Learnings from the decarbonisation journey so far

By Victoria Tomlinson · 28 March 2023

I attended the House Building and Management Forum last week where, as expected, there was a huge focus on the decarbonisation journey across both the new build and retrofit sectors.

This blog focuses on the lessons we have learnt so far, working alongside our Housing Provider clients, plus learning shared at the forum last week.

Firstly, retrofit. We have supported a number of our clients to submit decarbonisation grant funding bids, both in England and Wales. Whilst the bidding process is complex (more so in England than Wales) if you are organised and prepared, drafting the submission is relatively straightforward.

In terms of preparing for grant funding bid submissions, I can’t overstate how important it is that Housing Providers understand their assets and have accurate data about the condition and energy performance of their homes. We also need to be clear about the assets that perform well and those that don’t. We recommend our asset grading tool, ASAP- Asset Grading – Ark (arkconsultancy.co.uk)  which enables you to identify your poor-performing homes for further review, before launching into expensive retrofit programmes.

A fabric-first approach, ensuring homes are well insulated and selected heating systems perform as efficiently as possible, is the focus for the sector at present. Therefore, being clear about the ultimate net zero specification will ensure, as far as reasonably practical, work done now does not need to be re-done or changed in the future.

Upfront modelling of net zero pathways will ensure grant applications can be made in a timely way with pre-agreed delivery programmes -rather than creating programmes to ‘spend’ the grant.

Over the last few years, we have seen a lot of customer and stakeholder feedback. When thinking about fabric first, external wall insulation programmes bring with them a series of challenges. Planners, whilst supportive in principle of thermally insulating homes, can prove more challenging when it comes to the technical detailing, particularly when you are fitting EWI to one half of a pair of semis or to one house in a terrace. 

We have also experienced neighbour objections, where adjacent homes are privately owned, owners often don’t want their home to look different or believe EWI will look wrong and therefore devalue their home. Many of our Housing Provider clients have found it challenging to include private owners in EWI programmes as recharging the cost of work is complex and can create a risk of non-payment. Working with private owners also requires more staff resource and many find this a step too far. Local Authority Partners can offer support in this area, and it is well worth liaising with them around their grant-funded programmes.

We can’t underestimate the consultation that is needed with stakeholders and the community before work programmes commence. It is important to identify the team resource you will need to deliver this and equally important to ‘flush’ out the neighbour, community and planning challenges you will receive upfront, so you can address concerns prior to planning applications being submitted or work starting.

When it comes to retrofit work, customers are very clear saying they don’t want to be dictated to; they want to be able to have a choice around the types of work being proposed. They want to be involved in decision-making. These are their homes, to them, they are not ’assets’.

Customers are of course focused on what the proposed work will do to their energy bills. We are all aware of cases where air-source heat pumps have pushed customers into fuel poverty, as homes weren’t insulated at the same time.  It is important to, again, plan upfront and provide customers with the information they need to make informed decisions. This will need to be in different formats, such as video as well as printed information.

This approach is the one used for planned work normally and therefore teams should be well-versed in delivering this type of engagement. However internal teams may need to upskill in terms of energy efficiency measures before they can support customers. Customer refusals and how these will be approached also need upfront consideration. We may presume a customer will want energy efficiency works but often they do not for a variety of reasons.

Finally, on this topic, many clients have pushed ahead with pilots which generally focus on a small number of homes. It is important that we have a clear rationale to support the selection of homes for pilots and main delivery programmes. Customers will rightfully challenge why their home hasn’t been selected and they will want timeframes for when work will commence at their home.

As part of pilot works it is so important that we gather both quantitative data and qualitative feedback from those living in the improved homes. The data may say one thing, but for the customer the outcome is detrimental, so we need to balance both information sources. And again, team resource to deal with queries, feedback and collating the learning for review is so important.

Moving on to new build, in theory, net zero carbon is easier to achieve on a new build development. However, the cost is prohibitive for many developing Housing Providers. It is hard to justify delivering 10 Passive house homes for the same capital as 15 retrofit-enabled homes when the waiting lists for affordable housing are so great.

It is also hard to justify spending a disproportionately high amount on new homes when existing homes require substantial retrofit investment. With the capital it takes to develop one Passive house home, you could retrofit four existing homes to a very high standard, improving the lives of four households compared to one.

However, it is still important to develop a pathway and have a clear strategy for moving new build specifications to achieve net zero carbon in the future. The retrofit-enabled route feels like a good compromise to many so they can add on renewable technology later.

There are however good Passive house case studies in the sector. Whilst we know it is expensive to deliver these schemes, they could be a solution for ‘fuel poverty hotspots’ and a focus for areas of high deprivation as they can make such a profound difference to people’s lives.

In summary, our learning has provided some clear messages:

  • Build net zero retrofit targets into day-to-day delivery – it is time to stop thinking of this as a separate piece of work.
  • Plan programmes of work and develop specifications, so that when grant funding is available you are ready to bid with a clear plan for how you will spend the money.
  • Get your procurement plan in place. Accept you may need to consider a blended approach, with a whole house solution considered for void homes, internal workforces delivering some work streams and external framework contractors delivering other workstreams.
  • Keep on collaborating – the more we share the more we can ALL move forward.
  • Ensure you have enough resources to properly lead customer, community and stakeholder engagement.
  • Consider the formats you will use for information sharing.
  • Build in enough time to do this. If you don’t put the time in upfront, you will only have to manage the delays later on.
  • Customers want choice – don’t expect a positive response if you go in with a parental approach, remember these are peoples’ homes.
  • And finally spend time considering how you will prioritise work and how you can justify your decisions. Involve customers in these decisions.

If you are looking for a Retrofit Framework don’t forget to look at CHIC’s framework. CHIC has an extensive range of frameworks and DPS available, all with PAS2035 and Trustmark accredited firms, to support your zero carbon agenda. For more details click Zero Carbon – CHIC Ltd.

ARK is a multidisciplinary management and technical consultancy working throughout the UK. We predominantly work with Housing Associations and Local Authorities and as you would expect we have been working with a number of clients on their net zero approaches, considering both retrofit and new build pathways.

To support with your decarbonisation objectives please get in touch. Contact Victoria Tomlinson at vtomlinson@arkconsultancy.co.uk or call 0121 5153831.

Victoria Tomlinson

Development Director

Victoria has worked at executive and senior level with a number of RPs over the last twenty years, having strategic and operational responsibilities for Development, Asset Management, Compliance and Corporate Health and Safety.

Victoria also has extensive experience of delivering regeneration projects, S106 acquisitions, land led and package deals plus commercial sale developments. She also has experience of leading and managing sales and leasehold management teams


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