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The retrofit challenge

There are no great men, only great challenges that ordinary men are forced by circumstances to meet.

Ever get that feeling, when listening to a presentation, that the person giving it has X-ray vision straight into your brain and you therefore totally and utterly agree with what they are saying?

It doesn’t happen very often, but it happened to me today. Ideal, the boiler people, launched three of their new boilers to the press at the Building Centre in London and invited as a speaker Wayne Hemingway, the designer-turned-developer and, as far as I am now concerned, one very good egg.

Hemingway was talking about the desperate need we have in this country of getting the retro-fit issue sorted. All very well and good working hard on levels 4,5,6 – 16 whatever of the Code for Sustainable Homes, but new build homes will only ever, can only ever account for a fraction of the housing stock.

Obviously, it’s great that so much effort has gone into the Building Regulations and the Decent Homes programme, improving the standards that new homes have to be built to. But Hemingway showed us some pictures of typical ‘Coronation Street’ terraces that a northern council had bought up in order to sell off to developers, knock down and rebuild as modern flats or terraces.

Can it really be better to bulldoze rows of workers’ cottages and rebuild them as, well, worker’s houses or flats, than to renovate them and bring them up to a higher standard of insulation, efficiency and decor but still keep their Victorian aesthetics? On a spreadsheet , in an office in London, it might appear to be cheaper, but cheaper does not always mean better. And, anyway, cheaper doesn’t always mean less money in the long term.

What would be so wrong with refitting those houses with the most efficient boilers possible, with putting in the most efficient double glazing possible and with lagging every pipe, hot water cylinder and shoving shed-loads of insulation in the roof spaces?

Such action would drastically cut the energy bills, making the houses feel warmer, nicer and more occupier-friendly. OK, so the houses wouldn’t have the A-rating on the Energy Performance Certificate, but a) most people understand that there is some payoff when you chose a period property and b) non-one ever pays any attention to those certificates anyway (and as someone who spent 18 months house-hunting, I know what I’m talking about).

The downside to renovating rather than knocking and rebuilding is that you don’t get to sell all those extra bricks and blocks, even if you do get to sell the boilers and the insulation. But in so many cases, it has to be the better option surely?

Around 70% of the houses that we will be living in in 2020 have already been built. There is a huge challenge to be faced in making sure that these properties can be brought up to modern living standards, even if they won’t ever achieve the equivalent of CODE level 4 or 5.

And to finish on another thought from Hemingway: why are mortgage lenders so much happier to lend money on new build properties than on ones that need renovating? Because they see newbuilds as better investments. So much better if mortgages on properties to renovate could be staggered the same way they are for self-build. Purchase money upfront (less than for the newbuild anyway) and then staggered payments as the work gets underway?

The work that Jewson and the BRE have been doing on retrofit, the research that’s going on at Salford University into retrofit energy efficiency means this issue is being tackled. But too little, too slowly.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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