Retrofit for zero carbon

The Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund provides one way for social housing providers in England to improve the quality of homes for their tenants although bidding teams may need support in working out the best way to treat older properties – says Caroline Bowler of SIG Distribution

The application window for funding under Wave 3 of the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund (SHDC) is expected to open this summer. The Fund was set up by the government to enhance the energy efficiency of socially rented homes in England.

Of the 24 million homes in England, 4 million are social homes. Of these, 1.4 million are below Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) Band C; with 1.2 million EPC D; 105,000 EPC E; and 40,000 EPC F and G. The government’s target is for as many homes as possible to achieve an EPC C by 2035. This makes social landlords responsible for decarbonising a significant proportion of England’s homes if England is to reach its net zero target by 2050.

In addition to helping move towards net zero, upgrading the energy efficiency of social housing will also bring significant benefits to tenants. Social housing is some of the least energy efficient in the country, forcing tenants to spend more to heat their homes, so improving their energy efficiency will also reduce heating bills helping to lift households out of fuel poverty. To reduce fuel poverty the government has set a target for fuel poor homes to achieve an Energy Efficiency Rating (EER) C by 2030.

Although meeting energy efficiency standards will bring significant environmental and social benefits, retrofitting energy efficiency improvements can be expensive and technically challenging. The SHDC was introduced to help social landlords make energy efficiency improvements by making funding available in a series of waves. Bidding for Wave 2.2 closed to applications in January 2024. The bidding window for Wave 3 is expected to open in summer, so now is the time to start planning

Landlords looking to take advantage of this fund will find a huge amount of advice on how to access the fund on the government-backed service social housing retrofit accelerator.

Social housing is made up of a wide variety of house types, so it is unlikely one solution will fit all. Eligible measures are energy efficiency and heating measures compatible with the Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP), which includes cavity wall, loft and external insulation, ventilation improvements, the installation of heat pumps and window and door replacement.

All retrofit projects should consider the whole-house (envelope, heating, ventilation and energy systems) and not individual elements in isolation. It is also important to remember that retrofit measures don’t have to be delivered all in one go and can be phased.

Bidders for funding are encouraged to use fabric first principles, based on reducing the heating demand for a home before installing new heating systems or energy systems to avoid oversizing or inappropriate renewable energy systems being installed.

Government statistics show that to the end of November 2023, the majority of measures installed under Wave 1 and Wave 2.1 funding were insulation measures (59% under Wave 1, 69% under Wave 2) with loft, cavity wall and solid wall insulation all featuring. Other significant measures included the installation of energy efficient doors and windows and solar PV.

As with any retrofit project, however, the real challenge lies in the variation in individual properties.  For example, in North Devon, £4.8 million has been allocated to bring some 3,500 properties up to EPC level C over a four-year period.  This area has a huge range of house types, each presenting their own technical issues.  Many are solid walls, some have flat roofs and a particular challenge is the Cornish House design – notoriously difficult to bring up to standard.  Pressure on the teams responsible for designing, planning and executing the upgrade work is huge and the homes can be technically challenging.

The National Housing Federation and Local Government Association’s report Hard to decarbonise Social Homes, identified a number of characteristics that make homes harder to decarbonise. In addition to those issues mentioned above, they include housing on the coast or at risk of flooding; heritage homes; constrained sites that may preclude the use of external wall insulation or heat pumps; and homes with bespoke features such as bay windows, which will need particular expertise to manage.

Some of these issues need complex solutions to produce improvements in energy efficiency without producing unwanted side-effects that can actually damage the fabric of an older property. The best technical support for the teams tasked with such upgrades needs to be both comprehensive and competent.

Individual product manufacturers will give advice on their own products, but for product-neutral advice, a distributor will be best placed.

The benefit of this joined-up approach between housing provider and distributor is that it saves social housing providers having to deal with a multiplicity of material suppliers. It also means that if a particular product is in short supply, they can suggest suitable alternatives.

The climate emergency means that the demand to retrofit all homes, not just social housing, is likely to accelerate. All of which means that the diversity of product solutions and depth of technical expertise offered will become increasingly important in helping the country move towards net zero.

Caroline Bowler is head of public sector framework partnerships at SIG Distribution