Monday, December 19, 2016

Why residential eco-retrofits are failing in the UK

Retrofit projects to make homes more energy efficient are failing, especially when their design is dictated only by financial values, according to the Sustainable Traditional Buildings Alliance (STBA).

It is backing a “Responsible Retrofit” program incorporating health and heritage values and not just financial ones, in order to encourage a new attitude to giving old homes makeovers.

About 25 million British homes were built before 1990 and are in need of retrofits to bring them at least up to modern standards for energy efficiency. And it is generally considered more economic to retrofit the whole house at one go, as I argue in my book the Earthscan Expert Guide to Sustainable Home Refurbishment.

Yet there are many unintended consequences of existing retrofit programs, especially piecemeal ones. They may lead to unhealthy indoor environments, condensation and mould, fabric decay and other problems that affect occupants.

Often programs fail to meet their targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and energy use, and in some cases even result in an increase in both of these.

Part of the problem is that there is often not a whole house/building approach when retrofit measures are applied. But even when there is a whole building approach similar consequences can ensue. This is because there are different ideas of what is involved in a whole building retrofit. So what are these different ideas?

Table of different types of whole house eco-retrofits

Responsible retrofits

An earlier report from the STBA called Responsible Retrofit of Traditional Buildings found that most of the problems that occur with retrofits are at the interfaces between elements, technologies for building processes, or through the interactions between the measures taken, people, and the buildings they occupy, many of which are not fully understood.

This is not just a technical issue. Buildings, and people, behave differently and interact differently depending upon the social, economic and environmental context in which they find themselves.

All of these aspects need to be taken account of. The aim of retrofits should be to look for multiple wins: such as how to improve occupant health, the long-term condition of the building fabric, and make it easy to live in.

To achieve this they need to examine the way thermal energy is conducted through the building and where moisture travels and how it is managed, throughout the year-round weather conditions and patterns of occupancy. This is especially true where different materials meet each other.

When retrofits do fail, it’s not “just because we do not sufficiently understand traditional buildings, or have the wrong approach or the wrong standards or skills”, the STBA says.

“It is because we have an economic and political system which is driving misallocation of finance, land and housing, depletion of natural resources and pollution.”

This is really the reason why The Green Deal programme failed so abysmally, as I have shown before – and why the German equivalent has succeeded.

What values should be incorporated then? The STBA says we need to account for heritage, well-being, community, biodiversity and health – values which, for most people, give meaning to their world more than money does.

But the organisation is pessimistic this can happen without an ethical approach being taken to the allocation of finances for retrofitting. It believes that this demands that the economy and society should “have sustainability and culture at their heart”.

That is why it is issuing a call to rethink the whole approach. It argues:

“The process of retrofit, if carried out correctly, has great potential not only to repair the environment but also to improve people’s lives. Unless we start with the Whole House Advanced/Responsible Retrofit position our efforts will lead to unintended consequences and may be counterproductive even in the most narrowly measured terms.”

To this end the STBA has launched a Responsible Retrofit website, which is full of resources, one of the most useful of which is the Guidance Wheel.

This interactive tool represents over 50 measures that can be used in the refurbishing of the buildings and allows you to explore their interrelationships including the user’s interest, motivation and knowledge about the building:

SCreen grab of interactive tool for over 50 measures that can be used in the refurbishing of buildings

Since its launch, it has been taken up by several other organisations, including the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and Construction Excellence Wales.

But until it is mainstreamed into the general drive to upgrade the performance of all older buildings, rather than just heritage ones, then piecemeal retrofitting, driven by economics, will prevail in the marketplace, and with it the risk of failure to deliver the desired outcomes.

David Thorpe is the author of:

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