Published On: Tue, Apr 20th, 2021

Oven-ready national retrofit strategy

A ‘national retrofit strategy’ is needed to drive a low-carbon built environment believes Brian Berry of the Federation of Master Builders

2020 was an unprecedented year of challenge and uncertainty for families and businesses. But the Federation of Master Builders’ (FMB) 7,000 small to medium-sized (SME) members responded with the agility and resilience that is truly characteristic of builders and their workforce. Indeed, the FMB was formed out of adversity when a consortium of builders in 1941created the FMB to help SME building companies rebuild London after the Blitz.

In 2021, as we take the opportunity to celebrate the FMB’s 80th anniversary and hold our biennial Master Builder Awards, we will also be looking ahead to our next challenge: how best to tackle climate change to create a low carbon built environment.

Local builders must be at the heart of decarbonising our built environment and making it fit for the low carbon economy. UK homes are among the leakiest of Europe’s housing stock, and urgent action must be taken to address this. If we do nothing, the Government will not achieve its target of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. In the year of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), it is more important than ever that the UK positions itself as a global leader in action against climate change.

SME housebuilders already build more high quality, beautiful and sustainable homes than their PLC counterparts, but getting to net zero homes will be a challenge for most. The FMB’s annual House Builders’ Survey paints a mixed picture of how my members are approaching this challenge. Some Master Builders are already installing air source heat pumps and incorporating energy-saving technologies into their build process. Others say that the cost and quality of products and their installers are still prohibitive on a small scale. Some report they are driven by consumers’ demand for low carbon homes, but others say that house hunters are not willing to pay the inevitable extra costs for high fabric efficiency and low carbon energy sources.

That the Future Homes Standard, which seeks to reduce carbon emissions in new build by 75% by 2025 compared to today’s standard, sets a mid-term plan for driving change is a helpful step, but this year’s interim uplift in energy efficiency is certainly a challenge for SMEs. They have had little bandwidth to prepare for these changes. The Government must ensure that they set house builders up to succeed by supporting innovation and development in the supply chain. This should include investing in a national skills strategy that ensures that there are enough experienced heat pump installers to meet growing demand. Communications should also form part of the policy piece. Consumers need to know what heat pumps are, and how they work. Finally, with car charging and domestic heating going electric, it is essential that our National Grid can meet demand. Battery storage is still quite costly, and many SMEs are priced out of this option.

No plan to green our homes should neglect the urgent attention that is needed to decarbonise and upgrade our 28 million existing buildings that use 35% of all UK energy and emit 20% of carbon dioxide emissions. Local builders will be at the heart of these upgrades, but they need confidence to invest in their businesses and upskill their workforce. According to a survey of my members, the biggest barrier to builders doing more retrofit work is the lack of clear pipeline of work. What we need is a long term National Retrofit Strategy.

I chair the Domestic Repair, Maintenance and Improvement (RMI) Working Group of the Construction Leadership Council (CLC), the Government-convened group that exists to implement change in industry. We have developed an oven-ready National Retrofit Strategy that has the backing of more than 40 organisations in construction and beyond. This plan has quality construction and consumer protection at its heart. However, it will require the Government to provide the leadership and vision that is needed to give businesses confidence, and to educate consumers about the changes to their home that are needed.

In the year of COP26 the Government has a unique opportunity to show its commitment and leadership to create a low carbon built environment by adopting a National Retrofit strategy that provides a clear long-term plan for world leading change.