Retrofitting millions of old homes is top of the government’s priority list – but what does an efficient house look like? I spoke to John Doggart of the Sustainable Energy Academy about the charity’s nation-wide network of Superhomes.
What is Old Home SuperHome and how did it get started?
The project started just over three years ago. Our work with the Environmental Change Institute in Oxford showed that, if all new homes were carbon-neutral from tomorrow, it would save just 1% of the country’s carbon output by 2050. But if existing homes were retrofitted to become 60% more energy efficient it would reduce UK carbon emissions by around 15%.
When we looked into it we realised that nobody knew what the actual end product – a retrofitted house – looked like. And when retrofitting was talked about, it was talked about as an unpleasant necessity rather than an aspiration. So we set out to show people that these are terrific houses. That they perform better from an energy point of view than a new house, and that they use less fuel and are more comfortable too.
SuperHomes are old homes that have undergone energy-efficiency retrofits, and achieved a minimum of 60% carbon emission savings. They are open to the public at least once a year, so that other people can experience them too.
How many SuperHomes do you have now?
We have 80 across the country and 80% of the population are within 40 minutes of one. We’ve doubled the number each year and our target is 200.
How many visitors do you get?
Visitor numbers go up about 30-40% each year. Last year it was over 16,000. The best thing is, most visitors are inspired to invest in energy conservation afterwards – on average they spend £2,000, and a quarter spend over £5,000. That’s £30 million in the last year.
Why do you think most people do the retrofits?
Our survey proved that they do it for exactly the reasons you’d expect: to save money and to save the planet.
Is visiting a low carbon home is important?
Very. It gives visitors a ‘touch and feel’ experience. Before people have experienced a low carbon home, they usually think it’s a good idea, but not necessarily for them. Once they’ve visited a SuperHome, they see how they can do it in their own home. Marketing people call it salience. The opportunity to touch and feel convinces people of a reality in a way that words or megaphone messages can’t. Seeing is believing.
Also, the fact they’re being shown round by members of the public who’ve been through the process themselves is important. A householder who is taking visitors around is regarded as an incredibly trusted source. They’re not the government, who might have another agenda, or a charity, but someone like them.
Presumably it works best if people see houses that are similar to their own?
Absolutely, and we have at least one of every type of house, including about 7% social housing. That’s not a political move; it’s so people can see retrofits in a home like theirs. It makes the visit more relevant.
If you live in a Victorian solid wall house then visiting a 1970s house with cavity walls won’t have much resonance.
What about the people living in the homes?
Most of them are very ordinary people. They care about the environment, but they’re not ardent environmentalists. This helps to show visitors they don’t necessarily have to be ‘greenies’ to save money and make their homes more comfortable.
And comfort is a very important driver. From my own experience, living in a Victorian house that’s now warm is like moving from a 2* hotel to a 5* hotel. The heating goes off at 10pm and on at 6am and the temperature only goes down by about a degree in between – and we’ve removed about a third of the radiators. We’re on course for a 70% carbon reduction, and the house looks the way it’s always looked.
How did you achieve this?
We insulated the front façade so we wouldn’t lose any Victorian details and put external insulation on the back and sides, which are plain. We’ve also got a condensing boiler, low energy lighting, rainwater harvesting and Rationel windows. They perform about twice as well as conventional double-glazing. Our house is also so well draught-proofed, it performs three times better than a standard new-build house.
What do you think of the government’s Green Deal?
It’s good ut it’s too little. The cost of doing this kind of work is two or three times more than what the government is offering. Typically, it costs between £20,000 and £30,000 for the kind of work we’ve had done.
The government says it will bring the nation’s houses out of the dark ages. But that will only work if people go for it, won’t it?
Yes, people need to want to do it. The government seems to think that if a person loses no money, that will be the incentive. We think that’s not enough. Most people won’t want the hassle unless they’re incentivised or inspired in some other way. Of course, the value of the house goes up, usually enough to cover the cost of the work. We’re not sure by how much in this country, but in Australia there’s evidence values go up by about 6%. Add that to saving two thirds off your fuel bill and it’s a much stronger motivation.
Should the government should make it easier for people to see low carbon homes first-hand?
We think there should be one in every local authority area and it should be open during the week, which is something our SuperHome owners are unable to do. We’ve done what we can with our resources and with support from partners such as WWF and Energy Saving Trust, but it needs government resources too. The government could invest a fraction of the money it’s spending on the Green Deal to set up an example home open seven days a week in each area.
What’s next for Old Home SuperHome?
We want to increase the number of houses and visitor numbers and to help develop products that we identify a need for. For example, we’ve been developing a method of internal insulation for solid walls. We can do a room in about an hour and a half, on average. It means landlords can have this done without tenants having to move out.
Why so fast?
Because we’re smart! We do a 3D laser scan of the walls and send the information to an off-site board cutting operation. The boards are cut to size and then two installers put them on the walls. That’s it, job done. OK, you have to decorate afterwards and the radiators and skirting boards need to be taken off and put back on. They’re not done within the 90 minutes, but the main part is. We’ve just trialled it with a local authority with tenants in place and it worked very well.
It should take two days per home, once we perfect it. Not having to decant people to live elsewhere for four or five weeks not only prevents upheaval for tenants, it saves a lot of money and administration. It’s the sort of disruption the private rental sector will be prepared to consider.
John Doggart is chairman and founder of the Sustainable Energy Academy. The next countrywide opening of a SuperHome is from 2-3 April 2011