New London Architecture

Behaviour changes essential for retrofit mission

Friday 20 August 2021

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

‘The greenest building is the one that already exists’.
So said Douglas Phillips of Historic England (HE) at an NLA webinar last week that set out to explore the challenges and potential of housing retrofits, but also the place of traditional buildings in that picture. 

But it was clear that the biggest part will be played by people changing their behaviour, making small but significant changes towards reducing emissions in the home. And government could help the whole crusade hugely by reducing VAT on retrofits down to 0%.

Phillips said HE produced a report in March following two years of research – Know your home, know your carbon and is behind new research looking at operational energy retrofit measures against the context that homes produce some 13 per cent of all carbon emissions in the UK. Builders are the third largest carbon emission producer in the UK and homes account for a significant proportion of that, plus homes are the second largest consumer of energy, with around 65% going into space heating. ‘So when we start thinking of net zero targets and reducing our emissions, it becomes blatantly obvious why retrofit is an important thing to do now’, he said. 
Around 21% of England’s building stock is pre-1990, and about half of them terraces, but the key point was that when it comes to retrofit, the biggest factor is in a change in people’s behaviour. ‘Retrofit should be a holistic approach and the user is considered. When we look at the National Grid projections future energy scenarios predictions, consumer behaviour is a key element of that, so it's really important that we engage with the users of buildings to make sure that we're bringing them with us’, Phillips said. 

‘Little changes in behaviour can start to accumulate up to make significant changes, which then, in line with retrofit measures, can help us get to where we want to be’.
Other speakers at the event included Marion Baeli of PDP London, who provided insights into retrofitting Victorian homes, primarily in central London, emphasising that ‘climate change is no longer a thing of the future but of the present’. It is extremely important to address our existing stock, she said – particularly residential buildings. And architects have a ‘major responsibility and role to play in addressing climate change’, with UK’s housing stock being some of the oldest in Europe. Changing habits will be one of the major tasks in hand, she agreed, along with monitoring performance of buildings and, importantly, sharing the information widely. 

Lizzie Webster of Fraher & Findlay showed the lessons learned from the practice’s Don’t Move, Improve!Environmental Leadership Prize-winning extension scheme for the timber-framed Segal House in Lewisham.  But more education on retrofit and refurbishment was required for the public, she added. Andrew Creamer of Grosvenor suggested that one of the biggest challenges is in the supply chain and numbers of people available to undertake work. Finally, Theo Manzaroli of Purcell Architects said there were easy wins to be had with retrofit in roofs and windows, balancing heritage with alterations. But government could take a lead on the retrofit ‘mission’ by introducing grants and loans, and by reducing VAT on retrofit to zero, said Baeli. ‘At the moment there is zero incentive’, she said.

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

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