The retrofit revolution - domestic makeovers that can help save the world

| 1st April 2008
A growing number of homeowners are taking the green initiative. Laura Sevier reports

At first glance‚ some houses look just the same‚ identical to any other on their particular street. It is only on closer inspection that their identity as ‘eco homes’ become apparent.

When people think of eco homes‚ most think of the ultra-modern. But ‘eco-retrofits’ can come in all ages‚ shapes and sizes‚ ranging from 17th century cottages to 1920s semis.

‘An eco-renovation‚ or retrofit‚ is when you look at every aspect of a house and have a goal of getting the energy use down‚’ says George Marshall‚ a climate campaigner who has fully retrofitted his house in Oxford (see ‘The Yellow House’ opposite). ‘A lot of homes now have insulation or more efficient boilers‚ but that’s not eco-renovation‚ that’s home improvement.’

Ecovation (‚ which Marshall helped set up‚ is the first UK website to feature case studies of people’s eco-renovation projects‚ written in their own words. Last November‚ as part of Ecovation’s Open Eco Houses weekend‚ 18 houses in Oxfordshire opened their doors to share the techniques and opportunities of eco-renovation.

‘People were really excited and inspired by it‚’ says Marshall. ‘It’s all happening. For the first time ever there’s the sense of a movement – and there’s a real buzz around it.’

What’s more‚ in Marshall’s view‚ retrofitting is about to take off in a big way. ‘The retrofitting pioneers are not just showing how it can be done – they’re showing what will be done. These are houses of the future. It’s about getting ahead before it’s made compulsory – why not have the benefits now?’

As well as saving energy and money‚ by using such devices as skylights and natural ventilation‚ eco renovations can also make a house healthier‚ fresher and lighter. ‘It makes the house feel like a nicer place‚’ says Marshall. ‘More attractive‚ desirable‚ fun‚ and interesting. Yet some people would rather spend £20‚000 on a new kitchen. How insane is that?’

Why retrofit?

Faced with the realities of climate change and peak oil‚ retrofitting is a wise move. It can increase your home’s self-sufficiency‚ energy efficiency and ability to cope with more rainfall – as well as lower its carbon emissions. Each household in the UK creates around six tonnes of carbon dioxide a year – double the annual carbon dioxide emissions of the average car. Full retrofits can mean a reduction of 50 per cent to 75 per cent – in some cases more. This is why retrofits are likely to be ‘the houses of future’.

Another reason is grounded in practicalities. Although new houses and other buildings are currently being built to be more sustainable‚ of the 25 million houses in the UK‚ newbuilds account for less than one per cent of the housing stock. Many older houses have solid walls‚ poor insulation‚ draughty windows and inefficient heating systems. Housing is responsible for a quarter of the UK’s C02 emissions and there are targets to be met (a 60 per cent reduction in C02 emissions by 2050)‚ so there is much debate as to what to do with our older homes.

‘There is a “demolish and rebuild” argument used by some to ensure that all housing is relatively new and sustainable‚’ says James Honour‚ architect and senior consultant at the Building Research Establishment (BRE). ‘The reality‚ however‚ is that the cost of demolition in terms of economics and construction waste‚ plus historic and townscape context‚ are all important and have values.’

BRE is very keen to encourage the refurbishment of existing stock. Retrofitting older buildings is preferable because it also avoids the waste associated with demolition and saves the embodied energy within them rather than using more energy to make new buildings (which includes quarrying‚ transporting and processing the raw materials‚ as well as the activity of construction itself. Bricks‚ concrete‚ plastics‚ PVC and steel all contribute to the embodied energy). It also preserves the mix of architecture that makes the urban landscape a more humane and interesting place to live and work in.

How to do it

The cost of retrofitting depends on the building‚ the region and extent of the works‚ with different levels of retrofitting and refurbishment depending on the planning laws‚ construction of the building‚ historic value and unique environmental and thermal performance. Once these are determined‚ it can be decided what is best for the building and how radical the works will be. It is cheaper to combine energy-efficiency measures with repair and improvement work.

As well as the Ecovation website‚ guidance and information is available from the Energy Saving Trust (www.‚ which provides 100 easy-to-read publications as downloadable pdfs. Sixteen publications focus specifically on refurbishment‚ and many others include elements for refurbishment such as heating‚ windows and lighting. Organisations such as the BRE have projects in progress‚ such as T-Zero‚ and a ‘Rethinking Housing Refurbishment’ team addressing costs‚ paybacks‚ technical constraints and environmental impacts (see and www.rethinking ). Some retrofitters have a background in green architecture or eco building. Others are self-taught but employ experts or the services of a trusty builder willing to experiment. There are currently only a small number of fully retrofitted homes in the UK – but they are proof it can be done.

Three good retrofits

The ex-council house: The Yellow House

Climate campaigner George Marshall transformed his 1930s mid-terrace ex-council house in Oxford into an eco-home on a limited budget. Features include passive solar thermal heating‚ thorough external and internal insulation‚ improvements to the radiators and boiler‚ water-conservation devices (the house uses 60 per cent less water than an average family home)‚ A-rated appliances‚ low-energy bulbs and reused and salvaged materials. ‘We did it as part of a general renovation‚’ says George. ‘The solar panel was the big cost – for everything else the cost of doing it “eco” was maybe £5‚000 or so more than it would have cost to do it “non-eco”. That £5‚000 has reduced energy and water consumption by two-thirds‚ and we’ve created something we’re really proud of and excited by.’ His website – – allows you to explore the eco-features room by room and is an excellent resource of information. It has had more than 650‚000 visitors.

The Victorian semi: Nottingham Eco House

An advanced eco-retrofit that shows what can be done with a large five-bedroom Victorian semi‚ Penney Poyzer and Gil Schalom (a green architect) have added features such as a rainwater system‚ solar thermal‚ compost toilets and biomass boiler. Ultra-insulation has improved the thermal performance by 900 per cent. ‘To date we have spent around £85‚000 on the refurb and retrofit‚’ says Penney. ‘But bear in mind the house was a total wreck‚ so we would have had to have spent around £45‚000 to get it sorted anyway. The installation of the wood-burning boiler meant we had to install radiators and pipework‚ which cost around £17‚000‚ but since the retrofit we save around £1‚500 on heating and electricity bills and £150 on water a year – and overall carbon emissions now stand at around half a tonne‚ including transport. Not bad for two households (a couple living here as lodgers).’ See

The Housing Association Eco Home

Built in 1929‚ this mid-terrace house in Bournville‚ south Birmingham‚ has been retrofitted with 50 eco-friendly features‚ including super insulation‚ solar panels and a heat pump. The green roof and porous drive are designed to cope with heavy rainfall‚ and three garden waterbutts collect rainwater. Inside there are A-rated appliances‚ recycled timber kitchen units‚ wool carpets‚ water based wall paints and a water-saving shower and toilet. Lit with low-energy lightbulbs‚ it also makes use of daylight with sunpipes. Outside is a vegetable patch‚ a bike shed‚ and native trees and shrubs to attract wildlife. The house belongs to a housing association established more than a hundred years ago by George Cadbury. It was chosen to pilot a green initiative – ‘working’ features will be included in future maintenance programmes by the Bournville Village Trust‚ which manages the Bournville Estate's 8‚000 homes on 1‚000 acres of land.



This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2008

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