The UK’s homes are some of the leakiest in Europe. Every year, we spend a small fortune on heat which simply escapes through our windows, doors, walls and floors.
As well as wasting our dwindling carbon budgets, it’s a serious public health problem. Climate change think tank E3G reckon cold homes in Britain kill as many people each year as breast or prostate cancer.
Dr Brenda Boardman, Emeritus Research Fellow at the Oxford Environmental Change Institute, wants us to think big when it comes to insulating our homes to help tackle this problem.
Household energy demand has been dropping, it’s about 20 percent lower than it was ten years ago, but there’s still a lot of space to up our ambition. “How far could we go, if we really wanted to?” she asks. “Could we phase out all active heating systems in all buildings?”
Buildings in Europe are ranked on their energy efficiency from A to G. If you live in the UK, your home’s probably a D, but you might be lucky enough to be higher, or unlucky enough to be lower. If your home is an A, you’re part of a very elite group.
Of the British domestic properties which have registered an energy efficiency rating, only 0.05 percent of existing dwellings and 1 percent of new builds are an A. Band A homes are rare and special beasts, intricately designed to be kept temperate with almost no heating or air conditioning.
In the UK, this means high levels of insulation, high performance windows, and a clever ventilation systems which recycle the heat lost in the home so you can make the most of it.
This is the stuff of glitzy TV home design show and architecture prizes, or so-called “superhomes” where enthusiasts have poured love, time and money into retrofitting their older homes to bring them up to scratch.
Boardman wants us to consider a 2050 target of everyone living in a band A home, and put low income households first in line. After all, aren’t these households the ones who most urgently need freeing from the expense and stress of energy bills?
Some of this sort of work is already happening, albeit not at scale, or to band A levels.
Take, for example, Wilmcote House, a large concrete panel building owned by Portsmouth city council. It’s in one of the most deprived areas of England, a stone’s throw from the birthplace of Charles Dickens. It was recently given a £12.9 million deep retrofit, all done with tenants in-situ, so people didn’t have to move out.
They aimed to take dwellings to a band C, saving tenants £750 a year on energy bills. As a report on the project by the LSE’s Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion notes, before the retrofit, residents had multiple issues with damp, condensation and mould, as well as draughty windows, leaky roofs and freezing rooms which were expensive to keep at a liveable temperature.
Children were having to do their homework wearing woolly hats and mould grew on walls and even mattresses. Residents were embarrassed to invite people to visit, and got used to having to lend each other money to keep their heaters on.
After the improvements were completed in 2018, tenants were, on the whole, warmer, healthier, happier and saving hundreds of pounds per year each in energy bills. The cost worked out at about £117,000 per flat for the council, but they felt it was justified, cheaper and less disruptive than demolishing and rebuilding the block.
Insulation and ventilation
Wilmcote House is unusual though. Ruth London, from campaign group Fuel Poverty Action, regularly sees cases were tenants have been fighting for insulation but can’t get it. She sees cases of bad retrofits too.
London explained: “The problem is usually ventilation. When this is done badly, it can end up causing damp and mould, making the space even less healthy than it was.”
Since the Grenfell fire, cladding has understandably dominated discussions about insulation, with stories of tenants living in fear as they wait to have their building’s cladding replaced. According to Fuel Poverty Action, even when cladding has been removed, replacements have sometimes been delayed.
London continued: “When the cladding’s off, the insulation’s off, leaving people in the cold. In many cases, this has happened over the winter. People freeze. Even if you keep heating on 24 hours the flat won’t always warm up, and anyway people can’t afford to.
"The winter after Grenfell, the deaths from cold homes were 17,000. And it’s not just a matter of people being cold in their homes, but afraid to go home - sitting in cafes, libraries, anywhere they can go to get some warmth.”
Dave Fuller runs a community solar project in north Kensington. Talking to residents in the Lancaster West estate - the larger development the Grenfell tower is part of - he says people have been living without hot water because boilers have been shut off, as well as issues with communal heating, and problems where the cladding’s been ripped off.
Fulled said: “It’s clear people are still being screwed over in various ways when it comes to heat."
Fuller’s solar project is part of Repowering London, whose world-leading work has already transformed communities in Brixton and Hackney.
For Repowering, solar isn’t just something for the eco-keen rich: people who own a roof and have the money to glaze it with shiny blue photovoltaic cells. It’s for everyone: the panels are installed on social housing blocks by local young people.
Repowering’s move into north Kensington - an area infamous for housing injustice for decades before the Grenfell fire - is significant. Could they take the transformative, tenant-controlled approach to heating systems? Work like this would need investment though.
Nottingham council are pioneering a British rollout of a Dutch “energiespong” approach - wrapping houses with insulated panels which snap on a little like Lego - after the local authority won £5m from the EU’s European Regional Development Fund. Most councils struggle to find such funds though.
Ed Matthew, Associate Director at E3G, argues we should, at the very least, get on with cutting the amount of energy we use in British homes.
Matthew believes we should at least halve it: “It is not an option, it has to be at the heart of the government’s zero carbon energy infrastructure and spending plans.”
Alice Bell is director at 10:10 Climate Action. This article originally appeared in 10:10 Climate Action’s book Stories of Heat from our Warming World.
Image: Lambeth Community Solar, Repowering London.