Without SMEs, the National Refurb just isn’t Going to Happen

Catrin Maby is Chief Executive of Severn Wye Energy Agency, an educational charity promoting action and innovation in sustainable energy and affordable warmth, via a wide portfolio of partnership projects. Catrin has an engineering background, and has worked in the energy advice field since 1984. 

Catrin Maby. Photo: Gemma Hirst/CSE

At Severn Wye Energy Agency we believe that if the Green Deal doesn’t work for SMEs, then its impact will be very limited. Our experience has shown us that involvement of the local construction sector is a make-or-break issue for the success of any widespread, meaningful energy retrofit programme.

Local construction firms must be involved because:

  • They are ‘on the spot’ when the retrofit opportunities arise – opportunities that sometimes only come up once in 40 or 50 years
  • Their involvement offers an energy saving ‘multiplier’ effect. By building skills and contacts, and linking into the relevant supply chains, energy saving expertise can be brought to bear in any building project, outside any statutory programmes – including the ones which are not initially about energy saving.
  • With local firms involved, there is also a financial multiplier into the local economy, and their overall business should rise. If they are excluded, that chunk of the resource will be diverted elsewhere, and their businesses, and the surrounding local economy, may shrink.

To get our housing stock upgraded at anything like the rate needed to meet our national obligations to cut emissions, then we need to recognise the practical realities of the way work on people’s homes actually happens.

Energy upgrades are most likely to be contemplated by owners when works are taking place anyway. The moment to install internal insulation is when you’re redecorating. The upgrade to the roof insulation needs to take place during, not after, the loft conversion. If the render, the windows, or the roof are being replaced, those are once-in-40 years opportunities to add a major energy upgrade.

But few of those customers will be thinking about energy improvement when they call in the builders. If the work is done without, and then next month – or year —  a green deal salesman comes along and suggests they install those same energy saving measures – well, we all know what sort of answer they’ll receive.

In other words, it is the mainstream builders who are on the spot at the key moment, and who need to be the bridge to the advice and finance that will enable the energy saving measures to be included.

Upgrading the roof of a historic stone house near Stroud: the Target 2050 project has delivered around 100 low energy retrofits, using local contractors. photo: SWEA

At Severn Wye we have run an energy retrofit programme for local households carried out mainly by independent, locally based contractors, and it has been a great success. So we believe it must be done – and we know it can be done.

Target 2050 Homes is the domestic strand of a programme developed for Stroud District Council, and provides outreach, home energy assessments and advice to local householders. The programme helps to identify any available finance, which in practice is an (ever-changing) mix of grants and subsidies, from government, local authorities, energy suppliers, with eligibility depending on technology and household circumstances.  Working with the Council, we also helped devise and deliver one of the  Department of Energy and Climate Change ‘Pay As You  Save‘ (PAYS) pilots, offering interest-free 25 year loans of up to £10,000 to 50  households

We set up an installer network (see below) which is effectively a pool of companies, from which participating households select contractors, whom they appoint themselves. Criteria for inclusion in the list are straightforward. Participating installers must be members of the relevant accreditation schemes, such as the MCS, and have appropriate insurance cover. Membership is free.

Involvement in this network offers more than just an opportunity to deliver work under a statutory programme; it is also an opportunity for cross referral and joint marketing, and a forum for co-learning, between contractors, suppliers, home owners, advisers, and local authority staff including planning and building control.

The point for us about using local installers is not just about ensuring that the benefit from the local authority and government programmes goes back into the local economy, important though that is. It is also seen as a long-term investment in the skills and supply chain for energy retrofits.

Refurbishing the nation’s buildings cannot be accomplished on a quick in-and-out. As is proposed under the Green Deal, we offer householders a full assessment of all the possible energy- and emissions-saving measures that could be carried out on their homes. But by and large people tend to take up the less ‘intrusive’ measures such as new boilers, solar panels and so forth in the first instance, unless they are amongst the most highly motivated by energy saving or unless they are anyway at the stage of upgrading the relevant bit of the fabric.

This doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t do the more difficult things later, and at the right time – but this needs to be encouraged, and advice and support need to be accessible at the appropriate time. There are moments people can do these things, and moments they can’t. Not while a teenager is doing A-levels, but quite possibly when fitting a new kitchen, or before undertaking big redecoration.  It is crucial that householders and contractors  are able to take advantage of the Green Deal and associated support at those key moments.

In the publicity around the Green Deal there has been much  emphasis on the ‘Golden Rule’ (that repayments should not be more than anticipated energy bill savings). But we are concerned that this will limit the measures that can be carried out under the programme – and may consequently limit public perception  of what is worth carrying out. We should not think we can ease ourselves in as a nation by supporting the easiest things first, as there are far fewer opportunities to do the harder ones. The ‘deep refurb’ trigger points come round only every 20 or 40 years – if they are missed, it’s a long time till the next one.

The Target 2050 Installer Network

The network includes the full range of sustainable energy retrofit technologies, and encourages co-learning and cross-referral, to encourage more of a ‘whole-house’ service than is implied in the separate accreditation schemes for micro-generation, heating and insulation.
Technologies covered include:

  • cavity wall, solid wall, loft, flat roof, sloping ceiling and floor insulation
  • double and secondary glazing
  • gas, oil and biomass heating and boiler replacement
  • air and ground source heat pumps
  • solar thermal and photo-voltaic panels
  • micro-wind and hydro

This approach aims to support the many smaller companies in the general building repair, improvement and maintenance market, and encourage them to include energy improvement technologies in their portfolio, as well as to support newer companies entering the market by providing information and referrals.


Our experience with the PAYS pilot indicated that people  do appreciate there is more to energy refurb than simply saving on running costs, and they are more concerned about the overall affordability of payments than an exact match to bill savings. Making a big thing about the Golden Rule may give people unrealistic expectations  of savings , given the limitations of the modelling, variations in user behaviour, weather, fuel price changes and so on.

But above all, we have to get efficiency improvements into ordinary building work, now. We cannot just separate it out as specialist work for specialist firms delivering specialist programmes. It’s got to be mainstream. The workforce – and the marketing team – has to include all the small construction firms, all the suppliers and merchants, the designers and architects, planning and building control – and every proprietor who is contemplating improving their building. Otherwise we’ll be putting the programme back 40 years; 40 years we don’t have.

The Green Deal is due to begin in less than a year, and the consultation document is expected to be published shortly.

The Target 2050 Homes report and case studies can be downloaded from the Severn Wye Energy Agency website. www.swea.co.uk

Severn Wye Energy Agency is currently working with a partnership of local authorities to develop a next stage non profit local delivery model that can be sustained without public funding. We are also working with the Centre for Sustainable Energy to explore the establishment of a not-for-profit Green Deal ‘Incubator’ to support local delivery of Green Deal programmes. This concept was presented along with other Green Deal discussions at an event in Bristol on October 13th. The presentations are available on the CSE website: www.cse.org.uk

AECB adds: AECB members are also looking at ways the social enterprise model could help to deliver refurbishment under the Green Deal. In the West Midlands and in Brighton two groups of building retrofit professionals have set about addressing the issue of high quality delivery of effective low energy refurbishment.

‘RetroPHit’ and ‘The Green Building Partnership’ both aim to have an offering distinct from those of larger Green Deal players, an offering focussed on quality and robustness of energy efficiency solutions. The two groups are in discussion looking at ways of cooperating on common areas. They are  looking to develop a cooperative model that creates the critical mass to bid for larger projects that would otherwise be beyond individual group members’ reach. In doing so, they hope to grow a local supply chain, create employment and embed low carbon retrofit skills locally.

© 2011: Catrin Maby and AECB (for Terms and Conditions click here)

Contact andy@simmondsmills.com for RetroPHit (West Midlands) and david.porter@efficientrefurbs.com for The Green Building Partnership (Brighton)

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