As UK housing stock faces challenges with carbon neutrality, tech entrepreneurs champion accessible retrofits.
Retrofitting, or upgrading old homes with new technology to make them more sustainable, is a critical strategy for making UK housing stock more sustainable, but right now, many Brits aren’t sure where to start.
“You think, ‘I could get solar panels, or I could upgrade my insulation, or I could put something in the loft or the floor or in the walls,” says Laurence Watson, who specialises in technology, policy, entrepreneurship and the built environment.
That’s when homeowners start to spiral into indecision. Where do they start? How do they compare their options?
Watson is currently the co-founder and chief product and technology officer (CPTO) at Furbnow, a retrofit startup that recently raised a pre-seed investment round of £950k.
According to him, heat pumps, flex markets, EV charging and new fabrication materials are just a few of the available options.
He and his co-founder, Becky Lane, set out to make the retrofit process less cognitively demanding by creating Furbnow’s Home Energy Plan, which lets homeowners compare different combinations of retrofits.
“People want to get a sense of what’s possible,” Watson says.
Maybe they combine an insulation upgrade with a kitchen repair. Either way, they want to have a good grasp of the time constraints, the potential costs and a sense of how a retrofit might disrupt their lives.
Upgrading piece by piece
Owners can start small. Instead of launching into a deep retrofit, which can mean longer installation timeframes and tens of thousands in expenses, they can invest in “shallow” upgrades or smaller, more incremental tech that still increases the home’s energy efficiency.
“When it comes to retrofitting, one of the biggest mistakes is waiting to overhaul a whole building,” says Andy Haigh, director of climate-positive solutions at Grosvenor UK Property.
Retrofits include a wide variety of low-carbon upgrades, like changing light bulbs to LEDs or reducing draughts, he adds, pointing to energy management and proper maintenance as small fixes that, when carried out at scale, have the potential to make a major impact.
This push is partly to reduce home energy use and shift to a lower-carbon economy, but also to enhance energy security: the less reliant the country is on oil, the more resilience it has to withstand rapid shifts in Europe’s energy market.
Don’t underestimate this option. According to Joseph Saxby of Spruce, heat pumps are one of, if not the critical, retrofit areas for the UK to achieve its net zero goals by 2050.
“If you’re serious about reducing the [roughly] 20% of any country’s carbon emissions that are currently consumed by heating homes,” he tells The Climate, then “you fundamentally need to decarbonise the energy source. You have to move away from oil and gas.”
Where do retrofits go from here?
In the lead-up to the likely 2024 elections, climate activists and entrepreneurs will be pushing for stronger national policies, incentives and subsidies for retrofits. For his part, Haigh hopes that the expected 2024 UK election will introduce the green skills training needed to get the UK back on track.
Note that national policies surrounding retrofits have never been more important. In 2023, the Sunak administration rolled back a few important steps on the way to net zero, and the country is still installing too few heat pumps to meet its targets.
Complicating the picture is the fact that many UK houses are historic, ageing and unlikely to be rebuilt from scratch.
But if entrepreneurs like Watson and Saxby have their way, more regular citizens will feel empowered to pursue retrofits regardless of government policy.
“We know there’s a huge part of the market of people that really want to improve their homes,” Watson explains. “They want the help; they have the design and the motivation to improve it.” Now, “it’s about accessing them and making something that’s accessible.”