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News blog17 April 20235 min read

More and Better – the retrofit challenge

More and Better – the retrofit challenge

What do we want? More and better. When do we want it? Now! Well, over the next 30 years or so at least. And we have to seriously crack on with it or we are in trouble.That’s the challenge we face in bringing the existing building stock in the EU up to near zero energy standards by 2050, primarily because of climate change – but with important co-benefits in terms of energy costs, supply security, energy poverty, air pollution, indoor comfort, health….Buildings energy efficiency is a win, win, win, win, win, win, win solution.

So why is it happening so slowly? OK, it’s not that straightforward. There are many barriers to achieving deep renovation, such as cost, disruption, availability of tradespeople offering the required technologies, objections to changes in building appearance, the risk of unintended negative consequences of making major changes to a building’s thermal and ventilation characteristics…..But perhaps the most significant challenge of all is that the decision to invest in energy improvements, and to what level, must be made by so many millions of individual building owners. 

What motivates people to take action on energy efficiency – and how and when can we alert them to the possibilities and benefits? A useful way of looking at this is to consider the ‘trigger point’ occasions when they are either prompted by other factors to think about building energy use – or a practical opportunity is thrown up for them to do so.  These are opportunities not to be missed – while some of them might happen every year, others could be 20-30 years apart in the life of a building.

The most obvious triggers for the owners are directly energy-related, such as a high energy bill or a spell of very cold weather. Thinking particularly about homes, there are also more general social trigger points, such as a change of occupancy – new home, new lifestyle, new perspective. Or a life-change phase – such as retirement and planning for old age, loss of household income for some reason and looking for ways to reduce living costs, living independently for the first time and learning to manage living costs, or a new baby and being at home more, with less money and more laundry to do….One way to realise energy improvements at these trigger points is to provide expert, well-resourced and well-publicised energy advisory services, with effective referral systems to and from a variety of other support agencies –  such as housing, health, and social services.

A less obvious, but critically important type of trigger point is the practical need for repairs or maintenance – ranging from the urgent ‘distress purchase’ of a new boiler or getting a leaky roof fixed, through to re-plastering, rewiring and decorating. The demand for these is not energy-led, but offers the opportunity to include energy improvements – with the additional cost and disruption rendered relatively marginal by the fact that works are being done anyway. Similarly, a drive for home improvements, such as an extension, new kitchen or bathroom, is a chance to review and improve building energy performance.

When a home owner wants or needs work building work done, they generally start by looking for a local building trades person – if possible someone they already know or who is recommended by someone they know.  These tradespeople are arguably the most important link in the retrofit supply chain – but their views are rarely heard in policy debate. 

During 2015 I spent time speaking with local building tradespeople in my area (borders of Wales and West of England) to find out more. Here in the UK, this industry is dominated by very small businesses, working mainly at local level.  One thing that struck me was how unique and individual each company was – but nevertheless some strong themes emerged in what they told me.  While they were themselves aware of the benefits and range of technologies involved in improving energy performance, they were not always confident they could convince the home owner. Those that had seen Energy Performance Certificates didn’t find them that helpful, as they were too simplistic and sometimes off-putting, at least as far as deep retrofit is concerned.  Energy advice needs to be both more detailed and more practical to be really useful.

For the building tradespeople I spoke to, the main driver to action was seen as Building Regulations –  if these are used to enforce energy improvements in existing buildings when other works are done, then consumers will not be able to refuse them. There was concern both about the loss of resources and the privatisation of the local authority Building Control function (with private inspectors contracted in by building developers) – and suspicion that commercial interests undermine consistency – which in turn undermines quality.  Put simply, people offering quality work fear being undercut by those who are willing to cut corners.

Another interesting point that emerged was that the typical small scale renovation job is coordinated on an informal basis, with one general builder or tradesman (such as a carpenter/joiner) bringing in other trades as needed – and often, in effect, doing most of the design and specification as well as the coordination of the work. Where an architect is involved, they may be asked only to provide an overall design (drawing) to submit for planning permission – with variable levels of detail. The builder has to fill in any gaps in detail, in order to carry out the work. The odd thing is that here in the UK the role of ‘general builder’ appears not to be officially recognised as a trade – and the (multi-skilled) individuals doing this kind of work have generally found their own path to this role. Yet it’s a role which exists in the market and for which there is considerable demand. The significance of this situation is highlighted by current debate around coordination of retrofit and the need for a ‘whole house’ approach, to ensure quality and a longer term perspective on achieving low carbon.

If you are interested to read more, you can find a report on the first phase of my research here: Installer-Power-Report

For more on energy advisory services you might like to look at the work we have been doing in the Energy Advice Exchange: Energy Advice Exchange

I would like to hear your views, and related experience from other countries. I can be contacted on cmabyatoutlook [dot] com (cmaby[at]outlook[dot]com).


Blogpost and picture submitted by Catrin Maby (Research and Consultancy – energy in buildings) –


Publication date
17 April 2023