According to the UK Green Building Council, around 40% of the UK’s carbon emissions are created by its buildings. Nearly half of this carbon footprint is accounted for by energy use and infrastructure.
But there’s no denying that there’s a need to retrofit old buildings, both residential and commercial, if the country is to have any chance of hitting its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Around 80% of the buildings that will be standing in 2050 have already been constructed.
Although new buildings are considerably more energy efficient than their older counterparts, that still leaves an awful lot to do in 30 years. In fact, an article for Architects Journal cited research carried out by Paul Morrell in 2010, when he was advising the government on construction.
Back in 2010, Mr Morrell calculated that the UK would need to retrofit or replace one dwelling every 50 seconds over the course of 40 years if the country wanted to have a completely carbon neutral housing stock.
Given that there has been no large-scale retrofitting programme in the past nine years, the pace at which this occurred would need to be even more rapid. The other problem, the news provider noted, is that there needs to be an incentive to homeowners, otherwise they’re unlikely to want to go through the disruption and cost of retrofitting their homes.
Getting new sash windows in Cambridgeshire to replace your old draughty ones will better insulate your home and make it more energy efficient, but it’s not the cheapest undertaking and will certainly lead to some disruption around the home, for instance.
And that’s just one example of where you could make energy efficiency improvements to an older property. Changing the heating source, installing your own renewable energy technology or fitting insulation can all be equally as challenging when you’re living in a property.
It’s not only the UK that has this problem. An article for Green Tech Media last month pointed out that this is an issue that’s facing countries around the world. For example, in the USA the average home is nearly 40 years old.
The news provider argued that what’s required is a way of making building retrofits, which are typically one-off affairs, into more of a process. In doing so, and in introducing mass production into the arena of retrofits, it would be possible to not only improve the energy efficiency of more buildings but to do it more quickly.
Introducing mass production to this process would also make things less disruptive for homeowners and other residents, the website suggested.
James Hartford, principal at New York-based River Architects, told the news site that cost is the biggest barrier to retrofitting a property for homeowners. However, he stressed that if this can be lowered, more people will be receptive to making changes.
What’s required is “economies of scale and larger players involved to bring costs down”, he explained.
One area of focus for those trying to introduce a greater level of retrofitting activity around the world is the idea of using offsite manufacturing methods as much as possible. Mr Hartford cited a Dutch scheme known as EnergieSprong, which uses prefabricated facades to reskin buildings in a cost-effective way.
This also has the benefit of reducing the disruption caused to residents, as well as making it a much more affordable option. After observing how the Dutch EnergieSprong project worked, a US-based initiative called RetrofitNY employed some of the techniques on a project for the Troy Housing Authority to great effect.
In addition to providing insulated panels for the retrofits, EnergieSprong also offers packages that include air source heat pumps, solar hot water pumps and energy monitoring.
But EnergieSprong is just one example of how Europe is tackling the barriers to retrofitting existing buildings. The Fifth State recently highlighted several initiatives on the continent, including EnergieSprong, that are trying to make it more cost-effective to retrofit inefficient buildings.
The HEART project is another example. HEART stands for Holistic Energy and Architectural Refit Toolkit. It’s being developed by a consortium of 15 members and the aim is to produce a retrofit toolkit to “transform such buildings into smart, low-energy homes and offices”.
It’s all being funded by the European 2020 Horizon programme, which is investing €11 billion in looking for new solutions to drive societal change and move towards a low-carbon, climate resilient future.
Sebastian Garnier, innovation and project manager at Housing Europe, told the news provider that there isn’t the cost or quality in current business models and solutions. “Although HEART’s holistic approach relies on energy system automation, algorithms and smart appliances, it is all about the people,” he asserted.
HEART is a cloud-based decision supporting system. It isn’t a project that will introduce the actual materials or processes required for building retrofits. What it will do is improve the business case for carrying out retrofitting activities.
It’s primarily aimed at commercial building owners and developers, and can find the optimum level of low-carbon technology and operational management for any given premises.
Mr Garnier added: “This is a holistic package that combines all the different elements – photovoltaics, renewables, insulation – for deep renovation, and that can help to choose the most optimal mix and settings.”
The project uses a predictive energy model to optimise the solar gains for heating, and ensure that buildings stay suitably cool in summer as well as being warm enough in winter. This predictive energy model includes local climate data to help it make the best decisions about energy sources for a particular property.
Initiatives like HEART and EnergieSprong have their place and will no doubt encourage change when it comes to building retrofits in the future. However, a recent article for Planning and Building Control Today argued that there should also be a focus on the materials we use in the first place.
Writing for the publication, Lauren Consiglio, freelance sustainable builds writer, suggested that the building sector needs to “innovate with new materials that improve sustainability”. These new materials can include the likes of fungal mycelium.
This is a material that’s fast growing, mouldable and completely compostable. The mycelium brick is formed through fungus, reducing the need for fossil fuels in the manufacturing process. What’s more, the bricks are described as “having super strength, while also being water, mould and fire resistant”.
To add to their appeal, these mycelium bricks can also be grown to meet exact specifications.
But it’s not all about new materials. There are opportunities to use materials we have in abundance and that we’re familiar with in a new way. One of the options that’s cropping up is cardboard.
Although a cardboard home isn’t going to last in the same way as one built from bricks and mortar, they do still have their place in the grand scheme of things. A cardboard house developed by a Dutch collective uses 24 layers of corrugated cardboard to create a property.
This cardboard is glued together and wrapped in foil to create the finished material. It’s estimated that the lifespan of one of these cardboard properties is 50 years.
But the news provider noted that this could fit in well with changing demands for homes. “There is an increasing demand for more flexible and temporary dwellings that are eco friendly. If this continues to be the case, it may increase the chances of cardboard becoming a more practical option for houses,” the article asserted.
In the meantime, if you’d rather stay where you are than consider moving into a cardboard property, look at how you can make energy efficient upgrades to your property. You could start by replacing the sash windows and then see where else you can make improvements.