Technical Briefing 3: Developing Effective Partnerships and Engagement with Residents and Community Groups

This third Technical Briefing outline ways of engaging with residents and the wider community to further green ambitions.

Four speakers presented different perspectives:

  • John Christophers, Chartered Architect and Zero Carbon House and Dan Hill of Dark Matter Labs spoke from a community activist perspective, sharing their experiences in Birmingham working within their own communities to build enthusiasm and commitment to the retrofit agenda.
  • Jennifur Burton, Senior Project Manager at Marches Energy Agency gave her perspective running a project across Shropshire, Herefordshire and Powys to learn about the best way to help householders take the initial steps towards carrying out retrofit.
  • Christopher Crookall-Fallon, Head of Climate Action at Costwold District Council explained the Zero Carbon Toolkit that they had produced with two other local authorities to provide simple, plain English guidance developers and householders as to what zero carbon actually looks like and how to do it at the small and medium scale.
  • John Batchelor, Director of Batchelor & Associations Community Economics Ltd gave a guide to approaches to effective communication, informed by the principles of social marketing.

John Christophers – Zero Carbon House and Dan Hill – Dark Matter Labs

Retrofit of buildings is clearly a pressing issue as they are responsible for just under 50% of UK carbon emissions – inaction here will completely blow our carbon budgets. However, there is much more at stake here. Homes are in fact an intersection of multiple values; health, social, environmental, economic and systemic. For example, poor quality homes give rise to excess winter deaths and increased rates of hospitalisation of child asthmatics. Children living in overcrowded homes tend to have more time off school for medical or other reasons, and have poorer mental health. Homes with conventional gas boiler and gas cooking systems suffer NOx pollution. Conversely, retrofitting homes can improve productivity and drive economic prosperity – in Birmingham the Council’s Housing Revenue Account is the largest place-based impact investor.

Importantly, poor quality housing leads to a cascade of risk. The primary risks of pollution, poor air quality, damp, cold or overheating homes, lack of green space, insecure tenure, high housing costs etc lead to secondary risks of poor health, poor educational attainment and poor economic productivity and outcomes. These lead to tertiary risks, and then on to systemic risks. These risks are liabilities; and the costs of these risks are met by everyone in society. As such, there is an obvious need for systemic and strategic investment in housing quality.

Retrofit Balsall Heath, launched in July 2022, is a community led response in Birmingham to this, working to build up interest and enthusiasm for retrofit amongst the community. They have secured funding to support retrofit of 700 homes in the owner occupied and private rented sectors, and are leading this work from within the community. Working with the local council, they have produced their own community messaging and materials. They have gone out to their friends and neighbours to assuage their concerns about insulation negatively changing the appearance of their homes (Balsall Heath is characteristic for its redbrick terraces), and they campaigned to successfully force a developer planning to build 450 homes locally to install heat pumps rather than gas boilers. They also ran the Retrofit Reimagined Festival looking at how retrofit can be reconfigured from focusing on individual potential customers to working at a neighbourhood level. As a result, there are now a number of streets within this community where 95% of the whole street (say 26 houses or more) are signed up to do retrofit.

Retrofit Balsall Heath is now trying to think more widely than just retrofit; looking at one planet living with health and happiness as the first priority. As such they have been working with street champions to tackle a number of issues, including food and diet, greener spaces and community owned renewables. They have also worked with local sixth form students to develop a ‘serious game’ (in partnership with Birmingham City University) called Climania. Their work feels successful because it is a community-led partnership, working through a network of existing organisations. Retrofit is often framed as a technical challenge, but non-technical barriers are often more important – there needs to be trust between residents and retrofit providers for those providers to be able to take the first step of getting into people’s homes. The ‘whole place’ approach that Retrofit Balsall Heath are taking helps to build that trust, and is allowing the real strength of feeling about retrofit and zero carbon action to come to the fore.

