Prince dies, the Queen celebrates, a King speaks. Does the nation have a royal mess of retrofit?

It’s the 22nd April, the purple one has died and I’m in Brighton to hear how workers in yellow helmets can make our buildings green. The Federation of Master Builders (FMB) is holding its Retrofit for Builders conference at the Grand Hotel. This event matters as the FMB are the UK's largest trade association in the building industry and their members willingly or not, are on the front line of reducing the 27% of carbon emissions which come from our homes.

I am here because at Bristol Green Doors events and through our website people ask “who can do this green building work?" and so engaging more builders with what we are doing is important. Additionally my work at the Green Register has highlighted the need for clients and builders to value and understand the importance of sustainable building. So if we can build and support demand for greener homes, they will be better homes, and these retrofits will be carried out by typical SME members of the FMB.

The conference’s first speaker is Dr Peter Rickaby who lights up the way reminding us that meeting the 2050 carbon targets matter for our children and grandchildren. The latter particularly we know are important. Buckingham Palace has shown us that this week (below) to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations. She wouldn’t rule over a country that isn’t doing all it can for them, would she?

Peter challengingly labels most of the building work, such as kitchen and bathroom refurbishment, that goes on in existing homes as ‘superficial’ adding if these are used as a trigger points for energy efficiency the work will be anything but.

David Frise is next up. He is CE of FIS which represents companies involved in all aspects of interior fit-outs, finishes and refurbishments. His first slide is of the manager Premier League high fliers Tottenham, Mauicio Pochettino (below), so I’m gripped. “Pochettino has given Spurs fans belief they can win the title not just hope” David tells us. I like it, twofold, as we obviously need to believe not merely hope we can meet the retrofit challenge.

The UK has management too. It’s known as government. DECC’s man on the ground is Will Field and he gives us the Westminster angle. ‘Fuel poverty is a major driver for retrofit’ we are told and I’m starting to get nervous as too much focus on fuel poverty doesn’t make retrofit normal and David just said “owner-occupiers are the real challenge”. Could fuel poverty be a ‘caring’ Tory tactic drawing us away from the real issue? If there wasn’t climate change to deal with, we would be addressing it anyway, wouldn’t we?

Will continues. The Green Deal is dead. It was ‘too complicated’ (‘built to fail’ according to Jonathan Porritt in Bristol recently) and soon the Bonfield Review will provide a new framework for retrofit ‘developed and owned by industry’. The review will include recommendations around incentives for the more able to pay. This is good news. A criticism often levelled at majority of Bristol Green Doors is that our householders are the ‘more able to pay’ but in these market dependent times that is surely a positive thing. Bristol Green Doors wants to see retrofit as normal and early-adopting owner-occupiers must be celebrated.

The second part of the day focuses on ‘Retrofit in Action’. Bristol Green Doors’ householder Ian Mawditt, presents his own case study (below), stating his retrofit achievements are measured in energy as opposed to carbon. Russell Smith from Parity Projects follows. Parity’ are eminent builders, trainers and consultants in retrofit. Russell describes himself as “a translator” interpreting and configuring the client’s and contractors aspirations and constraints.

Remembering that David Frise earlier had demanded builders must “understand the customer”  the new penny from the royal mint drops – the retrofit industry and all its stakeholders efforts are stalling as we are in a cloud of communication where the components don’t just misunderstand each other, some of them such as a ‘retrofit coordinator’, are missing from the mix. If a workable language can be developed in which cost, kWh, comfort, carbon, health, condensation and more can resonate, then things will move on quicker. (Believe, don’t just hope).

After lunch the emphasis is on the practical. It is excellent that the FMB are partnering up with the National Trust on a training scheme though scary to hear they need more exemplars for their members to learn from. “Cooee, we are here”! Bristol Green Doors and over fifty other green open home event organisations can play a valuable role showing what is possible. If only more builders would come to our events - something must be done about this.

We then hear from John Edmonds how pre 1919 houses and castles can be treated in the same way to deal with moisture problems using traditional techniques. This is more good news, not only for the Queen and her homes, but also the STBA with whom the Green Register partner on events, who are doing some excellent work highlighting not only critical building physics issues but also questioning how to deliver at scale.

Prince’s rain was purple (above), our queen’s has lasted over 60 years, Colin King’s is horrendous. The head of BRE Wales experiences more precipitation at his home than even the averages predict, and it’s ‘”almost horizontal” a lot of the time. He relates how his house gets battered, moisture penetrates and it needs drying out neatly within the Best Practice section though it is a lot better than many of the examples he has seen through his work which “has identified 126 ways external wall insulation can go wrong”.

Colin is a great speaker. He is battle weary, not just from seeing so many bad retrofits, but also it transpired from protecting our Queen’s dominion from Argentina (including Poch’s dad?) in the 80’s. Yet this is the point at which I feel the mood of the event shifts we collectively recognise there is so clearly no silver bullet the army of builders can confidently and easily load up to change the picture.

I have been told today the retrofit industry is worth between £3 – 6 billion per year, but also recognise it doesn’t know how to speak to itself. No one ever said the carbon reduction targets would be easy to meet, but I come away from the Grand Hotel, feeling the sector needs more backing, stronger leadership and more confidence building than ever before to help us achieve the necessary. The FMB put on a very good event and have demonstrated their commitment and I am proud of the roles both Bristol Green Doors and the Green Register can play in improving our homes. But, here is hoping all the right elements can soon understand each other and combine in a purple patch to ensure the UK's retrofit world is no royal mess or even a house of cards. 

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