Making our homes fit the future – without tears

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From Nicola Terry, first published on Cambridge Carbon Footprint, 23/3/2021

In the 21st century we rate health and comfort in our homes higher than before AND we need energy efficiency in order to minimize carbon emissions. It’s a tall order, but it can be done and there are many examples to prove it, in Cambridge (see Open Eco Homes) and elsewhere. However, one of the key steps is to find a reliable builder, and this is a problem where Transition Cambridge/Cambridge Carbon Footprint has struggled to give advice. So we are pleased to be able to suggest a new option for home owners: RetrofitWorks, a co-operative of responsible building contractors which has an excellent track record in London now has a scheme running in Cambridgeshire. It may seem strange that a co-operative of building contractors should bring benefits to homeowners, but we are confident this is the case.

Energy efficiency means lots of insulation, high levels of air tightness and reliable, controllable, ventilation – all of which require new materials and new skills for working with them. Unfortunately, poorly done insulation and air tightness can be ineffective or worse. Even basic measures such as loft insulation and cavity wall insulation can lead to damp, rotting timbers and mould if not done properly. It is hard for us as householders to tell if things have been done right or not until far too late.

The government only has one lever for promoting quality and that is regulation. Hence PAS 2030, the quality standard for installing energy efficiency measures. All Green Deal auditors and installers had to have accreditation and there were audits too – at considerable expense. But this did not fix the problems, at least not totally.  For example, out of 100,000 audits for measures installed under the ECO grant scheme, 10% found failures that required extra work to put right! (Bonfield, 2016).

Hence another new standard: PAS 2035 which covers assessing buildings, designing and specifying measures, and a new consumer protection scheme called TrustMark. Their accreditation is not compulsory for every building contractor or project, but it is required for access to government subsidies like the Green Homes Grant scheme. And frankly we need something like it.

However it still suffers from the same problems as before. In particular, it is really hard for small businesses to invest the time and cash into getting accreditation with no certainty that it will pay back in new business. In the meantime, the Green Homes Grant money pot is not being used, partly for lack of installers qualified to do so – there is an acute shortage of qualified retrofit coordinators, a new role defined by the PAS 2035 scheme.

Hence RetrofitWorks, a non-profit cooperative for small business in the building sector helping to generate demand for retrofit measures by making life easy for the homeowners as well as the builders.

For homeowners: Each home gets a Whole House Retrofit Plan, help to find grants, and project management for each step as it is implemented.  (You don’t have to do the whole thing at once). RetrofitWorks have their own Retrofit Coordinators.

For contractor members: you will be invited to quote for the parts of each project according to the skills needed. In addition, you get help with training and qualifications, you can rely on getting a clear specification without unnecessary paperwork, and you will not be competing against cowboys so they can get a fair price for the work.

RetrofitWorks runs projects in different areas, working with community groups and/or local authorities to find household customers and recruiting local contractors as members. Current projects include Ecofurb in London, Green Homes Grant Local Authority Delivery schemes in Wandsworth and East Sussex, and Cosy Homes Oxfordshire. Here is what customers have said:

“Thank you for all your hard work on our home. We were impressed with the amount of work the team got through in a short amount of time. Given that tight timeframe, we were especially impressed that no corners were cut at any stage. The whole team clearly take pride in what they do” (Trish, Hook Norton)

“If you want a proper retrofit survey and support with project management and making the right decisions, Cosy Homes Oxfordshire is the way to go“ (Jan, East Oxford)
RetrofitWorks has come to Cambridgeshire as part of a partnership called Eastern New Energy. This is led by the University of East London and has funding from the Regional Development Fund. If you are thinking of renovating your home to improve its energy efficiency, we recommend you get in touch, especially if you are in South Cambs. rather than Cambridge itself as they are prioritising projects in that area at the moment.

Bonfield, 2016, Each Home Counts: An Independent Review of Consumer Advice, Protection, Standards and Enforcement for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (BEIS, DCLG).