By Niall Kerr, CXC Research Fellow Energy Efficiency Policy, University of Edinburgh
According to some accounts the British housing stock is the oldest in Europe (Economidou et al., 2011). Due to low levels of construction and demolition, Britain is likely to be near the top of the European table for many years to come, with suggestions that around 70-80% of the buildings that will be in existence in 2050, are already standing (Royal Academy of Engineers, 2010). With estimates that around 90% of the average modern life is spent indoors (Klepeis et al., 2001), how our indoor environments are designed and constructed will have an inevitable impact on many different aspects of our lives.
The majority of British homes were built before the introduction of energy performance regulation. Partly as a result of this, they are notoriously leaky, energy inefficient and cold. Energy use in our buildings – electricity use as well as gas, oil and solid fuels for heat – is currently responsible for about a quarter of Britain’s territorial carbon emissions. Legally binding climate change targets mean that by 2050 energy use in our homes is expected to be responsible for roughly none of our carbon emissions. Alongside climate change, the idea of fuel poverty, or the general affordability of energy, has emerged as an issue of political and social significance in recent years. The aged, leaky nature of UK housing is highlighted as one of the principle causes of the problem. The difficulty in keeping our homes warm is also held partially responsible for various public health problems, both physical – respiratory, rheumatic – and mental – anxiety, depression. Strikingly, the UK has one of the highest rates of Excess Winter Deaths (the phenomenon of more people dying in Winter than at other times of the year) in Europe, with the difficulty of keeping British homes warm considered one of the principle factors for this (Liddell et al., 2015; Marmot Review Team, 2011).
With it likely that the vast majority of our current housing stock will be standing many decades from now, and the issues of climate change, fuel poverty and public health and housing, firmly on the political agenda (at least at times…) the question emerges of what, if anything, can we do to alter our inhabited spaces, and make them more energy efficient.
It is generally agreed that it is more cost and energy-effective to try and energy efficiently retrofit our homes – even the oldest, leakiest ones – than it is to knock them down and build new ones (Power, 2011). Walls can be externally and/or internally insulated, windows can be replaced with more air-tight frames, and/or double or triple glazing panes, and regulations can be used to improve the efficiency of our electrical and heating appliances.
In the retrofit industry certain retrofit options are referred to as ‘low hanging fruit’, as they are relatively easy to install, relatively inexpensive and capable of saving substantial quantities of energy. Many homes in Britain will have, in recent years, had their lofts insulated, any empty cavity walls filled with insulation, and/or a more efficient condensing boiler replace their previous heating system.
Rates of implementation for these low hanging options have increased significantly in the last 10-15 years. Due to the social benefits – lower carbon emissions, more affordable energy services – these increases have generally been driven by government support schemes, with the costs of additive measures like insulation, often either partly or completely subsidised by government, and the introduction of replacement measures, like boilers and appliances, supported via mandatory government efficiency regulations.
Despite this activity numerous opportunities to retrofit British homes remain. As the easiest and most cost effective retrofit measures have often been implemented as a priority, the options for retrofit that remain will, however, become progressively more expensive and more difficult to implement.
Retrofit (and energy efficiency more generally) is increasingly framed as an activity that has ‘multiple benefits’ for both governments and for households (IEA, 2014). Advocates of more retrofit action encourage governments to further support retrofit with the suggestion that it is not only socially beneficial – addressing climate change and fuel poverty – but that it also has economic benefits. More money spent on retrofit means less money spent on energy – investment rather than consumption spending. It is argued that this change in spending patterns will result in higher tax intake for government via higher net levels of employment (UKERC, 2014) and improved fiscal returns (Washan et al., 2014).
While these different suggested impacts make up the case for government retrofit investment, there is also a case for private households to invest without government support. Perversely the private case for retrofit has historically been considered to focus on the economic calculation of whether the investment in retrofit will offer enough of a reduction in energy bills to offer a payback. Current research suggests that to convince households to retrofit, the less quantifiable benefits, such as improvements in comfort, should be highlighted more clearly. It is also argued that retrofit should not be considered as distinct from general home improvements, as it is much more often than not carried out alongside general renovations (UKERC, 2013). Packaging retrofit measures into the installation of new kitchens and bathrooms is seen as an effective way of encouraging households to install more retrofit.
While altering our homes to make them more energy efficient has clear benefits there are limits to how much can be done. Much of the older stock is revered for its architecture and its cultural significance, with the system of ‘listing’ buildings for protection seeing over half a million buildings with major restrictions placed on any alterations and significant retrofit as a result much more difficult. While our older buildings may be difficult to heat and at times difficult to retrofit, our younger buildings are far from perfect. The average floor space in newly built properties has generally fallen throughout the 20th century, with UK homes now considered on average to be the smallest in Europe (Morgan and Cruickshank, 2014). These smaller spaces are thought to be detrimental to inhabitant’s mental health, with perhaps not surprisingly the British public generally considering older British homes to be more desirable than new ones, partly because of their space, their adaptability and their perceived cultural value (RIBA, 2012).
Whilst, as highlighted, there are many different reasons for retrofitting our existing homes both for the inhabitants and for the government, the pre-eminent driving force behind action is arguably climate change. Ultimately, climate change targets will mean that the supply of energy to our homes must result in low to zero carbon emissions. With the perceived multiple benefits of energy efficient retrofit and the low base of efficiency from which our homes are starting there are still many retrofit opportunities and many reasons to try and implement these. If the low carbon targets are to be achieved however, the issue of how much time, energy and investment that is put into improving energy efficiency as opposed to thinking about how we decarbonise our remaining supply requirement, will be an a complex and contentious one.
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