Retrofitting social housing could spark UK green homes revolution
With the UK facing a looming energy crisis, the need to create energy-efficient homes is more urgent than ever. The second wave of the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, arriving in August, is a prime opportunity for councils and housing providers to upgrade their properties by turning to proven and practical retrofit solutions.
Fuel poverty affects 6.3 million UK households – a number set to grow, with energy bills predicted to rise by 50% in October, after steep rises earlier this year. Social housing tenants are more likely to have low incomes or live in poor-quality homes, which makes them particularly vulnerable. The effects of fuel poverty can be dangerous, or even deadly — campaign group National Energy Action has linked cold homes to thousands of deaths a year.
But social housing also presents an opportunity – to help millions of people escape fuel poverty by bringing their homes up to a decent standard. Upgrading streets or blocks of similar homes, all owned by a single organization, is often faster and more cost-efficient than improving other types of housing.
The UK won’t meet its carbon targets unless it quickly launches a programme of mass housing upgrades. Starting with social housing can deliver high impact, with many homes transformed relatively quickly, and also create with a pipeline of guaranteed work that encourages apprentices, builders and suppliers to enter the retrofit sector.
This approach would also ensure the benefits of climate action reach the most vulnerable and marginalized in society. But what are the technologies and approaches that can create warm, cheap-to-heat social housing?
Whole-house retrofit – improving the fabric of the entire building as well as its heating systems – radically boosts energy efficiency but has high initial costs. However, the long-term energy and maintenance savings it creates can be used to finance the upfront cost of work. That’s the thinking behind the Dutch-developed Energiesprong approach.
This treats the whole house in one go, dealing with electricity, heat, hot water and ventilation to deliver a home with 90% carbon reduction now (zero carbon as the grid decarbonizes). This is achieved with whole new walls and roofs that are manufactured offsite and delivered with doors and windows already fitted.
These sections can then be fitted around the existing house, giving a new exterior and bringing its insulation and airtightness up to the required standards.
Examples of the approach around the UK include the Sutton project, a partnership between London Borough of Sutton, Sutton Housing Partnership, Energiesprong UK and others – 11 homes have been upgraded in a pilot phase, with more to come.
Another ground-breaking solution comes from Q-Bot – who use robots to install underfloor insulation, accessing spaces that would be expensive or impossible to reach with more conventional approaches.
Q-Bot worked with Camden Council to install underfloor insulation in 48 properties. This reduced heat loss by 77% and cold draughts by 32%. Councillor Patricia Callaghan said: What’s not to like about Q-Bot, it’s safe, it’s non-disruptive, it makes people’s houses warmer and it can save on bills.”
Better data can also play a vital role in pinpointing energy loss in social housing, paving the way for improvements and upgrades.
Tech companies Switchee and Guru Systems have designed smart monitoring and analytics tools for social housing landlords and their clients. By tracking energy performance, tenants and building owners can save money see where action is needed.
This data is particularly important in blocks of flats heated by complex, shared systems – where just a single stuck valve or cracked pipe can lead to energy loss costing thousands of pounds, that might otherwise go undetected for years.
It’s vital that councils and social housing providers embrace these forward-thinking solutions, and others like them, as they spend the £3.8bn on offer through the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund. Doing so will ensure the fund delivers maximum emissions cuts, and a warmer home for some of the most vulnerable households in the UK.
Read case studies and recommendations for councils and government in Ashden’s briefing, Retrofit: Creating Warmer Homes.
See webinar recording with Energiesprong UK, Q-Bot, Switchee and Guru Systems at London Climate Action Week: Retrofit Technologies to Tackle the Energy Crisis (London Climate Action Week 2022) – YouTube
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