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The A to Z of retrofitting

Chloe Barrow

27th March, 2012

Cutting emissions at home doesn’t just help the planet; it saves you money too. Chloe Barrow explains how to get started

The name might sound like a dubious 80s clothing outlet but retrofitting is at the forefront of the drive to reduce the carbon footprint of our homes and help protect the environment. The innovative concept, which involves improving existing buildings with energy efficiency equipment or materials, has also been boosted thanks to Government plans to cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent by the year 2050.

‘Homes and buildings contribute to 25 to 30 per cent of all carbon emissions, which obviously represents a significant chunk,’ says Stella O’Keahialam MBE, programme director at the Institute for Sustainability, an independent charity that supports the delivery of sustainable places to live and work. ‘By the target date of 2050, approximately 80 per cent of all buildings will be currently existing constructions, which is why retrofitting is so important if we want to achieve this goal.’ Whether for homes, businesses, schools and universities or hospitals, carbon-proofing your building can range from full-scale renovation to making simple, low-cost changes. Here’s our A to Z guide to show you how it's done:

A is for advice
‘If people don’t get good advice on what to use or install in their homes or offices, they may not benefit from the energy savings they were expecting,’ says O’Keahialam.

B is for behaviour
Small changes in our behaviour can have a big impact. For example, in existing homes and offices, low-cost solutions that reduce carbon include fitting thermostats to central heating systems and using low-energy light bulbs. Other low-cost energy savers include wearing an extra jumper and closing doors to contain heat in winter and dressing lightly and opening windows in summer. ‘It’s how we behave that affects energy use – after all, it is people that spend energy, not buildings,’ says Sunand Prasad, founding partner of architectural practice Penoyre & Prasad and member of the Government's Green Construction Board, as well as Boris Johnson's Design Advisory Panel for London.

C is for carbon emissions
‘The UK is about to embark on a programme of low carbon housing retrofit of most of the national housing stock. The purpose of this programme is to help meet the challenge of climate change, to improve energy security, and to alleviate fuel poverty in an era of rising fuel prices,’ says O’Keahialam.

D is for demand
The first barrier the retrofitting industry faces, according to Prasad, is that there aren’t enough customers. ‘There has been a fair amount of back-peddling regarding government action and legislation, which has an effect on the market. This creates a vicious circle because obviously demand generates volume.’

E is for eco-bling
It has become fashionable for people to install renewable energy at home but ‘eco-bling’ seems to be more about showing off environmental credentials to neighbours than actually saving on carbon emissions. ‘Always start with basic measures,’ advises Prasad.

F is for financial incentives
Retrofitting buildings to reduce energy usage will offer protection against rising fuel prices, which are expected to rise by up to 60 per cent by 2020. ‘Low carbon retrofitting of homes is not just a technical option, it is a lifestyle choice, and there are business opportunities associated with promoting the benefits of low carbon retrofit and marketing the services of the many organisations that will help to deliver it,’ says O’Keahialam.

G is for government
While the UK government has set a shining example globally by aiming to cut carbon emissions, it has also conveyed some mixed messages – particularly with regard to the cuts in the feed-in tariffs from renewable and low-energy sources such as solar panels and wind turbines. ‘Confusing signals from the government can be very damaging,’ says Prasad. ‘However, I have a feeling the industry will take a deep breath and carry on with their initiatives regardless.’

H is for heating
The right heating thermostats and controls will let you keep your home at a comfortable temperature without wasting fuel or heat – so you’ll reduce your carbon dioxide emissions and spend less on heating bills. ‘In our temperate climate, heating is the biggest energy user. It accounts for approximately half of all energy, with water and electricity making up a quarter each,’ says Prasad. However, retrofits have to be tailored according to the specific climate and this could vary even within the UK. ‘The climate in the south of England will be different to the Hebrides, for example,’ he adds.

I is for insulation
The better insulated your home is, the less money you'll spend heating it. Types of insulation include draught-proofing, double glazing and insulation for lofts and walls.  ‘Insulating the home is the key thing in helping people get the most out of their property or building,’ says O’Keahialam. However, don’t rush into installing anything in your home, as Prasad explains: ‘Just slapping on insulation or sealing the building can cause problems if not done correctly. You must make sure the retrofit is tailored to your building.’

L is for lights
According to the Energy Saving Trust, most of the 600 million light bulbs in UK homes are still inefficient tungsten filament bulbs. By phasing these out, we could make a real difference to our national energy consumption. 'One of the most innovative recent developments in retrofitting is LED lights. You can now have a one watt LED light bulb in place of a 60 watt standard bulb,’ says Prasad.

M is for materials
Natural building materials such as straw, clay and hemp can be used to retrofit existing homes and properties.

N is for new buildings
The government has stipulated that all new homes are required to be zero-carbon by 2016 and all remaining new buildings should be zero-carbon by 2020. ‘The new build-code for homes in the UK requires virtually no heating,’ says Prasad. ‘The methodology for new building ensures energy efficiency,’ agrees O’Keahialam. ‘The biggest challenge is the existing stock.’

O is for occupancy
Retrofitting multi-occupancy buildings can be challenging, given the disruption that is caused to a large group of people.

P is for passive measures
The cost effective application of passive energy efficiency measures include appropriate thermal insulation, controlling unwanted building solar heat gains and improved standards of air tightness to minimise spurious air infiltration.

R is for retrofit projects
Large-scale retrofit projects are becoming increasingly widespread as homes and businesses try to reduce their carbon emissions and energy bills. Lesley van Dijk of Land Securities, the largest commercial property company in the UK, describes one particular project on the Bon Accord and St Nicholas Shopping Centre in Aberdeen, owned by Land Securities and British Land. ‘The shopping centre saw an 80 per cent reduction in energy use after a £250,000 investment in heating and ventilation solutions. And the financial result is a circa £50,000 per year saving, meaning it will take just five years to get a return on the investment.’

S is for social housing
Social housing makes up a quarter of the UK's housing stock, which in total accounts for 26 per cent of the country's carbon emissions. Retrofitting this stock could make a big difference to the UK's carbon footprint.

T is for technology
The Technology Strategy Board (TSB), which promotes and invests in technology research and development, is launching an initiative to retrofit UK social housing stock in order to meet future targets in reduction of CO2 emissions and energy use.

U is for unskilled workers
‘One of the main problems with retrofitting is that the skills are not quite there yet to build to standard,’ says Prasad. O’Keahialam agrees: ‘We have to work on getting people with the right skills as we need to retrofit very rapidly – on average we’re looking at one building a minute up until 2050 to be on target.’

V is for ventilation
Ventilation includes both the exchange of air to the outside as well as circulation of air within the building. It is one of the most important methods for maintaining acceptable indoor air quality in buildings.

W is for wind turbines and solar panels
Wind turbines harness the power of the wind and use it to generate electricity. 40 per cent of all the wind energy in Europe blows over the UK, making it an ideal country for domestic turbines. Another low-cost energy generator is solar power, which converts sunlight into electricity, which can be used to run household appliances and lighting. However, they don't work for every  home: ‘Wind turbines can be good but are a waste of time in urban areas. Solar panels again can be beneficial but only when designed properly to suit your individual property,’ says Prasad.

Z is for zero-carbon
The Government has set itself the target of reducing total UK greenhouse gas emissions not only from buildings but across the board by 80 per cent on 1990 levels by 2050.

 

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