Five years on from the previous bout of retrofitting – installing a combination of external and internal solid wall insulation, along with new windows and new insulated suspended floor in our once-leaky and damp Edwardian semi – we’re back in the ‘eco’ renovation business. This time it’s a loft conversion to create more space for smaller (but rapidly growing) members of the family. Last time we recorded our exploits in a short Open University podcast. Our main aim was to reduce energy use, which means a lot of focus on the exciting topic of insulation – and particularly the detailing that is needed to ensure it works properly.
In 2009-10 we were lucky enough to locate, and to work with, a great team of eco-building enthusiasts, most of whom had learned their trade at the Centre for Alternative Technologies – it was an interesting example of networking in the sustainablilty field. At the time, I noted that: “The really big challenge is to increase capacity in the sector: that means developing successful business models that work for a new generation of entrepreneurial builders and owners of older and less efficient homes.” While labour and material costs remained relatively high for the early adopters, we were optimistic that further growth in the fledgling eco-renovation industry would bring costs down over time. This has happened in some related areas, notably solar PV, where costs have been driven down by a combination of technological innovation and continuing growth in the (international) market for solar panels. However, we have yet to see a step-change in the retrofit market, particularly in relation to the use of more environmentally benign materials such as wood fibre insulation, which works particularly well with traditional buildings – just try to find a regular builder with expertise in lime mortars, or try to source eco-materials in small quantities and you’ll see what I mean. Why the continuing lack of capacity? Clearly it’s down to a combination of factors, but I would include the following in my personal ‘top three’:
1. The building industry – including the training systems and industry supply chains;
2. The eco-innovators and entrepreneurs, who face a number of obstacles in growing beyond their existing niches, including (in some cases) conflicting goals and an increasingly uncertain policy environment – the recent collapse of the Green Deal being only the latest in a series of reversals in the ‘green’ policy arena.
3. Policy makers and industry leaders – who are in a position to respond to the evidence that’s already out there, and to frame a new vision for the future.
So this time around, we’ve employed an excellent local builder and have focused on getting the best possible results from conventional insulation materials, augmented by the new generation of triple glazed windows and a small array of solar PV – and have a revived our low carbon renovation blog for anyone who’s interested. This fairly modest extension is certainly going to be more energy-efficient than the dusty old loft it replaces, albeit without the full package of eco-materials. However, check out the Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) in the property pages of your local paper and you’ll see that most of our housing stock is incredibly inefficient and will remain so for decades to come. Looking at that bigger picture, it’s difficult to see how our country is going to meet its ambitious carbon reduction targets without a complete transformation of the retrofit sector – and that in turn requires substantive change in the world of public policy – watch this space!