UK’s Architects Call for a National Programme of Carbon-Cutting Technologies

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) are calling for the UK’s draughty housing stock to be properly insulated in a national drive to reduce carbon emissions.

The institute has calculated that insulation, double or triple glazing and gas boiler replacement in just 3.3m interwar homes in England’s towns and cities could cut the country’s carbon emissions by 4% helping it towards the net zero target by 2050.

Many architects feel so strongly that immediate action needs to be taken that they supported Insulate Britain’s campaign last year. A joint statement was published by Architects Climate Action Network and Architects Declare in September 2021 which said:

“The UK’s housing stock is not fit for the climate emergency we are in. To meet the government’s own legal obligation of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, we must undertake a massive and holistic retrofit of UK homes. This has been advised in numerous reports to the government and the UK will not meet our climate obligations without updating our buildings.”


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They added:

“The Insulate Britain campaign is highlighting one aspect of the housing crisis in this country. The warnings have been given and the science is clear, we must act now. Any more delay is simply irresponsible.”

As energy prices soar and the number of people living in fuel poverty increases the stark reality of heating the UK’s poorly insulated and draughty homes is hitting home hard.

Around half of the interwar homes, built between 1919 and 1930, have uninsulated solid walls that are responsible for almost half of heat loss. Those built between 1930 and 1945 mostly have cavity walls, few of which have been insulated.

Simon Allford, the president of the RIBA said:

“There can be no further delay in embarking on a national programme of home retrofitting, which will transform UK housing, creating warm and cheaper-to-heat homes while bringing health and wider societal benefits. This process will drastically reduce fuel poverty, create half a million green jobs, and positively contribute to the national levelling up agenda.”

Currently, only 10% of interwar homes achieve an energy performance certificate (EPC) above band C. The RIBA said that if current band D rated homes were retrofitted to achieve band C performance, households would save £511 a year under the proposed 2022 energy price cap.

Interestingly, according to research by thinktank Onward, 900,000 to 1.3 million jobs could be created in low carbon heating and energy efficiency if the government followed advice given by the UK Committee on Climate Change.

The UK Green Building Council believes that the government’s number one priority over the coming weeks and months should be to ensure fuel bills are kept affordable. At the same time the government needs to understand the crucial role that reducing energy demand in our homes plays in the UK’s transition to net zero by 2050. Reducing the UK’s dependency on gas and retrofitting 29 million homes is essential.

The UKGBC gathered over 100 organisations across the built environment over the course of 2021 to develop an evidence-based Net Zero Carbon Roadmap for the Built Environment. The roadmap detailed what government policy changes and industry actions are needed to deliver net zero by 2050 across the sector. The Roadmap exposed the fact that the current state of the UK’s housing stock is incompatible with our climate targets, and that there can be no further delay in tackling the retrofit challenge.

The RIBA would like to see a national programme and has costed the work required at up to £38bn, which is far more than the current government green home subsidies that have been allocated for carbon-cutting measures. However, it believes the works could be cheaper due to the repetitive designs of terraced and semi-detached homes which should allow for economies of scale in a mass rollout. The professional body also predicts savings of more than £500 a year in energy bills in many cases.

The RIBA want the government to introduce policies that will incentivise private owners, who own more than 70% of interwar homes and social landlords to fund the works.

Approximately 15% to 20% of the UK’s CO2 emissions are currently generated from heating homes. The total CO2 produced is approximately 58.5m tonnes per year. Draughty homes are not a new issue for the government. Successive governments have failed to address the retrofit challenge in a coherent and coordinated way. There have been many stop-start national policy interventions over the years such as the failure of the Green Deal, the successive cuts for the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) and most recently of all the untimely scrapping of the Green Homes Grant voucher scheme. For all the government’s recent rhetoric, the sad reality is that over the last 9 years the number of energy efficiency measures being installed in our homes each year has dropped by over 70 per cent.

Experts have warned that some retrofitting measures to cut carbon emissions are more cost-effective than others. Jan Rosenow, the Europe director at the Regulatory Assistance Project, a clean energy thinktank, said loft and cavity wall insulation were among measures that delivered the best “bang for buck” in terms of cutting carbon, while solid-wall insulation was less efficient. He did say that solid-wall insulation can make homes more comfortable but thought that investing the money in other carbon-cutting technologies such as renewable energy might be more cost-effective.

Jess Ralston, an analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said:

“Efficiency is the first crucial step to limiting our energy demand. Once we have done that, we can fill the gaps with cheaper renewables, bring our homes down to zero emissions and save money on bills.”

The RIBA have declared their plan at the same time as a campaign has been growing among architects to “retrofit first” in order to reduce the carbon emissions from creating new buildings. Campaigners recently won a victory when the multinational bank Citigroup chose not to demolish its 42-storey skyscraper at Canary Wharf, and instead planned to retrofit it, saving 100,000 tonnes of embodied carbon.

Emissions need to fall by about a quarter by 2030 from 1990 levels for the UK to meet its carbon budget.  The RIBA say that housing is one of the only sectors where the implementation of measures to reduce emissions has been delayed.

The Independent Climate Change Committee has estimated that if the UK are to get to net zero, it will need to spend £55bn on improving efficiency in existing homes by 2050. It warns that buildings of all types are one of the costliest challenges across the economy.

When compared with capturing carbon and other high-tech solutions, retrofitting existing homes is far easier. The commitment of the government to roll-out a co-ordinated grant-funded national retrofit programme is required. It needs to be dealt with like any other infrastructure project, but this is one that will benefit the whole country with training, jobs, and climate-resilient homes.

Hopefully the energy crisis will be the wake-up call that finally instils an understanding of how crucial it is to make energy efficiency a national priority, not just to protect consumers, but because of its contribution to achieving the UK’s legally mandated net zero ambitions.



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