The climate crisis demands we scale up retrofit
Greater Manchester must retrofit 60,000 residential and commercial buildings a year to be zero carbon by 2038.

Cooperatives and small businesses have led the way to make homes fit for the future, but not on the scale needed due to financial restrictions, skills shortages and inappropriate supply chains.

Local authorities will need to work with contractors and communities to make Greater Manchester green and prosperous.

A report brought to Manchester city council at the end of last year made for bleak reading. It stated that up to 60,000 residential and commercial buildings in Greater Manchester would need retrofitting every year – 164 buildings a day –  for the region to reach its target of becoming zero carbon by 2038. This is because buildings account for 50-75% of the city region’s carbon footprint, with homes responsible for 27%. Clearly, we will not meet our targets for emissions reduction without near complete decarbonisation of our homes. 

There have been some positive cases of new homes being built to stringent environmental standards, but the real challenge for the region – and country – is to have a similar ambition for existing housing. 80% of the UK’s homes in 2050 – the UK’s deadline for becoming zero carbon – are homes that have already been built. This means that even if every single new home we built was zero carbon, we would still be a long way off meeting our targets.

Retrofit involves making homes more energy efficient through better insulation; ensuring windows, doors, roofs, floors and ceilings draught-proof; fitting solar panels; and upgrading energy and heating systems. These measures reduce the amount of heat homes release, resulting in less CO2 in the atmosphere, as well as in lower energy bills. It also makes our homes more affordable to run, comfortable to live in and good for our health. 

Retrofit also presents an opportunity to drive local economic development. A report published recently by the Local Government Association estimated that nearly 700,000 jobs could be created in England’s low-carbon and renewable energy economy by 2030, rising to more than 1.18 million by 2050. Around 40% of those jobs would be involved in installing energy efficiency products, such as insulation, lighting and control systems; providing low-carbon services, including financial, legal and IT; and producing alternative fuels, such as bioenergy and hydrogen. This is surely welcome news when UK GDP fell by 20.4% in April due to Covid-19 and unemployment is set to skyrocket.

Several cooperatives such as Carbon Coop and red cooperative, as well as companies like Ecospheric and Snugspaces, have been leading the way to make homes in Greater Manchester fit for the future, retrofitting several hundred homes between them. But these organisations will need support to retrofit all of Greater Manchester’s 1.1 million homes.

As part of its 2018 Clean Growth Strategy, the UK government stated an “aspiration” for 2035 to bring “as many houses as possible” up to at least B and C of the Energy Performance Certificate – the little multi-coloured bar chart you might have seen, with A being the most efficient and G being the least. Data published in March by the BBC shows more than 12 million homes in the UK fall below the C grade. Last year Parliament’s Committee on Climate Change reported that government-backed insulation of houses had dropped by 95% since 2012. 

So we have to be proactive about scaling up as a region; we can’t afford to wait for Westminster to potentially find a solution. To work out how, we can reflect on a retrofit-gone-bad story here in the North West, and what we can learn from it.

* * *

In 2013, 387 council homes on Fishwick Road in Preston were retrofitted with external wall insulation (EWI). Many of the homes were in fuel poverty, meaning they were unable to afford to keep their home adequately heated. Making them more energy efficient would reduce their occupants’ heating bills as well as lower their carbon emissions. The works were delivered via a government energy supplier obligation scheme called the Community Energy Saving Programme (CESP). Under the programme, Ofgem – the government regulator for electricity – gave energy suppliers three years to retrofit homes in disadvantaged communities.

But then disaster struck when the Fishwick Rd homes became affected with mould and damp. The insulation had been poorly fitted and gathered water within the wall cavity, which now leaked into the homes. Photographs issued by Preston City Council show the damage done to the homes, with black mould, deterioration to the interior surfaces and water coming out of electricity sockets. 

Research by journalist Kate de Selincourt shows the heavy costs to the occupiers. One occupant with severe asthma was hospitalised as a result of mould growing in her house and advised by doctors not to go back to her home until the problems had been fixed. 

Some occupants spent around £20,000 to remediate the problems – perhaps four or five times what was originally spent on the retrofit works. Rather than lifting households out of fuel poverty and reducing Preston’s carbon footprint, occupiers already struggling to get by were out of pocket, in some cases hospitalised, and their homes continued to chug carbon into the air.  

The reason for this catastrophe had been that Intergen, which supplied energy to the properties in question, had left it to the final few months to meet its CESP obligations. Racing to make up three years’ shortfall in just a few months, Intergen passed this pressure onto the contractors doing the retrofit works. 

The issue stemmed partly from the way the contractors were paid under the CESP scheme. “Because the government paid installers by the square metre of EWI and not by emissions they helped save, they used the cheapest materials they could find and put up as much of it as they could, producing atrocious mistakes,” Charlie Baker, lead designer at red cooperative, tells me. 

This plus a shortage of skilled labour and lack of trusted local contractors resulted in poor quality retrofit works. “Had there been people with the right design skills, who knew how to conduct proper risk assessments, who knew how to make waterproof lasting joints, you would prevent catastrophes like Preston ever happening,” Baker says.

Fishwick Road exposed deeper structural issues within the UK reconstruction industry. It also points to the necessity of a new approach to build trust in retrofit, meet our carbon zero targets and help restart the regional economy. 

* * *

There are many organisations in Greater Manchester wrestling with the challenge of scaling up the city region’s retrofit programme. Carbon Coop, an energy services and advocacy cooperative based in Manchester, has developed People Powered Retrofit, a “community-led model for owner occupier retrofit” in partnership with urban design and architecture practice URBED. 

