Energy efficient homes: What can the Government do to help?

David Kemp, sustainability manager at Procure Plus, discusses how the newly-formed Government can support housing providers in upgrading the insulation of their solid-wall stock.

Issues with fuel poverty, particularly among social housing residents, combined with the Government’s strict carbon emissions reduction targets for 2020, have put increasing pressure on housing providers to deliver homes that are as energy efficient as possible.

A key challenge facing this sector in meeting its residential energy usage goals is how best to upgrade the wall insulation of their existing stock to ensure optimum thermal performance at the lowest cost and inconvenience to residents. Older properties present their own particular challenges, as the complexity of insulating solid – rather than cavity – walls means that specialist solutions are required, which could add expense to any project, as well as prolonged disruption for residents.

The new Government has pledged to continue its financial assistance to support housing providers, as well as homeowners, in upgrading their properties’ thermal performance through the Green Deal, which was rescued from potential collapse last year by the Green Deal Home Improvement Fund (GDHIF). This £244m cashback scheme has helped to increase the Green Deal’s popularity among homeowners and landlords, with more than £50.3m of plans and applications currently being processed – just a fifth of the total fund, but a fivefold increase on May 2014 .

Challenges to success…

Despite the growing popularity of the Green Deal since the introduction of the GDHIF, there are issues that are hampering energy efficiency improvements across the UK’s solid-wall housing, especially for social housing providers. For example, the initiative does not target social housing providers , which can prevent them from considering the funding to help them upgrade the insulation of their older solid wall stock.

Moreover, some Green Deal and other renovation work for solid-wall properties may not qualify as a ‘permitted development’ under current planning laws, meaning that social housing providers will need permission from local authorities. In the case of those with a large portfolio of properties, they may need individual applications for each of their homes, complicating the retrofit project and adding cost.

In addition, the criteria and tools used by third-party Green Deal assessors to determine what insulation solutions are suitable for a property and whether improvement work qualifies for GDHIF or other financial support don’t currently take into account other factors affecting a property’s thermal efficiency. Damp or heat loss caused by thermal bridging below the level of the damp proof courses, for example, can be particular problems when upgrading solid-wall properties that can impact on the final performance of insulation projects. They also don’t consider issues surrounding heritage listing for older, solid-wall homes, as listed buildings may need specific, potentially expensive insulation solutions to protect the historic character of their façades. All of these are challenges for social housing providers trying to achieve optimum energy efficiency for their properties as cost effectively as possible.

The general, non-technical nature of much of the training currently available to both contractors and assessors for Green Deal work is an issue impacting on the scheme’s long-term success. Assessors may not have the expertise to recommend the correct insulation solutions for each particular home to ensure optimum thermal efficiency, while installers may not have the knowledge to fit the insulation system correctly, so as to avoid causing unintended and damaging consequences for the property or the occupant in the future. This could lead to unforeseen costs for housing providers, as they may have to rectify installation issues or carry out further work further down the line.

Whether the project is private or social, incomprehensive evaluation criteria and training have the potential to impact on the success of any insulation project. Not only can they lead to negative health impacts for occupants, they can also create costly remediation and maintenance works for landlords.

Overcoming obstacles

There are measures the new Government can take to ensure the success of efforts to maximise the energy efficiency of solid-wall properties in both the UK’s private and social housing stock.

Training and certification for GD and other energy assessors and installers, for example, must offer more comprehensive education in the skills required to identify all the possible factors that could affect and are linked to improving energy efficiency in a building, regardless of whether it is solid or cavity-walled. Courses and insulation system manufacturers must also provide more comprehensive knowledge of how to design, detail and install insulation solutions correctly.

The Government should also address the issue of sustainable funding and simplifying planning legislation to support the social housing sector in carrying out energy efficiency improvement projects for existing properties. This could incentivise providers to upgrade insulation, even in the most challenging buildings, and streamline the cost of such work to enable funding to go further.

In the meantime, there are other avenues the sector can use to upgrade housing stock. Working on a number of properties simultaneously, with the support of a procurement consortium, for example, can bring benefits from the cost savings that come from buying products and services in bulk. Consortia can also offer guidance on selecting the right insulation solutions for the needs of a property and on choosing expert installers, ensuring that the retrofit offers the highest possible thermal performance, as well as value for money.

Taking advantage of such support, social housing providers can ensure that their budgets for insulation work go further, helping to lower fuel bills for as many of their residents as possible and cutting the carbon footprint of their property portfolio to boot.

Time for more support 

It is clear that if the new Government is genuinely committed to tackling fuel poverty and reducing carbon emissions over the next five years, it must address the way energy efficiency improvements for social housing providers are funded and carried out to ensure long term success. Doing so will go a long way towards providing healthier, warmer, more comfortable homes for residents and a more sustainable built environment too. 

David Kemp is sustainability manager at Procure Plus,  which is part of Re:allies – a national procurement consortium that provides purchasing facilities for social housing developers and registered providers.

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