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Installer Power: Releasing the potential for local building trades to get energy improvements into homes

Catrin Maby OBE is an independent researcher and consultant, and PhD candidate at Cardiff University, with more than 30 years’ experience in delivering energy advice and energy efficiency programmes.

Installer Power: the key to unlocking low carbon retrofit in private housing’ by Catrin Maby and Alice Owen (University of Leeds) was supported by the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts Climate Change Collaboration.

It’s time to face up to reality. We need to achieve ‘near zero energy’ levels for all our home by 2050, but what are we actually doing to achieve this?  We have run programmes to increase the deployment of those technologies that fit a short term simplistic view of what is ‘cost-effective’, and Feed in Tariffs to shift the market in microgeneration. This is not enough. The focus is on single technologies, and there is little incentive or even encouragement to achieve really deep energy savings.

Future-proofing our old and inefficient housing stock requires a much fuller mix of measures, and attention to the thermal properties of all parts of the building envelope, as well as heating, lighting, microgeneration……There are many challenges, not least being effective integration of retrofit technologies into existing buildings and building services. With around 65% of UK homes owner-occupied, and another 18% privately rented, one of the biggest potential barriers is to motivate home owners to invest in such improvements, and to put up with the disruption involved.

In recent years much has been made of the potential to create new ‘green jobs’ and money to be made from ‘green technologies’.  With the negative impact of policy changes many of these jobs have vanished, leaving an impression of a boom-bust industry, running in parallel to the world of the mainstream building trades, engaged in general home repairs, maintenance and improvements.  Interestingly this ‘RMI’ market is a substantial area of economic activity (estimated to be worth around £11bn a year in the UK, for private housing alone), largely delivered by micro-enterprise and sole-trader building tradespeople, mainly active at a very local level.

This kind of work offers huge potential for making energy improvements – by including them with other work that home owners want or need, and marginalising the impact of costs and disruption. At the moment we are missing these trigger point opportunities daily, while time slips away…

So how can we make home energy improvements an integral part of the mainstream RMI world? The views of building trades micro-enterprises are rarely heard within policy debates, but as the first point of contact for many home owners who want building work done, they have the potential to influence these customers, and a wealth of knowledge to bring to retrofit.  They could be the frontline in communicating, selling and implementing energy improvements.

In researching ‘Installer Power – the key to unlocking low carbon retrofit in private housing’ (Executive Summary; Full Report), we decided to ask building tradespeople themselves what they thought. The picture that emerged was of an industry which operated largely through informal local networks, getting work through personal recommendation and reputation, and linking up with other trades to deliver projects ranging from small repairs to whole house refurbishment or conversions. Quality is crucial because reputation is everything.

Not all small businesses are planning for growth – but they can be vulnerable. Consumer protection should be matched by small business protection, with better information about payment options and good practice.

The use of Building Regulations to move towards lower carbon and lower energy building is widely understood and accepted.  The development of Building Regulations to ensure this should continue along an established path, in a planned and consistent way, following a clear and well-communicated long term plan, covering both new buildings and retrofit of existing buildings, and specifically aiming to increase the take up of energy improvements within RMI. This will enable building trade companies and specialist installers to plan and invest accordingly in training and equipment.

Both households and builders need a source of accessible, expert and commercially independent advice, including credible energy assessments.  Building Control should be properly resourced and consistent, able to advise as well as enforce, and integrated with Planning to overcome current inconsistencies in approach.

Keeping work local has social, environmental and economic benefits, ticking all the boxes for a sustainable economy. Future policy might be more effective if it were developed to support localised action, building upon the knowledge and skills that exist at local level, and the reality of these business and social networks, rather than attempting to impose top-down structures. Integrating home energy improvements into the mainstream, and building the low carbon approach into every job and everyday thinking offers a longer term solution.

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Comments (1)

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    Peter Thom


    Great piece of research, should be compulsory reading for all of DECC and the Bonfield review


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