We need a retrofit revolution - Matt Clubb

Last year the Scottish Climate Assembly showed that when members of the public, selected at random, are given time to absorb independent data from scientists, their overall conclusions present a picture of a world that needs to change, rapidly.

Matt Clubb is a Certified Passivhaus Designer and mature student from The Scott Sutherland School of Architecture & Built Environment at Robert Gordon University.
Matt Clubb is a Certified Passivhaus Designer and mature student from The Scott Sutherland School of Architecture & Built Environment at Robert Gordon University.

Recognition of the depth of the climate crisis is growing and some universities are hosting their own climate assemblies with Robert Gordon University’s Scott Sutherland School starting to host regular climate forums to get students and teachers more deeply engaged in the topic.

There is also growing recognition in the private sector that industries need to accelerate their decarbonisation plans and in some cases that presents huge opportunities. This is also true in the construction industry, which has largely failed to decarbonise itself in the last 30 years. So how do we decarbonise our buildings?

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The Scottish Building Standards fall woefully short of a zero-carbon standard. While the government acknowledges better standards are necessary, the line still appears to be that of gradual improvement over many years, rather than an immediate change which is really what is required. Some low-energy standards, such as Passivhaus, are gaining popularity in Scotland. These buildings consume 90 per cent less energy, and crucially, they are cheaper to build when the full lifecycle of the building is taken into account.

Some low-energy standards, such as Passivhaus, are gaining popularity in Scotland. These buildings consume 90 per cent less energy.

However, when you consider that over 60 per cent of the carbon emissions of a building come from its construction, not its everyday use, and that these emissions are currently completely unregulated, you really start to see the problem.

We can’t simply build our way out of the problem, 80 per cent of the buildings that will exist in 2045 have already been built, so we must start to upgrade our existing building stock, a process known as retrofit. Across the UK there are 24 million homes that will need retrofitting by 2050. The Construction Leadership Council estimates that the UK will require an additional 400,000 people working in the retrofit sector, with everyone from plumbers, to architects, to insulation specialists.

The industry has also developed a new standard called Whole House Retrofit. This new method is crucial to bringing independent trusted advice to consumers. Gone are the days where a householder's default source of energy advice was to call a builder, or a double-glazing company. The new standard has a whole house approach at its heart, with lessons learnt from industry, and delivers a retrofit plan that the householder can adopt in stages, as and when they can afford to. Retrofit plans are lodged in a national database, for continuity, and in time this system should also increase the valuation of retrofitted dwellings.

So we have a plan, how to pay for it? Doing retrofit properly does come at significant cost, with payback periods in excess of 20 years. What is really needed is government support, which should not come purely in the form of grants, as this will artificially drive up cost. Industry analysis shows that access to cheap government finance is enough to get people onboard. And not only that, but it’s a very cheap way of generating economic growth and creating jobs.

While so many things are hard to decarbonise (aviation, heavy industry, agriculture), home heating can be done now, with technologies that already exist. We cannot wait for a hydrogen boiler uprising and replacing our boilers with heat pumps risks pushing even more people into fuel poverty. We can insulate our homes now to reduce energy consumption and then look at renewable sources of heating. In short, we need to insulate Britain, we need a National Retrofit Strategy.

The relevance to north-east Scotland could not be any larger. 25 per cent of homes are in fuel poverty, 45 per cent of homes in Aberdeen have no wall insulation, many suffer damp problems and have very poor indoor air quality. Combine this with the declining fossil-fuels industry and the overwhelming need to reduce energy consumption and you have a perfect storm of reasons to start a retrofit revolution!

The world’s attention is focused on Glasgow this November for the UN COP26 Conference, a meeting of global scientists and leaders, to agree new policies and actions. Leaders in the retrofit world are heading there too and planning to put retrofit firmly on the table. They are calling for Scotland’s COP26 legacy to be a National Retrofit Strategy. It’s time for national and regional leadership to think seriously about what the immediate future could look like and to realise what they can do today, rather than waiting until 2045 and ladening the next generation with the consequences.

Matt Clubb is a Certified Passivhaus Designer and mature student from The Scott Sutherland School of Architecture & Built Environment at Robert Gordon University

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