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Helping social housing landlords avoid retrofit nightmares

Damp and mould are deadly symptoms of poor ventilation and ineffective heating. But they also develop because of ‘upgrades’ gone wrong. With UK residential stock among Europe’s worst for energy efficiency, how can we ensure investment in improvements is money well spent? 

gray concrete building with glass windows

Britain has a housing crisis within its housing crisis. The English Housing Survey reported that in 2021 44% of all registered accommodation failed to meet energy band C standards, many lacking efficient heating systems, double-glazing and modern insulation. In Scotland this rises to 48% of all homes as energy inefficient, while the average house in Northern Ireland is energy band D. 

More worryingly, up to 6.5million UK households live with mould and damp, although it’s difficult to get exact numbers when estimates range between 4 and 27% of every home in the country. Often symptomatic of poor quality, worn or outdated building fabric, the data grey area is exactly the sort of thing that piques Sam Collier’s interest.

His primary goal, professionally speaking at least, is working out we can effectively retrofit and upgrade a lot of Europe’s worst quality housing stock. And by that he means British housing stock. Head of Market Intelligence at HomeLink, he’s also writing a PhD thesis about residential solar uptake, and the impact of local policy on that. 

Collier’s looks at indoor environmental metrics, provided by a HomeLink IoT sensor, giving invaluable measurements to a customer base primarily comprising social housing landlords. These readings help them understand when a priority needs to be upgraded, and why. Less obviously, though, the device also identifies when the wrong kind of work has been done to the wrong type of building, in a misguided attempt to improve efficiency.

‘UK building stock is pretty rubbish to be honest. And arguably, you know, we’re trying to do stuff to homes that aren’t fit for purpose. Trying to improve their energy efficiency, and there’s a lot of unintended consequences that we’re not necessarily taking into account when we’re doing improvement work, particularly if they’re not following standardised processes,’ Collier explains. “[The sensor] monitors temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide levels.

‘Old homes are being expected to function in the same way new homes are a lot of the time. But they aren’t necessarily built to perform that way. An old home potentially has certain types of ventilation,’ he continues. ‘A good example is a chimney. That was used to ensure air flow through the property, as well as keeping it warm with a fire. When we’re upgrading properties, retrofitting them for energy efficiency, we’re basically making them airtight and more thermally efficient, removing capacity of ventilation.’

brown concrete building during night time

Through campaigning for things like Ella’s Law, long-overdue, still not yet ready legal framework to guarantee minimum acceptable atmospheric conditions, outdoor air quality has made huge leaps forward in terms of public understanding and awareness. By comparison, indoor air quality is far less recognised outside specialists. However, the tragic reality is the death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak, who suffered from prolonged exposure to mould in his Rochdale Boroughwide Housing flat. 

According to the English Housing Survey 2021, “around 904,000 homes in England had damp problems in 2021. Of these, around 11% in the private rented sector had damp problems compared with 4% in the social-rented sector and 2% of owner-occupied homes.” Meanwhile, the most recent figures for excess cold, a category one health hazard, showed that in 2019 653,000 properties were affected. 

‘If we’re not ventilating, well, we’re not getting rid of stale, humid air, which can then lead to other impacts. Things like damp and mould. And these conditions are made worse with the squeeze on energy as well,’ says Collier. ‘Without taking into account what the indoor environment’s going to be like post retrofit, you can be opening up to a range of potentially dangerous issues for whoever is in the home.

‘[Best practice] is looking at a ‘fabric first’ approach. So basically looking at upgrading the structure of the property itself to start with, and then looking at that, like heating systems and things like that. I think we’re probably shifting beyond that now. And looking at ensuring that what we’re doing is actually having the desired impact. So some of the areas we work in, which we can use the sensors to look at, like thermal efficiency at the property.’

Capable of connecting to carbon monoxide alarms, allowing users to access a digital dashboard with readings for all conditions tested, the small device serves multiple purposes. Not only can it show how to improve the energy rating of a home, protecting against the risk of having inappropriate or ineffective work done, it helps provide an understanding of more complex conditions, like air quality, with CO2 a gauge for other pollutant levels. It also helps if customers trust the results. 

‘One landlord installed, I think, external wall insulation, and complimented it with positive input ventilation [PIV]. Now, that’s not necessarily the wrong thing to do. But because it was in the loft there was a problem – it can’t operate over a certain temperature,’ says Collier. ‘In the summer, when it was most needed, the system wasn’t working. It was too hot. And then they had this massive spike in damp and mould risk, because it wasn’t being ventilated properly, and so was getting really warm and humid. 

‘The only way that was flagged was through our system, but the customer was more convinced that our data was incorrect than their retrofits had gone wrong, at first,’ he continues. ‘We probably expected more push-back than we’ve experienced. Social housing providers are looking for ways in which they can improve their services. Anything that gives them more insight into what’s going on in their properties without having to deal with access issues,  if we can put something in there to see what’s going on, they are quite open to it. The residents have been the same, once we’ve taken time to explain things in full.’ 

More features: 

Reducing emissions isn’t enough, reversing the climate crisis means restoring balance

No growth on a dead planet: Budget 2024 is another climate blow

What the UK must do to meet its 2030 net zero targets

Images: Ben Allan

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