crises may be muting climate scientists’ warnings that we are heading for catastrophe unless we make deep and immediate emissions reductions across all sectors. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report states that it’s now or never for avoiding profound consequences, and that global emissions must peak by 2025.

The need to transition away from fossil fuels is as pressing as it’s ever been, but it is not without its challenges. Renewable alternatives such as solar panels and heat pumps have high upfront costs, limiting them to those who can afford them. They are also not suited to all building types.

Community-based retrofit

Chris Carus of Loco Home Retrofit, a Glasgow-based homeowner and trades co-operative, believes we should take a “fabric-first” approach to retrofitting homes, looking at housing stock holistically to reduce energy demand.

“If we cut the heat demand then we won’t require as much renewables generation, and we also won’t require as much energy storage to cover the periods where we’re not generating from renewables,” he says. This means we must prioritise insulation and configure homes to maximise efficiency and heat retention.

However, energy upgrades of this type are difficult: complex, risky, costly and disruptive. Furthermore, homeowners struggle to find tradespeople they feel they can rely on. Loco Home Retrofit acts as a place-based intermediary, helping to build both the market and the local supply chain for quality retrofit. As a co-operative, it brings householders, local tradespeople and buildings professionals together to take collective action.

The company aims to be a one-stop shop for those wanting to upgrade their homes. Its approach manages the retrofit needs and desires of households to give them the confidence to start, and stimulates local supply chains and suppliers by providing opportunities for new skills in this emerging market.

Chris emphasises that this model is based heavily on trust: “Without good quality assurance schemes, how does a homeowner find people they feel comfortable enough to trust to make big changes to their house?”. Again, a community-based approach is key – identifying and leveraging interpersonal networks, sharing lessons, and having face-to-face interactions with the people who are carrying out the work.

A nationwide approach

However, large-scale community retrofit will require more. “Nationwide expertise and efficiency standards need to be married up with community anchor organisations that have the trust of homeowners,” says Chris.

In the first instance, this means setting a standard for how much efficiency is enough. Sufficient improvements are needed to realise the full benefits of retrofit while also optimising the cost

of insulation against the cost of new renewable energy sources. A standard efficiency target would provide a foundation on which we can formulate retrofit aspirations. Experts such as the Association for Environment Conscious Building believe this could mean cutting energy demand by as much as 70% for older properties, and the Committee on Climate Change recommends bringing every home to at least Energy Performance Certificate level C by the mid-2030s. The next step would be to compile typical building archetypes and base approaches to improving their efficiency on an agreed standard.

A community-based approach is just part of the solution. The residential sector accounts for 20.8% of all UK carbon dioxide emissions, and we need to retrofit roughly 1,870 houses a day to reach net zero by 2050. Capacity and skill-building at a local level will be crucial if we are to achieve this, and could also help to build the necessary public support for ambitious government intervention.

Joe Nisbet, GradIEMA is an environmental consultant at Arup and a member of IEMA Futures.

Image credit | iStock

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