Help on the road to zero carbon homes


The Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund could see social housing providers upgrade the energy efficiency of up to 90,000 homes. Some of these homes will be relatively straightforward to upgrade, others will require a joined-up approach as Caroline Bowler of SIG explains

Any maintenance team charged with improving the quality of aging housing will know that it’s challenging. Many social housing providers are struggling with deteriorating properties that can be cold and subject to damp. Improving their thermal performance can be complicated and no one solution will work for every property. 

The Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund

This is a timely and much-needed stimulus to give social housing providers the opportunity to improve their housing stock. In doing so, the initiative has the potential to demonstrate how older homes can be retrofitted, which could provide valuable lessons for both social and private housing.

This is important for zero carbon objectives because private sector owners seem very reluctant to invest in their own homes. In its December 2022 report Hitting a brick wall, the Resolution Foundation pointed out that “Close to half (47%) of owner occupier households with inefficient walls think that upgrades are unsuitable for their homes”; are “too much hassle”; and that with an average cost of £8,000 per property, it “would take 18 years to recoup through bill savings”, even with today’s energy prices.

Government funding to reduce carbon emissions is therefore welcome, particularly when the immediate beneficiaries will be the tenants. The funding announced in March will make a huge difference in improving the quality of life for residents. The current phase sees a total of £788m awarded to improve the energy efficiency of social housing.

This fund will enable social housing providers to add cavity wall, loft and external insulation, improve ventilation, install heat pumps and replace windows to upgrade as many as 90,000 homes with an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating below C.

The Greener Futures Partnership, a collaboration of like-minded housing associations, has secured £40m in funding under the scheme. It plans to retrofit 5,495 homes with enhancements to the fabric of the buildings and, in addition, replace existing heating and hot water systems with technologies such as air source heat pumps (ASHP), and solar photovoltaic panels (PVs) with battery storage.

As with any retrofit initiative, the real challenge for Greener Futures and other social housing providers is that some homes will be easier and more straightforward to decarbonise than others.

In the National Housing Federation and Local Government Association’s report ‘Hard to decarbonise social homes’, a number of characteristics are identified that may make homes harder to decarbonise including:

  • Solid walls, where internal or external insulation is required
  • Flat roof homes or homes with an inaccessible loft where low-cost loft insulation cannot be installed Terraced homes, where some of the homes are owned by private occupiers unwilling to participate in retrofit schemes which can limit economies of scale
  • Heritage homes, particularly in conservation areas
  • Narrow, hard to fill cavities (less than 50 mm) that are difficult to fill effectively
  • Space constrained plots, which can affect the installation of external wall insulation or the siting of an ASHP
  • High rise flats, particularly those with mixed tenure
  • Housing on the coast or homes at risk of flooding may make homes harder and more expensive to insulate
  • Homes with bespoke features such as bay windows, which make homes harder to insulate and where technical expertise is required to develop appropriate solutions.

There may also be external constraints such as planning policy, which may impact which retrofit measures can be installed.

Some of these issues require complex solutions to produce improvements in energy efficiency without producing unwanted side-effects that can actually damage the fabric of an older property.

Home Upgrade Grant

Alongside the funding under the SHDF, the government has also awarded an additional £630m to councils through the Home Upgrade Grant to improve the energy efficiency of poorly performing homes without mains gas central heating. 

A deep retrofit project by Swansea Council – in partnership with the Welsh School of Architecture – to refurbish a terrace of six council bungalows shows the types of measures that could be applied under this initiative. The project included external wall and loft insulation, installation of high specification double-glazed windows along with a ground source heat pump, PV panels on the roof and a large battery capable of storing surplus electricity generated by the PVs. The properties were also fitted with an MVHR system to provide a constant source of energy efficient ventilation.

These are complex projects and, given the time limitations of the funding (all funding must be drawn down by the end of 2025), there is pressure on housing maintenance teams who may lack the resources to consider exhaustive options for each housing type. 

Manufacturers have identified the opportunity and many are providing specific product solutions designed to work in a retrofit environment. Some merchants may also provide advice on product selection while contractors will tender based on suppliers that they know.

For the maintenance teams there is a fourth option – and that is to work with a distributor such as SIG. A distributor should be able to offer detailed technical advice which is also product agnostic. Since distributors work with a huge range of manufacturers their advice is based purely on performance evaluations, will include the very newest products on the market and will be able to suggest substitutions should there be any unforeseen disruptions in supply. A partnership between a distributor and a social housing provider will allow the provider to explore the widest range of alternative solutions to the more complex retrofit characteristics that make some homes harder to decarbonise.

What these two initiatives show is that the UK government is beginning to ramp up efforts to retrofit at least some of the UK’s old and energy inefficient homes. The climate emergency and the energy crisis mean that funding for retrofit is likely to accelerate, along with the number of homes that are harder to decarbonise. All of which means that the diversity of product solutions and depth of technical expertise offered by SIG will become increasingly important in helping decarbonise social housing.

Caroline Bowler is regional sales manager south – residential of SIG Distribution