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A Magazine for Sheffield

Could Sheffield be the UK’s first 'Centre for Retrofitting Excellence'?

As scheme after scheme fails due to a lack of coordination, training and customer confidence, South Yorkshire has the expertise to lead the field.

City centre moorfoot office council 3

Sheffield is full of underused buildings that could be perfect for retrofit.

Rachel Rae Photography

Sheffield City Council (SCC) declared a climate emergency in February 2019. Along with many other local authorities, they have set a target for both the council and the city to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2030. One of the best methods to reduce emissions is by making homes and businesses more energy efficient – 'retrofitting' them – which is good not only for the environment, but also the city’s economy.

There are approximately 26 million domestic properties in the UK that will have to be retrofitted by 2050 to reach the UK-wide net-zero target. About 80% of the homes we will be occupying in 2050 already exist. We can’t just rely on decarbonising the grid or building new energy efficient homes. We must improve the energy efficiency of the existing housing stock.

The government’s green grants have failed spectacularly due to a lack of strategic thinking, poor publicity and underfunding, but also because of a lack of skills training at architect and builder levels. For any project to be successful there needs to be a clear policy lead, a long-term strategy and a variety of income streams, including charitable, corporate sponsorship, commercial, green bonds and accessible low-cost loans.

It’s estimated that we need over 400,000 builders and skilled retrofit professionals, but just 200,000 people currently work on maintaining and upgrading existing homes. There are currently under a thousand retrofit co-ordinators – people trained to oversee the management and design of all retrofit measures. Forecasts suggest we may need 50,000 by 2030.

Currently there are around 3,000 installers qualified to fit heat pumps but innovation foundation Nesta has calculated the country will need 27,000 if we’re to meet government targets. Many of the existing qualified instructors are approaching retirement and there are very few incoming entrants.

The sector is very fragmented, with work largely being undertaken by separate trades. This leads to a lack of responsibility for overall quality control and assurance.

University of sheffield western bank library

Sheffield's two universities make it the ideal city to be a retrofit Centre of Excellence.

Rachel Rae Photography

The solar panels fiasco left many people bruised financially. This was down to misleading claims by installation companies and sudden changes in what financial support was available from the government. Many people were left with substantial debts and such poor output from the panels that there’s little chance of them paying back the loan from selling their power output to an energy supplier. As a result, for many people confidence in retro-fitting is at an all time low.

We need to establish a centre of excellence for retrofit, with training that includes at least a basic knowledge of building methods. This should include an advisory centre for building owners, so that they know what’s possible.

This would not only link up training from architects to construction workers, but it would also help address the concerns potential customers have, such as being sure the advice they are given is independent and backed up with evidence, and that the work will be done to a high standard.

Co-ordination and integration of the various stages of project design and implementation, and of the work of the different tradespeople, are important for successful retrofit. But there is not a single type of firm or job role within the supply chain to which these tasks are consistently assigned. This means the whole task either doesn’t get done at all, or it gets done partially and not very well. Sheffield is well placed to become that centre of excellence, with two renowned universities linked to Rotherham and Sheffield colleges.

Heritage is also a key than can unlock sources of funding that councils cannot access.

We have 40,000 listed buildings in the UK. There are 142,200 commercial businesses located in listed buildings in city centres throughout the UK. In Sheffield, I’ve found that the vast majority of listed buildings are commercially or privately owned.

Although most listed buildings are used commercially, there are a few in community use. But the cost of restoration, together with running costs, make it difficult for community organisations to keep listed buildings viable without charging high prices to the groups renting the space.

What if we suggest to corporations that funding retrofit for community buildings is a great way to help the environment and the community?

At present many of these buildings are council-owned, though very much run by communities. Most are falling into disrepair due to cuts in council funding. But when it comes to restoring and retrofitting listed buildings, qualified people in the commercial sector seem to be non-existent. Funding from heritage sources, some unavailable to local councils, could instigate a programme to supply training at all levels.

20% of all housing stock in England was built before 1919. It's the least energy efficient but has the greatest potential for energy and carbon savings. Converted properties built before 1919 provided 51,110 new homes between 2012 and 2018. Changes on the high street, such as the mass closure of banks and pubs, means this trend is likely to accelerate.

Sheffield Council talks a lot about retrofitting social housing, but as it stands not only is there not much funding for such projects – there aren’t even enough trained workers to take it on.

Many small construction firms have as much work as they can handle due to a lack of trainees. We need to start building up the available pool of workers before we can properly retrofit our social housing. Previous schemes by other councils have proved disastrous due to untrained workers and poor quality control.

Somewhere needs to start the ball rolling. Why not Sheffield?

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