Do we have the tools to retrofit properly?

EVEN before COP26 – the UN Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow in November – refocussed the nation on the need to do something about climate change, massive efforts had been put into improving the energy efficiency of our existing buildings.

Doing so is pretty unanimously recognised as being key to tackling carbon emissions – to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which are contributing towards heating the planet up.

Retrofitting our existing buildings has become its own industry, accompanied by something of an ‘alphabet soup’ of regulations, advisory notes and schemes, such as ECO (Energy Company Obligation), EESH2 (Energy Efficiency Standard for Social Housing) and HEEPS:ABS (Home Energy Efficiency Programmes for Scotland Area Based Schemes), Home Energy Scotland (HES) and the Energy Savings Trust (EST). 

Something to celebrate, you’d think. 

But not all of us are quite so enthusiastic. Some of us have been asking, for a while now, some serious questions about the quality of retrofitting work taking place across the country, and this recent surge in activity makes them all the more pressing.

It’s not that people are not well-intentioned. 

In good faith, they will assess what a building requires, decide what materials to use and then fit them.

It’s the quality-control at each of these stages that raises legitimate concerns.

At best, bad retrofit is a waste of money, resources and time. At worst, it can make buildings unviable and harm the physical and mental health of the occupants. 

The assessment stage is crucial. Although there are broad property typologies out there, and systems from manufacturers to suit them, almost every building is an one-off.

That requires a sound understanding of ‘building physics’ in order to conduct this stage properly. Typically, that requires at least four years’ training, to degree level, then a further two years, in order to gain the necessary qualifications.

However, many of the schemes mentioned above rely on the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) to analyse and diagnose retrofit measures.

You will be familiar with an EPC if you’ve bought a property with a ‘single survey’ pack. 

An EPC, however, is carried out using limited amounts of data, and, to be qualified to produce one, requires little more than a couple of days’ training.

If stage one is potentially flawed, imagine, then, its possible impact on stage two: deciding what materials to use.

Here, we must ask to what extent fully qualified designers and contractors are involved in choosing between the various options. The marketplace is full of possible answers, all with different impacts on a building, sometimes unexpected.

The risk of grabbing at the first seeming solution should be alleviated by high-quality, stage one assessment and a designer who truly understands the holistic performance of buildings. 

And then we come to stage three: installation. How can we guarantee correct and detailed fitting? Training, yes – absolutely – but also expert oversight and evaluation at the end.

All of this adds up to a need to up our game.

The UK government’s PAS2035 specification for domestic retrofit is meant to answer all these points. But the question has to be: is it enough and who is checking the checkers?

Practically, we need to create some form of adjudicating process – whereby recognised experts in their field are employed to cast an eye over what is being proposed.

In other words, a dedicated retrofitting advice service, with comprehensive monitoring of end results; for instance, that wall insulation might have made a home feel more toasty than before, but what has it done for moisture levels?

Of course, I write this fully knowing that if you place half a dozen ‘retrofit experts’ around a table, you will end with a dozen different recommendations.

But, as such a body begins to mature and learn from its experiences (especially if it pro-actively reached out to the industry and transparently reported its findings), you’d like to think that, over time, the contradictions and kinks could be ironed out.

As well as inspecting proposals, that same body could also inspect and accredit training courses.

Much of the ‘low hanging fruit’ is being attended to in the retrofit of post-war social housing estates of simple construction by energy companies and local authorities. 

However, it is those ‘hard to treat’ homes – pre-1919 or of ‘non-traditional’ construction – which really need the right attention. 

Mass retrofit is a huge balancing act between urgency to act and the resources needed to make it effective. Too much caution and not enough will be done. 

However, currently not enough of the conversation is on how to bring the appropriate level of design oversight into retrofit, and how to leverage architects, building surveyors and engineers to make sure we get a truly effective and sustainable improvement to our existing buildings.

Aythan Lewes is a Chartered Building surveyor and a director of GLM, a boutique building surveying and architecture consultancy based in Edinburgh. He is also a member of the Royal Incorporation of Chartered Surveyors’ sustainability working group in Scotland.

Pictured: To insulate or not to insulate? Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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