Jennifer Burton – Marches Energy Agency

Marches Energy Agency are currently delivering a project called Future Ready Homes. They are working across Shropshire, Herefordshire and Powys to create a delivery pathway for retrofit, i.e. helping householders to take the first step into retrofit.

The project has many elements. One of these is the offer of 150 fully funded retrofit surveys and resulting plans for householders. Different types of surveys are being offered; Green Architect reports, PAS2035 surveys, BEER reports, light touch surveys and Parity Plan Builder surveys for those properties that already have an EPC rating. These surveys are being offered to a range of householders, a range of different house archetypes, and a range of abilities to pay. This diversity is to allow the project to learn as much as possible about what works best for householders. This is particularly important as the area faces a number of challenges; the rural nature of the project area means the houses are not geographically concentrated, many of the homes are hard to treat, the area includes listed buildings and conservation areas.

The project is also running a number of events such as Green Open Homes to help householders share experiences and learn from people like themselves who have already started their retrofit journey. Other engagement and communication activities include webinars on heat pumps, attendance at green festivals and fairs, and other educational webinars to help people understand what might be plausible for their properties, how to engage with installers, and finance options.

Finally, the project is also trying to tackle some of the supply chain issues of retrofit. Future Ready Homes is working with further education colleges to try and tackle the lack of retrofit skills in the supply chain – and at least one of these colleges is now looking to introduce retrofit to their syllabus in 2024. The project is also engaging with installers with the aim of building a framework of local installers. It is also aiming to provide installers with training through Building Sense (run by Herefordshire Green Network) to help them understand PAS requirements and retrofit opportunities.

Future Ready Homes is still in its early stages but is generating a lot of interest. 120 applications for a retrofit survey have been received in Shropshire alone. In Herefordshire 135 households attended Green Open Homes events. This has been an excellent start to empowering householders to start their retrofit journey, and learning how best to do so.

Christopher Crookall-Fallon – Head of Climate Action Cotswold District Council

Cotswold District Council have been working together with West Oxford District Council and Forest of Dean District Council to produce a Net Zero Carbon Toolkit for housing projects. They did this in response to the problem of the overwhelming range of similar advice about retrofit available from a range of different angles, and the need to provide more simple guidance for building professionals and for homeowners. Provided by Etude, Elementa, the Passivhaus Trust and Levitt Bernstein (who all have a deep understanding of these issues).

The toolkit focuses on both new build homes and retrofit of existing homes, and covers design, specifying and tendering, and construction and maintenance. It has four main building blocks; energy efficiency, low carbon heating, renewable energy generation and embodied carbon. Crucially it sets KPIs for all of these for both new build and retrofit, which clearly show what net zero actually looks like. For instance, the Toolkit’s KPI for space heating demand (i.e. the energy efficiency building block) is 15kWh/m2/yr for a new build house, and 50kWh/m2/yr for a retrofit (on average).  The KPI for energy use intensity (i.e. low carbon heating) is 35 kWh/m2/yr for a new build, and 50 kWh/m2/yr for a retrofit house.

The toolkit then looks at new build housing in more detail, looking at orientation, windows, construction methods, air tightness, ventilation, overheating, heating and hot water systems, renewable energy generation, and embodied carbon, before also looking at how all these elements come together in different house archetypes, costs, case studies and ‘don’ts’. For the detailed retrofit section, a retrofit map is presented. It is often not possible to implement all retrofit measures at once, so the Toolkit lays out how to plan ahead for a staged, whole house retrofit so each package of works is coherent and complementary, and elements of the retrofit do not have to be undone and redone at a later stage. It then looks in more detail at retrofit risks, heating, windows, wall, floor and roof insulation, thermal bridging and junction details, airtightness, ventilation, hot water and renewable energy, before also looking at how these issues come together in different house archetypes, costs, case studies and ‘don’ts’. Heritage properties and conservation areas are also considered.

