Paul King: the challenge of retrofitting Blighty

Sensemaking / Paul King: the challenge of retrofitting Blighty

The UK has anything but a uniform housing stock, says the Chief Executive of UK Green Building Council.

04 Jan 2012

The UK has anything but a uniform housing stock, says the Chief Executive of UK Green Building Council.

How can we get people to embrace energy efficiency?
Marketing is a huge challenge, because efficiency has to be communicated differently to different audiences. There’s an amazing diversity of players, from those actually managing the financial mechanisms and services, to high street retailers, housing associations, contractors, energy companies… Then there are householders: we mustn’t assume a one-size fits all message for them, either. Some are motivated by future-proofing themselves against energy price rises; some think it’s smart and attractive to green their home; others won’t find it very interesting at all. Then there’s the question of who to trust. It will help to have registered providers, like the Corgi gas installers, so that you know you’re dealing with someone competent.

If we can break through the trust barrier, will it be easy?
There are still practical difficulties. I recently installed solid wall insulation in my house, which was built in the 1780s. I organised a delivery of insulation to my home, but it arrived in a lorry so huge that it couldn’t get up my road! So there I was unloading it in the street... I thought, multiply this by 26 million homes and we could bring the country to a standstill! And you have to remember that, in the UK, we’ve got anything but a uniform housing stock. We’ll need lots of different solutions. But that’s not an excuse not to do anything. We simply have to try bringing all the different elements together. We need to know about all the things that can go wrong, and try to iron them out before the Green Deal is launched.

Are we facing a skill gap?
“We’re facing a skills gap” has become a bit of a stock reaction! Talk about any sustainable development project, and people say we have a dearth of skills. But I never cease to be amazed at how quickly an industry can gear up and deliver when market demand is clear. What we mustn’t do is send mixed signals. If the signals are clear and strong, then a nascent industry will be bubbling away.

Should we aim to do everything we can to a property as soon as possible?
According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, buildings globally offer almost twice the carbon abatement potential of any other sector. That’s quite a lot of pressure to act! But there’s also a lock-in effect. If you only harvest 10% of that potential because the low-hanging fruit looks so good, and stop there, you might lock in 30-40% of emissions. That’s a real threat. Then again, it’s not realistic to assume people will go straight for an 80% emissions reduction. It might just be too costly, even if it’s technologically possible.

How can you know what to do first?
There’s a strong argument for a whole-house plan, which shows you the potential, the maximum you could do – and gives you a range of options, depending on how far you want to go. It should also show you the sequence in which you ought to tackle it. I had this done for my own home, and I’m glad I did. I know a lot about this, but I could have made some basic mistakes. So, your old sash window might feel like a priority because the wind is howling through it and it’s dripping with condensation… But actually, you have to think about increasing the depths of sills to install solid wall insulation; otherwise, you might have to rip out your nice new window later on.

Paul King was in conversation with Anna Simpson

Photo: David Banks/shutterstock

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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