Optimised Retrofit

“My one ask of COP26 would be less talking, more action. The time to act is now.”

As part of our COP26 series, Colin King, who’s responsible for Sero’s role in Wales’ Optimised Retrofit project, gives an update on the programme and outlines how it’s showcasing the viability of an innovative approach to decarbonising the UK’s housing stock.

As we gear up for yet another global Climate Change Convention, it’s an apt time to reflect on the progress being made in the area of housing decarbonisation. As someone who’s spent a long career in the building industry, and has followed these conventions closely in the past, I’m all too familiar with the rhetoric on the climate emergency, and the ambition to reach net zero by 2050.

The aims of the climate convention remain much the same: ‘secure global net zero by mid-century’, ‘keep 1.5 degrees within reach’, ‘adapt to protect communities and natural habitats’, ‘mobilise financial institutions to make available climate finance’, and ‘work together to deliver’. While these are important goals, these conventions have unfortunately gained a reputation for being high-level talking shops. What’s needed now is a shift in focus to the tangible initiatives taking place on the ground to actually deliver on these targets.

We’ve all become very familiar – perhaps even a little desensitised to – the term ‘climate emergency’, but when it comes to the area of housing, the message is stark. At present there are some 25 million homes in the UK, and around 80% of the homes that will be standing in 2050 already exist. Add to this the fact that it’s estimated that the built environment contributes approximately 40% to overall carbon emissions, with 15% of that total attributed to housing, and it’s clear that we face a mammoth task to bring our building stock up to scratch.

The good news is that there are many innovative projects underway right now that are adding to the research base and demonstrating a viable blueprint for further change. Our Optimised Retrofit (OR) project, funded by the Welsh Governments Optimised Retrofit programme, is doing exactly this. With housing stock here in Wales, and elsewhere in the UK, being hugely inefficient and vast, the project is showcasing an approach to decarbonisation and energy efficiency that has huge potential for scalability.

The Climate Convention’s theme of encouraging the unlocking of climate finance is clearly an important one, and it is positive to see the Welsh Government using the levers at its disposal to help us to make inroads into halting the damage caused by inefficient, unfit-for-purpose built environments.

Our OR project is underpinned by an acknowledgement that a more holistic approach is needed to improve housing stock. What’s been lacking for many years is a truly bespoke approach to surveying homes, in order to understand each one’s unique makeup, and therefore which combination of measures might be needed for it to reach net zero.

Until now, attempts at green home improvements haven’t routinely taken into account hugely variable building standards, but the context of a building is really important. The mass roll-out of catch-all schemes – for example blanket insulation or PV – simply haven’t got to the root of the problem. After all, what’s the point of putting insulation into an old damp house?

That’s where our Capture Survey comes in. Each home on our OR project is being individually surveyed to an exceptionally granular level of detail – far more than a regular survey. From this, a pathway is created that maps out the specific measures needed to get to net zero and, crucially, the systematic hierarchy required to make it a success.

Already, we’ve trained 220 surveyors on our digital survey tool, equalling around 17 hours’ training each. These newly-trained surveyors, working on behalf of Wales’ Registered Social Landlords, are now out using the software to create a brilliantly detailed picture of a home’s four Cs – its Context, Capacity, Coherence and Caution – which the digital tool then links to a risk metric. This processes the data and analyses which measures are appropriate for each home, before mapping out its individual pathway towards net zero. This includes a clear list of measures, the necessary order, their anticipated cost, and the overall payback expected.

Following the survey stage, a combination of building fabric improvements, low and zero-carbon technologies (such as solar panels, battery storage and heat pumps), and intelligent ongoing operational controls are enabling incremental home upgrades, over multiple steps. Importantly, these measures employ the energy hierarchy – where you first reduce the demand, then look at using the fuel more efficiently, before looking at energy generation itself.

We’re currently on track to hit our phase one target of 1300 homes, around 260 of which have been assessed already, many of which are already having improvement measurements installed – in just four months. Using our digital tools, developed in-house, we’re demonstrating an approach to retrofit which we believe can be scaled up and rolled out to the 100,000+ homes necessary per year if we’re to hit net-zero targets.

Of course, there are major challenges to overcome, perhaps the most notable of which has been the workforce skills gap. As a nation, we must ensure we’re training the workforce with the right skills to understand the interrelationship between the complex mix of measures needed for a home to be zero carbon. Again, Wales is making great strides in this area, and a working group is already looking specifically at the skills issue. But we must also reach a stage where owner occupiers are recognising the benefits of these sorts of measures, and where property valuations themselves value green credentials.

But, these challenges aside, it’s exactly this type of positive action that should be the focus of discussion at COP26. In the case of housing, it really is a no brainer. Decarbonisation simultaneously tackles high energy bills and fuel poverty. But, to realise its potential, the financial mechanisms that enable these projects to be progressed at scale must be unlocked, so that we can upscale retrofit in line with demand. We don’t need more conversations on the challenges that are making this area difficult. We need to think beyond the local to the global. The time to act is now.