The Trouble with Retrofit - Damp Specialists in Demand for a Long Time!

Insulate Britain, Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and COP – all household names that look like they will turn out to be synonymous with the start of a global revolution, but who is going to build it?

The government’s own website announces “UK enshrines new target in law to slash emissions by 78% by 2035”. Love them or hate them, politicians, civil servants, boffins and advisors are today, busy drawing up plans, preparing new laws, dreaming up new forms of taxation and laying the groundwork, in a rushed attempt to do enough to convince themselves that they might have an outside chance of hitting a seemingly stratospheric target in 14 years!

Only a handful of houses stock are energy efficient…

There are roughly 28 million houses, flats and other residential properties in the UK, and only a tiny handful meet the levels of energy efficiency necessary to meet the targets we have set ourselves for 2035. Decarbonisation is dependent on the move from gas and oil for heating and cooking, to the use of decarbonised electricity. According to Google (never wrong) there are approximately 23 million domestic gas boilers in the UK.

Heat pumps are being heralded as the answer to all our heating needs, but they only really work if the house they are installed into is very well insulated and doesn’t leak. So on even the most optimistic projections we must try and get retrofit insulation into 2 million properties a year.

The consequences of insulation

Now the fact is we are going to be nowhere near 2 million a year for a bit yet. Projections are that the market will grow, the industry supplying the market will grow and with the right stimulus, and a few rules and laws chucked in, the market will provide the solution and all will be right with the world – B*****ks!

As many members of the Property Care Association know, we have been very interested in the consequence of putting insulation in to and on to buildings. I am still of the view that despite lots and lots of clever people, doing lots of clever stuff, we collectively have not the least idea of what we are doing. The long term impacts of even well delivered interventions are a mystery to most retrofit installers.

This is made worse because most homeowners, and many building surveyors, don’t yet have any clue what good or bad retrofit looks like. Who is teaching us how to look after high efficiency buildings, maintain system critical ventilation systems and spot defects before they turn into problems…? 

A skills shortage in construction

When we factor in that there are not enough people to satisfy the demands of the building industry today, we can ruminate on the problem of who is going to do all this new work? What complicates this thought is that as well as wanting to insulate over 20 million existing properties in no time at all, every political party wants us to build a load more new homes as well!

Look also at the demographics of the construction industry, perhaps even the age profile of our own businesses and supply chain. Lots of grey hair I suspect. Just how do we replace ourselves? Let alone figure out how we create the opportunity for us to pass the baton to what needs to be a growing influx of bright young, diverse, optimistic self-starters who see our sector as a place to grow, rather than a place you go when other options run out.

How will we meet these demands?

The ideal candidate will be educated to degree level, have a keen eye for detail and an ability to problem solve as part of dynamic team – oh, and doesn’t mind the prospect of the thundercan, strong tea, and getting wet and cold in the dark on a windswept site in January while enduring the vagary of short term contracts, and on average pay, in an industry where your clients distrust most of what you say and think you’re a crook.

When you start looking at the issues the demands and proposals for achieving an 78% cut in carbon by 2035, it all starts to feel a bit daft.

I remember doing a course with SPAB a few years ago, and they brought up an equation which explained the historic impacts of quality being proportionate to quantity and speed. The quality of construction has always diminished when time is short and demand is high. This has been true across the ages. Factor in the unknown consequence of untested technologies and the result could be catastrophic.

A global meltdown and disastrous climate change…

It’s very easy to be critical when the fact remains that we are facing global meltdown and disastrous climate change. Something must be done and it must be done fast.

Perhaps what we really need is a few billion pounds spent trying to crack nuclear fusion. Couple this with a programme of demolition that will raise to the ground millions of houses that are too complicated, expensive, or risky to insulate, and replace them with system built hyper-efficient homes made of wood and other carbon catching stuff.

This radical approach to the problem won’t and can’t happen. We will ultimately have to navigate the prospect of disjointed, ill-understood retrofit, installed by people who don’t know what they are doing and don’t have the commitment, knowledge, skill or time to do a decent job.

It has never been a better time to be a damp specialist.

Happy Christmas.

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