The slow, heavy gears of deep retrofit start to turn
At SEAI's 2018 deep retrofit conference, there are signs that action to overhaul Ireland's outdated, inefficient building stock is gradually moving forward
Main image: Semi-detached house in Salthill, Galway retrofitted to the passive house standard (at left), with unrenovated dwelling to the right.
Construct Ireland, the magazine that eventually became Passive House Plus, was born in 2003 in the midst of a huge construction boom in Ireland. At the time, sprawling housing developments were springing up on the outskirts of every town, large and small, across the country. Dublin was expanding rapidly.
The burgeoning magazine focused on sustainability at a time when energy efficiency standards were weak, and it played a small-but-tangible role in the introduction of ambitious energy standards for new homes in 2008.
That was the year I started writing for the magazine, and it was also the year that the property bubble started to implode. In 2006 there were over 93,000 homes connected to the electricity grid in Ireland — one approximate measure of housebuilding activity — but by 2010 that had fallen to less than 15,000.
Talk in the industry turned to retrofit. In the absence of new build activity, and with climate change becoming an ever-more alarming issue, surely now was the time for mass action to insulate and upgrade our homes.
There was much talk about the idea of a ‘green new deal’: the idea that by investing heavily in measures to de-carbonise our economies — including the deep retrofit of our outdated buildings — governments could drastically cut carbon emissions and stimulate the economy in one fell swoop.
There were all sorts of reasons why this made economic sense. The state would get back more in tax revenue from such activity than it would spend in the first place. Householders, with smaller energy bills and more disposable income, would start spending more too, and stimulate the economy.
Homeowners could even, in theory, use the savings made on their energy bills to pay for the upgrade work over time — a concept known as ‘pay as you save’ that seemed at the time, to me, like it was going to make deep retrofit immediately appealing to everyone.
Pretty much every industry conference I went to at the time had at least a partial focus on retrofit: how to finance it, how to regulate it, how to make it happen.
But the retrofit revolution never took off. Financial institutions didn’t seem that interested (they may have been preoccupied with other matters) and neither did homeowners, whether because they didn’t really fancy the hassle, couldn’t access the finance, or didn't really understand what was involved.
And ultimately, given the sorts of disasters we have seen at Grenfell Tower and elsewhere, perhaps it was for the best that the industry didn’t rush head-first into mass energy retrofit — a complex and technically demanding challenge.
So almost a decade later, it was encouraging to attend the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland's deep retrofit conference at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin last Thursday, against a backdrop of much more more tangible, if still very limited, action.
Five million euro has been allocated for the agency’s deep retrofit pilot programme this year (the same as last year), and to date 40 buildings have been upgraded, all to an A rating (typically from a F or G).
Close to 160 more homes are now in the pipeline. Each retrofit costs in the region of €60 to €70,000, but 50% of this is funded by the scheme.
The numbers are small, but they are growing. Importantly, the scheme places an emphasis on whole-house retrofit design that hasn’t been seen before under retrofit grant schemes.
And the biggest limiting factor now would appear to be lack of skills in the industry, rather than lack of public interest. “We still have a lack of deep retrofit service providers,” Conor Hanniffy of SEAI told the conference.
Marion Jammet of the Irish Green Building Council echoed this. “We have a huge skills deficit to address in this area," she said.
But one contractor who did upskill for deep retrofit, Eoin Madigan of contractor Waterford Insulation, emphasised just how many enquiries he now gets about the scheme, and how much it has helped his business to grow.
The conference heard some key lessons. “Homeowners are telling us that comfort is the most important thing,” said Conor Hanniffy. Saving money and saving the environment come second and third, in terms of motivation for retrofit.
Clear, simple, engaging language is needed to sell deep retrofit to homeowners, added SEAI behavioural economist Karl Purcell — tell them they have the equivalent of a basketball-sized hole in their walls, not how many kWhs they are losing.
And remember that deep retrofit can mean having tradespeople in your home for weeks at a time, so constant and clear communication with homeowners is key, Eoin Madigan added.
Meanwhile UK retrofit expert and Passive House Plus columnist Peter Rickaby offered other improtant nuggets: retrofits must be thoroughly designed, retrofit standards are of no use without good guidance for those carrying them out, and there should be “no insulation without ventilation” — ventilation must be assessed whenever insulation or airtightness work is undertaken.
Chatting with Peter before his talk, he told me how heartening it is to come to events like this in Ireland and see signs of progress on deep retrofit here, given the comparative lack of action in the UK.
But there is still a need for sobriety. After all, just 40 houses have been upgraded under the SEAI deep retrofit programme to date. Of course there is similar work going on outside this scheme — and some local authorites are doing excellent work — but the numbers are still tiny given the scale of action needed to make meaningful cuts in carbon emissions from our built environment.
One of the final speakers on the day, Jan Bleyl of energy efficiency consultancy Energetic Solutions, said quite bluntly that the scale of retrofit needed in Ireland “will never come from SEAI”.
Grant programmes are a start, but ultimately “we will need to engage private capital” to simulate large-scale deep retrofit. And private capital isn’t interested in comfort, warmth or carbon emissions, but purely in the bottom line. It will take different stimulating factors to pique its interest.
Just I was leaving the event, rushing off to catch a train, Irish TV presenter and environmentalist Duncan Stewart had raised his hand in the audience and started talking about how climate change was likely to transform our world over the coming decades.
Anyone who knows Duncan knows he is prone, when given the opportunity, to speaking at length about climate change, even if isn’t immediately related to the topic at hand. But he's right to.
Climate change was, after all, the largely unmentioned context to the whole day, and the whole deep retrofit programme. And it is now becoming urgent. I can see it myself in the increasing frequency of serious winter floods here in Galway, and in how the coastline near my house is changing. It is a sobering reminder of just how immediately, and at what scale, a transformation of our built environment is needed.
The paradox of course is that rushed retrofit is likely to be bad retrofit. But we are now getting to the point where the technical design know-how to do it properly is maturing.
There is now an urgent need to up-skill the construction industry to deliver deep retrofit on a larger scale, and an urgent need to figure out how to make it appealing to property owners and financial institutions (the Energiesprong programme in the Netherlands is a good start).
As Tomás O'Leary of the Passive House Academy said at the end of his animated talk on airtightness, it's now time to move beyond pilot programmes, and towards real action on a much wider scale.