Most homes in the UK were built before 1919 – meaning it’s now impossible to ignore the fact that we designed and built most of our housing stock for a different climate.

Against the backdrop of historically high energy costs and extreme temperatures caused by climate change, there is an urgent need for UK homes to be made fit for the future. 

We need to retrofit and improve homes so they don’t waste energy and contribute to excess CO2 emissions, while making homes healthier, safer and more affordable to live in. Major landlords including city and local authorities, along with housing associations are working towards upgrading their stock. However, while many innovative solutions have been delivered, retrofitting at scale and pace has proved to be a significant challenge.

Scale is important. Given the sheer number of homes in a country, a system-led approach is required  to address these issues in a meaningful way by the net zero deadlines we have set ourselves (and that the climate science demands). 

Learning from Leeds

Spurred on by its climate emergency declaration and pledge to support the health and wellbeing of residents, Leeds City Council (LCC) has adopted an area-based approach to transforming homes and entire neighbourhoods. The city has undertaken to improve properties from its own stock of 55,000 homes including 115 towers. Through a long-standing relationship, Arup has been supporting the City Council in its endeavours, from integrated advisory services to the retrofit accelerator programme ‘Better Homes Leeds’, to technical support on a number of district heating networks and throughout the project cycle from feasibility studies to project management of retrofit delivery.

The city’s place-based, multi-outcome, investment strategy has been adopted after recognising the value of addressing the issue at the whole-community scale. George Munson, Senior Project Manager in the Sustainable Energy and Air Quality (SEAQ) team at Leeds City Council observes that “the value is not just in the efficiencies of working at scale, but also in addressing the multiple other challenges that local people face. This broad approach can be transformative and long lasting.” 

One example he cites is the success of work in the deprived inner-city district of Holbeck where 300 homes – 70% private rental, 20% council owned, 10% owner-occupier, and the area around them have been significantly improved. Homes have been upgraded by being made weathertight, insulated with roof and external wall insulation and had new high-efficiency windows and doors fitted. The insulated homes are not just warmer and healthier for residents they are also significantly cheaper to run. In addition, fly-tipping has been reduced, cycle paths and tree planting introduced and alongside this residents have been supported in areas such as money advice. “The place not only looks different, it feels different too. Antisocial behaviour and mental health issues have reduced significantly,” says Munson.

Find your visionaries

This level of retrofit represents an understandable challenge to local authorities who face increasing demands against ever-diminishing budgets. It therefore also requires new ways of thinking and doing: collaboration is key. In Leeds a number of people have provided the vision needed to catalyse the city’s progress, including the authority’s chief executive Tom Riordan, who has encouraged cross-team and citywide partnerships needed to achieve a programme of this scale. 

At LCC Mark Ireland, Head of Private Rented Sector, Polly Cook, Chief Officer for Sustainable Energy and Air Quality and Neil Evans, Director of Resources have all driven housing retrofit forward and there is a strong alliance with both Leeds Beckett and Leeds University as well as local industry and the Better Homes Yorkshire programme

“We also have a number of important long-term partners including Arup, which has been working alongside us for many years including on the retrofitting programme. Equans and Cenergist both provide technical and practical expertise in low-carbon retrofit,” says Munson. 

Taking the longer view

Retrofitting has to be understood in context. In Leeds, the city has already committed to doing everything within its powers to make Leeds carbon neutral by 2030. That means adopting multiple approaches to reduce the city authority’s carbon footprint to delivering improvements and transformation at scale for all of the city’s 360,000 homes. “The biggest challenge to us when it comes to homes is navigating inconsistent government policy,” says Munson. Authorities have needed to overcome changes of direction and respond to short-term funding priorities from central government which stops the retrofit industry from gaining a scalable footing and consistent workflow that would help its local authority clients. 

“Transformative change at scale requires three to five years to deliver, so the greatest help from government would be to adopt a longer view and trust local authorities to deliver to their communities” adds Munson.  “Once a needs-based priority area has been identified, it’s important to start work with homes that we control.  Completing council properties first creates certainty for contractors and demonstrates the benefits of upgrading homes and public space to the wider community. This means that when the council offers a similar service to private homes, understanding, demand and uptake is so much better. The benefits of an authority leading this work include economies of scale, together with greater quality control.” 

It’s clear that the supply chain also benefits from this longer term view with a clear pipeline of social rented properties bolstered by the ‘able to pay’ market. Growth of supply and demand in parallel is key to sustainable development.