In the context of the climate and nature emergency, retrofitting for energy efficiency is the adaptation of buildings to consume less energy for heating and cooling. In my opinion, it should also embrace within its definition adaptation to the already rising temperatures and extreme weather events that will result from global warming.
Retrofitting is cited as a priority by local authorities to reduce carbon emissions and meet 2030 targets. In my district, the Council has an ambition for some 60,000 homes to be retrofitted. In 2011, I assisted in the creation of local planning policy to encourage retrofitting in our district and then led a project to create England’s first fully illustrated supplementary planning document as a guide for home owners and planning officers to understand what technologies and measures could be incorporated into homes with differing constructions to reduce energy consumption from fossil fuels. 10 years on, with very little discernible appetite for retrofitting exhibited thus far despite such strong encouragement from Planning, I am questioning whether the Council – and central government – are doing enough to tackle this agenda. Who can afford the time and expense to do this work voluntarily, and are the carbon savings we anticipate actually possible with this piecemeal home by home approach to energy efficiency and building adaptation? Moreover, are the methods and measures for retrofitting we are promoting low enough in embodied carbon themselves?
It is common sense that decarbonisation of our existing homes has to happen at a MUCH bigger scale if it is really to have meaningful impact in reducing emissions and catastrophic temperature increases globally. Street by street and neighbourhood by neighbourhood at the very least, if not at city scale – or frankly my preference would be to approach this at a national scale so people feel fully supported and guided through the quagmire.
To do everything I would recommend professionally for retrofitting our homes and to do this in the way that is being promoted through planning policy and guidance, is too expensive for ordinary people with an average income. These are the people who statistically create the least of our carbon emissions. Those people who are responsible for most carbon emissions can pay vast sums of money to install hi-tech retrofitting measures and buy electric cars for kudos. I question the social justice in that.
I sought to include something of that justice in the recent update of the planning document by suggesting a ‘Quick Wins’ section of free or very cheap DIY retrofitting measures that anyone can do to their homes. Everything on the list is what I have done myself in my two bedroomed Victorian end of terrace to keep out the cold and save money on my utility bills whilst reducing carbon emissions. Being raised in poverty, experiencing years of single parenting and having huge legal and health related expenses simultaneously means that money has been tight for me and my family for very many years. I experienced the extreme privilege of financial security with a good salary and high standard of middle class living for a brief few years in between, so am familiar with both sides of the story.
The dichotomy between what needs to be be done and what actually can be done in terms of retrofitting the nation’s homes is stark. Floor insulation is just one example. In my home, it meant boxing up and moving everything out of the living and dining rooms, that double up as work space for my partner and I, and the disruption to our lives was extreme. This kind of disruption applies to every single measure in every raft of official guidance coming through local and central government. Our household cannot afford that degree of loss of earnings again as the cost of living crisis squeezes us all.
The UN have made it very clear that we have to act now to avert catastrophic climate change, and that anything we can do to limit the overall increase in temperatures globally, however small, must be done. We know that those adversely affected by socio-economic factors, particularly in the global south, are at a greater risk of experiencing the dire consequences of climate change – and are already doing so. The 33 million people displaced by the deluge of floods in Pakistan in 2022 is a shocking number. It’s cause being due to the “unfettered over consumption of the global north” as described by Pakistani architect Yasmeen Lari in her TedX talk in Bath has shamefully stayed with me.
We know that people who have socio-economic challenges and adversity can possess a resourcefulness and tenacity to meet their needs. It’s time we worked together to help people globally do just that. It’s not about aid – it’s about realistic, accessible, effective proposals to reduce the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and stop emitting any more – immediately – starting with us.