By Ian Babelon
In the first of two blog posts, Idox’s Ian Babelon takes us on a tour of some of the best social housing retrofits in Britain, and beyond.
Blog posts on the Knowledge Exchange blog have repeatedly shown the need to retrofit social homes at scale to provide decent, comfortable homes while building capacity for low-carbon homes. The recent Powering Up Britain agenda highlights the long-term economic, environmental and social benefits of retrofitting homes, with the latest government funding opportunities including the second round of the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund (SHDF2) and ECO+. Thankfully, decades of learning in the UK and internationally have led to exemplar retrofits for all types of homes. After considering best practice guidance, this post provides a selection of examples across the UK and beyond.
Designing it right
The National Housing Federation has gathered excellent industry guidance about decarbonising social homes, and how to retrofit traditional and historic homes.
For example, the Sustainable Traditional Buildings Alliance’s Guidance Wheel helps to visualise and manage the interactions between the different dimensions of retrofits required to implement the landmark PAS2035 retrofit framework.
The Sustainable Renovation Guide by the Scottish Ecological Design Guide (SEDA) also provides excellent technical guidance for retrofitting various types of homes. Airtightness is often essential to achieving good energy performance as it prevents thermal gaps, as detailed in this technical guide.
Industry-leading, on-demand webinars hosted by the Northern Housing Consortium also provide guidance and inspiration for all aspects of low-carbon social housing retrofits, from financing to neighbourhood-wide retrofits. Experience shows that having an airtightness champion in the construction team is also key to successful retrofits.
To make best use of technical and design guidance, having Unique Property Reference Numbers (UPRNs) provide a ‘golden thread’ for housing associations. Being able to accurately identify and differentiate between all properties enables compilation of complete datasets about housing stocks.
The Better Social Housing Review (2022) encourages housing associations to work together to conduct and publish an audit of the UK social housing stock. A clearer picture of all social housing can benefit both individual organisations and the wider industry in tracking progress toward decarbonisation and healthy, affordable homes for all. Recent assessments by the Regulator of Social Housing for council homes in London have further revealed the importance of up-to-date, complete datasets to monitor and guarantee building safety measures. Related benefits can include consistent monitoring of energy performance, environmental health, carbon emissions, and customer experience.
Historic and older homes
Social housing in the UK is often associated with housing construction in the period between 1947 and the 1980s. However, according to existing housing unit statistics in England for 2021, there is a total of 400,000 social homes built in the interwar period, and 273,000 social homes built before 1919. Older homes can be located in conservation areas, which limits options for retrofitting.
In 2019, Southside Housing Association used the EnerPHit retrofitting approach (involving the highest levels of energy efficiency) to pre-1919 tenements on Niddrie Road in Glasgow, with a design by John Gilbert Architects, in collaboration with Strathclyde University. As is often required for older housing, the eight one-bed flats benefitted from internal wall insulation to preserve the sandstone street façades. Natural building products were favoured as much as possible to guarantee indoor air quality and permeability while reducing embodied carbon and energy. Heating was supplied with new Air Source Heat Pumps or energy efficient combi gas boilers, along with mechanical ventilation heat recovery units (MVHRs). The project serves as a demonstration exemplar for “deep” tenement retrofits, and received funding from Glasgow City Council, the commissioning housing association, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Funding Council.
In Hamilton, Ontario, the Ken Soble Tower owned by CityHousing Hamilton was nearing the end of its life, having been built in 1967. The 2021 EnerPHit refurbishment featured external-wall and roof insulation, along with Air Source Heat Pumps. Completed in 2021, it is the first EnerPHit retrofit of an apartment tower in North America, providing 146 affordable housing units to older residents.
Back in Glasgow, the Cedars Court high-rise, comprising 314 flats, owned by Queens Cross Housing Association, benefitted from the first of its kind fabric-first EnerPHit refurbishment in Scotland between 2016 and 2019.
Further examples of high-rise retrofits include 528 flats across three tower blocks at Edward Woods Estate (2011-2014) in Shepherds Bush, Hammersmith and Fulham, and retrofits of 291 flats across two tower blocks at Ethelred Estate (2009-2010) in Kennington, Lambeth.
Co-operative social housing
In London, the North Camden Housing Co-operative commissioned a deep retrofit of Carlton Chapel House to EnerPHit standards. The social housing block of 15 flats was built in the 1980s, and was later susceptible to energy losses, forcing residents into fuel poverty. Renovation took place in 2019, and required decanting tenants to temporary accommodation. Collaboration between the construction contractors and the architects was key to achieving airtightness. Residents reported improved air quality, thermal comfort, and less noise after moving back.
The guidance about older and traditional homes is often relevant for social homes in rural locations. Swaffham Prior Heat Network is the first of its kind in the UK, delivering a mix of ground source and air source communal heat to 300 homes, including residents at Sanctuary social homes. The project is the result of collaboration between the Swaffham Prior Community Land Trust, Cambridgeshire County Council and the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.
Learning from examples
In seeking to bring new life to dysfunctional buildings, it pays to learn from other projects, including unforeseen challenges. Flagship retrofits such as the low rise flats at Erneley Close in Manchester (2015) and 11-storey housing blocks at Wilmcote House in Portsmouth (2014-2018) revealed structural issues while retrofits were under way. Such technical and financial complexities illustrate inherent risks to retrofitting homes that initial building surveys, however comprehensive, may fail to detect. Decanting residents or allowing them to stay in occupancy during retrofit works can both be a challenging experience. In both instances, however, residents reported significant improvements to living conditions after final completion.
The scale of the retrofit challenge is enormous. This does not mean starting from scratch, however. The wide range of projects cited in this article demonstrate that social housing retrofits can be delivered at scale for nearly all types of homes, apart from structurally unredeemable buildings. It pays, therefore, to learn, and lead, by example.
Ian Babelon is a UX Researcher in Idox. The second of his blog posts on social housing retrofits will appear in this blog on Wednesday 24 May.
Photograph: Samuel Ryde on Unsplash
Further reading: more on decarbonising housing in The Knowledge Exchange blog
Close to home: getting to net zero means decarbonising the UK’s housing stock | The Knowledge Exchange Blog
You must be logged in to post a comment.