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Event 11 November 2021

Retrofitting the UK’s housing stock to reach net zero

On Wednesday 3 November, Jack Wilkinson-Dix, policy officer at Energy Saving Trust, joined a panel of experts to discuss the challenge of retrofitting the UK’s homes, at the Built Environment Network’s Green Retrofitting and Property Decarbonisation Conference.

The panel discussion ‘Green Retrofitting – The Challenge Ahead’ was chaired by Richard McWilliams, sustainability director at Turner and Townsend. Jack was joined by Sarah Laing Gibbens, head of decarbonisation and standards at the Welsh Government; Anna Thompson, non-executive director at the National Home Improvement Council; Matt Harrison, project director for the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund at the UK Government’s Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; and Sam Stacey, challenge director for transforming construction at UK Research and Innovation.

The challenge ahead

The UK’s 30 million homes account for more than 21% of the country’s total carbon emissions, with three-quarters of this coming from heating systems. 85% of UK homes are on the gas network, using fossil fuels and producing large quantities of carbon emissions. Retrofitting our homes to use low carbon heating systems is a major challenge which we must address to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Anna Thompson opened the panel discussion by stating that we must consider retrofitting all building stock in the UK, and not just focus on homes. Hospitals, schools and public buildings must all be prioritised to reach net zero targets.

However, homes remain a focus in the retrofitting challenge as they represent such a large proportion of building stock across the UK and worldwide. It’s a particular challenge in the UK, as British homes lose heat up to three times faster than those across Europe. More than 80% of the homes we’ll be living in by 2050 have already been built and the majority will require major upgrades to reach required energy efficiency standards.

The solution

To ensure the UK remains on track to reach net zero by 2050, all homes must achieve an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating of ‘C’ or above. Most homes, however, currently fall within band ‘D’. Retrofitting measures include installing loft insulation and double glazing or assessing and refurbishing the entire house with several insulation measures to reduce heat loss. Retrofitting may also include installing a heat pump or similar low carbon technology to reduce our reliance on gas boilers.

Retrofitting solutions are already being considered within some social housing upgrade projects in the UK under the Social Housing Fund (SHF). Matt Harrison shared a plan to retrofit social housing stock in stages to ensure that landlords are given the knowledge to support tenants, and to ensure there is time to evaluate and learn from the new technologies and processes used.

Anna suggested that the social housing market will be at the forefront of the retrofitting effort, as new legislation will ensure the process is appropriately managed. She added that we must be realistic in our expectations for private homeowners to retrofit their properties and acknowledge that expendable income will be different for each individual.

To support individual homeowners, the UK Government needs to ensure that everyone can access attractive finance, grants and loans that help them retrofit their homes and adopt low carbon heat. At Energy Saving Trust, we recently welcomed the ambitions of the Heat and Buildings Strategy, which look to the phasing out of fossil fuels for heating and outline the provision of support for people transitioning to low carbon heat. It is important to recognise that each homeowner’s retrofitting needs will be unique based on the age, quality and existing insulation of their homes.

The opportunity

Replacing gas boilers with heat pumps and expanding heat networks will provide the market with confidence, clarity, and certainty to scale up the supply chain and install at the pace needed to reach net zero by 2050.

Investing in low carbon technologies will provide job opportunities and enable businesses to establish themselves as market leaders in this important sector. The government has committed to scaling up supply chains and skills, as well as the promotion of green jobs. It’s a good start, but we still need more clarity about the detail of how this ambition is going to be delivered.

From an Energy Saving Trust perspective, Jack Wilkinson-Dix highlighted that there needs to be a UK-wide campaign to increase awareness and understanding of what retrofitting is and what it means for individuals. Everyone must be able to access impartial advice, which is tailored towards the needs of each homeowner, to help them make the right decision. Jack recognised the ongoing investment in skills and the supply chain but added that we need to put more time and money into understanding how many skilled people we need in each sector to make large-scale retrofitting a reality.

Sam Stacey noted that there is already an opportunity to retrofit on a large-scale, we just need to implement the technology better. Sam also referenced public scepticism towards new technologies and suggested that people may be waiting for the development of improved versions of existing systems, so they can install a system that is both efficient and cost-effective.

According to Sarah Laing Gibbens, the problem isn’t a lack of technology or development, but the need for a culture shift to encourage people to adopt low carbon technology. Using systems like heat pumps needs to be normalised and people need to feel confident to deliver retrofitting projects.

Final thoughts

To conclude, the panellists were asked what they would like to see agreed at COP26 to support net zero targets.

Anna asked for increased media awareness and Jack hoped that COP26 will put retrofitting on the agenda as a global issue, as much as coal, cars, cash and trees. Matt suggested there must be a whole-market collaborative approach, while Sarah hoped that leaders will acknowledge that the sector’s aims are achievable. Finally, agreeing with Sarah, Sam stated: “We can do this, we just have to commit to it.”

Last updated: 11 November 2021