The Toolkit is not a Supplementary Planning Document, and as such cannot be used to mandate building standards in the area covered by Cotswold, West Oxford and Forest of Dean. It is presented as aspirational and informative, explaining what these authorities would like to see, busting myths, and providing guidance. The Local Plan for Cotswold District Council is currently being updated and principles from the Net Zero Carbon Toolkit are being incorporated into it. And yet despite the non-statutory nature of the Toolkit, housing associations and housing developers building in the Cotswold area are referring to the Toolkit in their own planning applications.

The Toolkit is published under the Creative Commons licence; the desire is very much for other councils to use it themselves, and benefit from it.

John Bachelor – Director of Batchelor & Associations Community Economics Ltd

Trust is critical for persuasion; about starting retrofit on your house or anything else. Public Health England recognise that many people trust their friends, family, community leaders, social media and even brands, more than they trust government. Language is a key part of this, some words local authorities use in their messaging actually have negative connotations for local people (for instance ‘regeneration’ can be associated with demolition and upheaval).

Social marketing can be a way of informing this building of trust. Social marketing is not social media marketing. Social marketing is using commercial marketing methods to change human behaviour, improve lives and improve the environment people live in. It requires segmenting the audience into different groups with different profiles and motivations, and developing targeted messages for those groups, and delivering them in the way that is most appropriate for that group.

Social marketing focuses on benefits rather than features, framing the message in terms of the perceived benefits to the target group. The messages also use an understanding of social norms – influencing people’s behaviour by making it clear what everyone else is doing. The Warmer Homes West Midlands project used these principles when providing free energy advice to residents. Their research showed that residents didn’t like behavioural advice where they felt they were being tutted at. However, given dramatic energy price increases, where behavioural advice could be linked to hard savings (for instance just cutting three minutes off your shower time could lead to a significant decrease in cost), the message was much better received. ‘Benefit checks’ to help people expand their incomes were as likely to be viewed negatively as positively; people feared they might end up with fewer benefits. Working through trusted intermediaries was the best way to get an audience amid the noise and fear of scams.

‘Medicine Hat’ in Canada is another example of applying social marketing to retrofit and energy use. It provided bill payers with information in energy bills as to whether the energy they used was comparable with their neighbours. This had a big impact on people’s energy use behaviours because it established the social norm for energy use – people drifted towards that norm. The project also used heat detection technologies to provide pictures to people about the inefficiency of their homes, which was more understandable and motivating than information about retrofit can often be.

Finally, it’s important to remember that the perceived benefits to the audience may be completely different to the imagined benefits of the intervention. In the Warmer Homes West Midlands project, community members getting a qualification in energy advice were more motivated by being able to help their neighbours than about the technical skills they would gain. It is important to be aware of this and to tailor messages appropriately, to realise these opportunities.

Panel discussion

The questions that followed unpicked a number of issues. There was a discussion around the benefit of retrofit plans for householders, to allow them to plan their retrofits in a staged manner. However drawing on John Bachelor’s points, the difficulty with these documents is that they are very technical, and it’s very hard to demonstrate the benefits that most motivate householders (guaranteed savings) as price fluctuations and unintended consequences can undermine these.  The Future Ready Homes project is trying to make retrofit plans simpler to understand, and to set out what the next step is on receiving that plan. This is often around finance.

The panel discussed the challenges for community groups in this space; volunteer turnover, lack of resource and burnout. It was highlighted that much training for energy advice and retrofit is free for community activists, addressing that lack of resource. It is also important to work through existing organisations to get to ‘hard to reach’ communities, and to link up with wider issues and groups working on the cost-of-living crisis, which is particularly motivating for community activists.

The issue of skills raised its head again, and many of the challenges raised in previous technical briefings were discussed (see previous blogs). There are a range of training opportunities through PAS 2035 from NVQ level and upwards, but even those with Level 4 and 5 qualifications still need more site experience of retrofit delivery. On the supply chain side there are some good examples, such as local energy agency frameworks for smaller and larger contractors to deliver on ECO, but quality has not always been consistently high. Challenges remain around the cost for Trustmark, which is a real disincentive, as does the level of pay for the craft-based work of retrofit.