Is Retrofit the Way Forward for Sustainability?

With local councils and housebuilders under pressure to reach targets of 340,000 homes every year until 2031, there is a danger that sustainability will take a back seat. But just how can developers and local councils step up and begin to make a difference?

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Wayne Oakes

is a Director at sustainable engineering consultancy Dice. Wayne co-founded Dice in 2018 and has more than 16 years’ experience working within the UK engineering and construction industry. Dice offers clients a wealth of specialisms, including structural, civil and infrastructure design services and is an engineering consultancy built on integrity.

This comes at a time when the UK public is being squeezed by the cost of living and rising energy bills, with calls to insulate UK housing stock becoming more vocal. Wayne Oakes, Director at the sustainable engineering consultancy, Dice, believes retrofitting could be a solution to increase sustainability and give UK homeowners more energy-efficient properties.

The cost-of-living crisis is hitting UK families hard. Rising energy and fuel prices and hikes in grocery shopping are squeezing Britons across the board. So, is now really the moment to be investing time and money into making property more sustainable?

Some would argue that investing in property when people have to choose between heating and eating is a step too far. However, investing in the current UK housing stock could be one of the best things we do.

We’re all very aware of the enormous pressure developers and local councils are under to deliver the high numbers of housing the UK needs to solve its housing crisis. It currently stands at 300,000 a year. Up to now, the focus has very much been on building brand-new homes on brownfield or greenfield sites, and in most cases, this is the quickest way to get houses up and people in. However, what happens to those sites where demolition means hundreds of former homes are knocked down and new ones built? And why aren’t developers and local councils working with the property stock they have and looking at ways to improve rather than clearing the site and starting again?

There’s a simple answer – time and cost. A new home can be built in as little as six months, but if a developer was to look at retrofitting existing properties on a site, it could take double or triple that amount of time. Retrofitting isn’t just about upgrading homes instead of knocking them down to make way for a new development, but also about looking at housing stock across the country to see how they can be improved and made more energy efficient. Put very simply, retrofit is the process of making changes in existing buildings to reduce energy consumption and emissions. In turn, this leads to a more comfortable home with lower bills. Retrofit can be very simple changes like using LED lightbulbs or draught proofing a property, but for it to work well, deep retrofitting is needed.

The Committee for Climate Change highlights Britain’s 28 million existing homes are responsible for around 15% of the UK’s carbon emissions. And according to the Local Government Association, around 1000 properties could be retrofitted with low-carbon efficiency measures by 2030. This would reduce energy bills by £700m.

The best place to start is insulating current housing stock, which is exactly what climate change and poverty campaigners are calling for. In a recent study by EDF and Sprift, just half of 21 million British homes met insulation standards set in the 1970s. It found that 56% of homes in England and Wales met insulation standards set in 1976 or earlier.

Retrofitting the UK’s current housing stock will require considerable investment, but undoubtedly, it’ll benefit homeowners up and down the country.

But is it the best way to increase sustainability? Wouldn’t it make more sense to knock down and build super-efficient homes from scratch? The answer? Yes, it’s the right and best thing to do and starting again should not be the only option developers and local councils consider. It is a lot more sustainable and better for the environment to retrofit rather than demolish and start again, and it can also be a lot cheaper, depending on the project and the current state of the existing building. However, a retrofit project won’t be suitable for all buildings, especially where there are delicate environmental and biodiversity factors to consider. Developers will always consider whether the project is suitable as a retrofit based on the state of the existing building and the needs of the finished one.

It certainly isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Residential properties are all relatively similar in their intended use and what’s required of them, so these are pretty standard. But when you consider non-residential buildings, which can span from offices to hospitals to restaurants and everything in between, it’s a different story. They may require a more bespoke approach when considering retrofitting based on use.

Retrofit can achieve as much as a 70% reduction in energy use, which has a massive impact on consumption and cost. And the positives don’t stop there. It’s also important to note that when you compare a retrofit to a demolish-and-rebuild project, you’re also saving on the embodied carbon involved in the construction process.

There are multiple reasons to retrofit – sustainability being the major one – but there are barriers that need to be addressed before this is considered by planners and developers. One of the main challenges is client buy in when it comes to sustainability. Developers must be afforded the time and budget to focus on finding a more environmentally-friendly solution to benefit everyone.

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