Hosting workshops with planners from Greater Manchester, Carbon Coop found that not only is the retrofit market in Greater Manchester immature, there is only a small minority who want to retrofit their homes. These homeowners – referred to as the “pioneers” – face key challenges, such as a lack of appropriate contractors. They also have concerns around the quality of retrofit, meaning the first step is convincing the pioneers that retrofit is reliable and trusted so they agree to retrofit their homes, and then using them as positive examples to win over the broader public.

“Particularly in light of cases like Preston, you need the pioneers to prove to the wider Greater Manchester populace that retrofit can work and that it is reliable enough to justify pulling people’s homes apart and put them back together – which is what retrofit essentially is,” Friends of the Earth Manchester media officer Pete Abel points out. 

The way we achieve this, Carbon Coop proposes, is twofold. Trusted intermediaries and institutions, like energy cooperatives such as Carbon Coop and Retrofit Works, support homeowners in procuring contractors and carrying out quality assurance. At the same time, these intermediaries also establish networks to support Greater Manchester-based contractors and consultants working in the energy efficiency sector. By bringing together homeowners and contractors through a localised “community led model,” you stimulate demand in the retrofit market and prove that retrofit works. 

Abel explains: “Once you have retrofitted the pioneers’ homes, you can then roll it out to the many people who for whatever reason – perhaps they work two jobs or have a family to look after – would not want to manage their own retrofit works projects. But to do that we need many more trusted contractors than we have currently”. 

In other words, the pioneers have to essentially project manage the retrofitting of their own homes – with the help of organisations like Carbon Coop. This process would help establish the processes, networks, and supply chains needed to ensure consistent quality across the industry and roll retrofit out across the region. This is what makes these early retrofit homeowners true pioneers. 

A big part of this pilot project would help get to terms with how to address the retrofit skills shortage. Last year the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) estimated that 230,000 new skilled workers would be needed to meet demand for new infrastructure and housing projects in the UK currently on the books. Many more will be needed to also account for the 29 million existing homes in the UK which need retrofitting. “Among the worst affected crafts,” Charlie Baker of red cooperative tells me, “are bricklayers, carpenters and joiners. We will need 400,000 of the latter alone to retrofit every house in the UK”.

A key ingredient will therefore be a programme of reskilling. “We have a huge building and construction industry workforce, used to working in our homes and doing everything from fixing taps and boilers to building extensions and loft conversions,” Carbon Coop co-founder Jonathan Atkinson says. “There is simply no reason these contractors cannot focus on retrofit – but often the specific low carbon materials, technologies and techniques can be new to builders.” 

Having created a UK reconstruction workforce, combined authorities like GMCA could then apprentice young people at trusted contractors to continue to upskill the supply chain. “In spite of a decade of austerity, combined authorities like GMCA still have a huge amount of power which can influence the makeup of the local economy,” a senior researcher at the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) Jonty Leibowitz tells me. “As mayor, Andy Burnham has skills devolution for instance,” meaning GMCA can set its own skills strategy and so could coordinate a reskilling programme. Carbon Coop is also teaming up with CLES to explore new ways of using the levers of local public sector institutions, such as councils, universities and hospitals, to respond to the need for upskilling supply chain companies. This is part of a broader ‘Community Wealth Building’ approach to local economic development and environmental protection. 

As with skills, Leibowitz explains, GMCA also has the power to set its own procurement strategy, which could be reformulated to encompass and accelerate retrofit works across the region. There are a number of ideas on how this would work; whether building on the progressive procurement practices being developed by Manchester city council, or working with preexisting not-for-profit companies specialising in the procurement of goods and services for social housing such as Procure Plus.

As well as addressing the labour shortage and procurement strategy, there’s of course the question of cost – how do we finance retrofit? Retrofit costs in the region of £35,000 to £50,000, making it unaffordable for most people. In the absence of money from the UK government, there will need to be a greater focus on forming community-based green banks, seeded and licensed to lend homeowners and small firms the money to retrofit homes. The Clean Energy Finance Corporation in Australia provides a model for a green bank. Preston City Council is currently exploring the idea of a Preston Bank, to be modelled on the Hampshire Community Bank which is currently seeking a banking licence to fund sustainable investments. 

Greater Manchester is doing its part to make homes fit for the future. However, meeting the city region’s emissions reductions targets and capitalising on the green jobs revolution will require more buy-in from all sectors to develop a multifaceted scalable solution, with innovative community-based approaches at its heart.

By Alex King

This article is part of the ‘Raising the Roof on Housing‘ series. The housing investigation theme for this series was voted as the winner of a shortlist by Meteor Community Members. To find out more about becoming a member – click here

Learn more

Join the Carbon Coop as they reflect on five years of retrofitting. Register for the free online event here, taking place Wednesday 1 July 18:00-19:30
Read Climate Emergency Manchester’s interview with Carbon Coop ahead of the online event above

Watch this webinar from Carbon Coop to learn more about retrofit. Learn more about their People Powered Retrofit vision here

Learn more about red cooperative and view their portfolio he
To find out more about Meteor Community Membership – click here

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  • Alex King

    Alex is a reporter at Planning Magazine. Prior to working there he was a freelance journalist specialising in climate, employment and politics. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Politico, Novara Media, Tribune Magazine, The Bristol Cable, The Mill and Red Pepper. He also set up and co-manages Green New Deal Media, an independent media outlet based in Greater Manchester devoted to addressing climate breakdown.

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