The arguments for reducing energy demand in housing are well rehearsed – carbon emissions, energy security, living costs and the scourge of fuel poverty. The benefits are multiple, both directly and indirectly, improving housing quality, economic and environmental sustainability, and providing employment in the process.
We have to make our homes more energy efficient. But we love our old buildings – and there are a lot of them. Over three quarters of the UK’s homes were built before 1980 and nearly one fif th are over 100 years old. They form the character of our cities, our towns and our villages. So we are highly unlikely to knock them all down and build new ones.
We have to radically improve the energy performance of existing buildings. Getting the emissions from heating and powering our buildings to near zero by 2050 and reaching a minimum B rating for all homes would be hard enough if we knocked everything down and started from scratch. But as things stand, three quarters of homes are D or E rated, and 6% a chilling F or G.
We need to use all the tried and tested technologies, not just the ‘quick wins: insulating throughout, efficient heating and lighting, as well as renewable. It’s an investment in the future, it costs money, and it will be disruptive, as building works nearly always are.
A large proportion of our homes are in private ownership. Public money is tighter than ever. But home owners are getting work done on their homes all the time –repairs, maintenance and a whole range of home improvements. This is a huge market, estimated to be worth £28bn per annum. If we include energy improvements at the same time we can reduce the costs – and disruption – from major to marginal
Much of this mainstream building work is done by small building trades companies operating locally. Typically the first port of call for home-owners looking to make repairs or home improvements, it is these people who are at the front line in the campaign to future-proof our homes and should therefore be who we engage, enable and empower to achieve this mammoth task.
Time marches on, and we need to start now. The big results we need depend on millions of small decisions, detail and actions. So to achieve them we need to think long-term, think small and think local.
Catrin Maby OBE, is Chief Executive of sustainable energy charity, Severn Wye Energy Agency, and is coordinating the Countdown to Low Carbon Homes project to develop and trial a model for community-scale retrofit of homes, supported by the Technology Strategy Board and Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts.