Social and public sector housing projects are jumping on the UK government’s net zero by 2030 target to issue contracts to contractors. This month alone has seen action in Scotland, the Midlands and the south-west of England. However they are hampered by a skills shortage.

The government has set a target for all social housing properties in the UK to have an Energy Performance Certificate rating of C by 2030. The task ahead is huge, when 60 per cent of homes in England and Wales – including many in the social housing sector – have the lowest ratings of D to G.

Down southwest

A collection of southwest housing associations and local authorities, including Plymouth Community Homes, Teign Housing, Mid Devon District Council and East Devon District Council has put out a call for a huge £2 billion (A$3.4 billion) of energy-efficiency and decarbonisation retrofit works.

This includes retrofit assessors, air-tightness testing, structural surveys, ancillary building and external works, and smart hub technologies for energy demand.

Also included are external and internal wall insulation, cavity-wall insulation, as well as loft and floor insulation, the installation of solar panels, ground-source heat pumps, mechanical heat and ventilation recovery, waste-water recovery, electric-vehicle charging and inverters for battery storage.

Although an impressive list, these requirements are now seen as the average minimum for a green building.

Retrofit standards

Scotland is going one better, with Renfrewshire council appointing a firm of architects to refurbish 3000 homes west of Glasgow to the highest possible standards – Enerphit or the AECB Retrofit Standard, with PAS 2035.

Enerphit is the passive house refurbishment standard which can achieve energy savings of between 75 and 90 per cent. 

The AECB Retrofit Standard, like Enerphit, is a whole house, fabric-first standard that is based on the Passive House Institute’s Enerphit specification, but less onerous, with a space heating demand target of 50 kilowatt hours per square meters per year, as opposed to 25 kilowatt hours per square meters per year for Enerphit.

PAS 2035 is a new process for the energy retrofit of UK domestic buildings. It was developed as part of the Each Home Counts process, which was established to tackle the high level of failure in domestic retrofit under government-backed schemes, though widespread adoption of PAS 2035 has been slow to date.

PAS 2035 mandates a number of specific roles on retrofit projects, including project designer, project manager, retrofit coordinator, and retrofit assessor, with minimum qualifications and or professional accreditations for each.

Duncan Smith, chief operating officer for the AECB, said that their standard was designed to ensure quality control and a high standard of retrofit.

“These retrofits will benefit some of the most vulnerable, some of the poorest people in our communities, those most at risk of the cost-of-living crisis and fuel poverty,” he said. 

“It’s about reducing energy demand, closing the performance gap, and designing homes that are fit for purpose.”

Skills shortage

The skills shortage in construction is at a magnitude far greater than we expected, says Lisa Molloy, commercial director, Strabag UK.

 “The issue we have is that there’s not just one reason, there’s a number of reasons, and the shortage is across the board – quantity surveying, engineers, estimators, skilled labour and planners.” 

Contributing reasons include an aging workforce that is going into retirement, the need to attract more people and young people into the industry, and the impacts of Brexit. 

Matthew Ahluwalia, programme officer at climate change charity Ashden, says there are just 3000 heat pump installers, compared with 96,000 gas engineers; and only a small fraction of the UK’s builders are accredited to retrofit homes. 

“We will also need a workforce of 36,000 retrofit coordinators to ensure insulation work is carried out to rigorous quality standards and avoid Grenfell-style disasters. At present, we have just 2 per cent of the number needed.”

And Scotland faces a “monumental but essential task” if it is to overhaul its aged housing stock and find practical solutions to reduce emissions and address the climate emergency, Patrick Harvie told the first-ever Green Home Festival as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Scotland’s Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights was the keynote speaker at the launch of the festival, which was organised by the Construction Industry Collective Voice.

Net zero Birmingham

Further south, in Birmingham, a pilot scheme for the 3 Cities Retrofit programme – one of the largest retrofit initiatives in the UK which could cover nearly 165,000 social homes across Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton – has been announced which will see 300 homes get an energy-saving retrofit.

Birmingham City Council has committed to making the city carbon neutral by 2030 and this scheme is intended to make a step towards realising the ambitions.

Contractor Equans has been picked to do the work. They are charged with developing innovative solutions and funding models which can be used to scale up whole house retrofit across the city.

Housing accounts for 26 per cent of the city’s total carbon emissions.

Council leader Ian Ward, said: “These 300 properties are just the start of our ambitious plans to ensure that all our housing stock is carbon neutral by 2030.

“The council has a large estate and the delivery of the 3 Cities Whole House Retrofit Pilot, presents us with a great opportunity to progress towards our net zero carbon ambitions.

“This exciting pilot will also make a significant contribution to economic recovery and growth through creating employment and skills opportunities for local businesses and the local community.”

Net zero Heroes

Equans is piloting another retrofit project, this one for schools.

Their school retrofit model is intended to support the government’s 2050 net zero carbon ambitions through a two-pronged approach – decarbonising the buildings and encouraging the teachers and children who use them to get involved in the net zero agenda.

Called School Zero, the project hopes to capture contracts to retrofit some of the vast majority of the UK’s 32,000 schools that are not yet zero carbon, by reducing energy bills and helping them achieve net zero accreditation.

These more modest measures would target heating system controls, swapping gas boilers, installing thermal efficient windows and doors, providing EV charge points, installing smart building sensors and planting trees in school grounds.

Mark Dolling, education director for Equans UK and Ireland, said: “The UK has bold ambitions for lowering greenhouse gas emissions and every industry, sector and organisation has to play its part.

“Schools sit at the heart of every community and we feel that they have a really important part to play in place-wide transition to net zero carbon.

“We want to put them at the centre of this work, decarbonising their own buildings but also positively influencing the behaviours and actions of families and local communities.

“Young people can be overwhelmed by climate change, so we wanted to create an approach that was positive, pro-active and engaging, creating ‘School Zero Heroes’ and confidence that they can and will make a tangible difference.”

The teaching material, developed with school leaders, teachers, and specialists, provides resources to help teachers develop and fire the imagination of young people to become champions of sustainability and net zero carbon transition.

Low carbon housing

New houses have to be net zero carbon as well of course. Equans is also behind a low carbon housing estate being built in Wakefield in the north of England. 

This is using air source heat pumps and rooftop solar panels to provide heating for the new development comprising 75 homes for affordable rent, plus 45 shared ownership homes and 20 available through a rent-to-buy scheme.

There is no shortage of enthusiasm to reach net zero in the housing sector, just a shortage of appropriately skilled workers. This makes the race to net zero about training if nothing else.

David Thorpe

David Thorpe is the author of ‘One Planet’ Cities: Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limits and Director of the One Planet Centre Community Interest Company in the UK. More by David Thorpe

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  1. Australia will be in an even worse position because our green skills are coming off an even lower base. That’s why government funding for training such as that offered through the Green Building Institute is so important. We don’t need funding for more courses. We need money for more actual training.