Retrofitting Buildings to Support the Recovery

Retrofitting Buildings to Support the Recovery

Faye Wade (University of Edinburgh) highlights the importance of building retrofit for a sustainable economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only does retrofitting promise a major step toward a low carbon society, it also contributes to increased GDP and jobs in the construction sector.

Action to manage the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic has resulted in loss of jobs and slowing of economic growth worldwide. A number of high profile organizations have now identified low carbon building retrofitting as a fundamental pillar for a green economic recovery (LGA, 2020; RICS, 2020; EC, 2020b; CCC, 2020; WWF, 2020). This article explains why buildings need to be retrofitted and the economic and employment potential of doing so, before exploring skills gaps and training prioritization.

The need to retrofit

The European Union’s (EU) building stock is the largest single energy consumer in Europe, contributing to 40% of energy consumption and 30% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (EC, 2020a). Reducing this is essential for meeting the aims of the Paris Agreement and international climate targets. However, 80% of today’s buildings will still be in use in 2050 and 75% of this stock is energy inefficient (EC, 2020a). Energy retrofitting, or the improvement of fabric, controls, service and lighting as well as the provision of low carbon heat and hot water, is essential for reducing energy demand and associated GHG emissions. Rates of retrofitting are currently low, with the EU’s 1% annual rate of reduction of the (domestic and non-domestic) building stock’s primary energy consumption sitting way below what is needed (EC, 2019). In the UK, the Government’s Clean Growth Strategy has set targets for as many homes as possible to have an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) C rating by 2035 (UK Government, 2017a). With 70% of the UK housing stock currently falling below EPC C, this leaves 19 million homes to retrofit within 15 years (Rosenow et al., 2018). Reducing energy demand and achieving targets will thus require unprecedented speed and scale of efforts to retrofit the entire building stock.

There are promising activities in some places. For example, the European Green Deal will support a ‘Renovation Wave’ of buildings, which aims to at least double the annual renovation rate of existing building stock (EC, 2020b). This initiative will seek to establish a Communication and Action Plan (EC, 2020a) that includes:

  • regulatory instruments for stimulating volume retrofitting
  • financial mechanisms to mobilise investment
  • supporting skills and employment strategies
  • leading by example with retrofits of public sector buildings.

The Scottish Government’s Energy Efficient Scotland programme takes a similarly broad approach, incorporating a clear legislative framework alongside the development of supply chains, consumer awareness and financing. The programme, which aims for all homes to be at least EPC C by 2040 where technically feasible and cost effective, has been piloted for the past 3 years and is set to roll out across Scotland over the next 20 (Scottish Government, 2018).

Economic and employment benefits

The built environment and residential properties in particular are the largest value infrastructure in most countries; these buildings also usually have very high longevity. Economic benefits of retrofitting could include the potential to extend the service life of a building, and increase the real estate value. For example, retrofitting Canadian office buildings can result in a decrease in operating costs, increase in occupancy rates and an increase in rental revenue (Carlson & Pressnail, 2018). In addition, buildings that consume less energy could contribute to a shifting and reduction of peak demand, alleviating pressures on the grid and facilitating the use of renewable energy supply technologies.

Poor quality domestic buildings contribute to higher-than-necessary energy demand and high levels of GHG emissions. In the UK, there is a disproportionately large number of energy poor households in low quality properties in EPC bands E, F and G (BEIS, 2018: 35), and those who are energy poor are statistically more likely to report poor health and emotional well-being (Thomson, Snell & Bouzarovski, 2017). If considering the indirect impacts of ill-health – for example, absenteeism and reduced productivity – the economic impacts of poor quality buildings are even higher. Indeed, energy efficient office buildings have the potential to increase worker productivity by approximately 12% (BPIE, 2020).

Improving the building stock can reduce pressures on health services, increase well-being and economic output, and lead to higher levels of disposable income and associated spending. Thus, retrofitting programmes have the ability to boost Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For example, modelling estimates suggest a boost of £7.8 billion to the Scottish economy alone through the Energy Efficient Scotland programme (Turner et al., 2018).

Further, construction and building retrofit is a labour-intensive activity. It has been estimated that for every €1 million invested in energy renovation of buildings, an average of 18 jobs are created in the EU (BPIE, 2020). This is roughly equivalent to the number of new jobs created per £1 million of UK Government grant funding invested in new innovation sectors such as biotechnology, medical equipment engineering, high-tech manufacturing. For example, £8 billion of UK Government investment in innovation research & development generated approximately 150,000 new jobs over 13 years (UK Government, 2017b).

Meeting the EU’s existing 2030 climate and energy targets can add 1% of GDP and create almost 1 million new green jobs (EC, 2020b). The significance of retrofitting is indicated by future low carbon jobs projections for England. Here, it is estimated that roughly 160,000 jobs will be in low carbon heat, whilst another 145,000 will be in energy efficiency products, including insulation, lighting and control systems (LGA, 2020).

Figure 1. Split of low carbon and renewable energy economy jobs in England by 2030 (Source: LGA, 2020: 7)

With these multiple benefits, scaling up rates of retrofitting will be crucial for achieving climate goals, and supporting the COVID-19 recovery effort.

Existing skills gaps and training prioritisation

The workforce needed for successful, wide-scale energy retrofitting is diverse. Work towards developing retrofitting standards across the UK includes Each Home Counts (Bonfield, 2016) and the associated PAS 2035 qualification, and the development of a Scottish Quality Mark (Cuthbert, 2019). The retrofitting process outlined in both cases includes assessment, installation, inspection and consumer protection. The variety of roles to be filled thus includes:

  • Training and accreditation: the development of a network of courses and accreditation bodies to ensure that the workforce have opportunities to upskill and meet expected standards
  • Advising: people who can offer advice to householders on retrofitting options and support them in accessing trusted tradespeople
  • Assessment: building quality before and after retrofitting is assessed against EPC rating; this necessitates a workforce qualified to undertake SAP assessments
  • Installing: a network of tradespeople and organisations qualified to fit insulation, glazing and low carbon heat.
  • Coordination or design: a ‘Designer’ role has been identified in PAS 2035; this is an individual who will oversee whole house retrofitting, sequence works, and coordinate trades accordingly
  • Inspection and enforcement: this is likely to require expansion of existing capacity within local authority Building Control
  • Consumer protection: individuals who oversee consumer protection standards and support consumer disputes (this is in line with the Consumer Charter recommended in Each Home Counts).

New roles are emerging to deliver retrofit, and there is an additional need to plug growing skills gaps in construction. In the UK, the number of first year Further Education trainees fell from roughly 13,750 to 4,500 in the wood trades, and 9,000 to 2,350 in bricklaying between 2007 and 2015 (ConstructionSkills, 2015). Additional regional skills gaps have been identified. For example, shortages of bricklayers, joiners and painter & decorators have been identified in Scotland (Scottish Government, 2019). A key near-term (2020-2025) skills gap is in the design, specification and installation of heat pumps (LGA, 2019). In addition, there are likely to be local differences in need for and distribution of jobs. For example, regions off the gas grid will need a workforce in the near-term qualified to fit individual low carbon technologies such as heat pumps.

Filling these gaps, and delivering new skills for retrofitting will require a rapid shift in the UK’s provision of existing vocational qualifications. The complex processes involved in energy retrofitting require ‘energy literacy’ across all construction roles (Clarke, Gleeson & Winch, 2017), and the related occupations listed above. In particular, design and construction teams need to be aware of the implications of their decisions on others’ work (Owen, Janda & Simpson, 2019). Now is the time to develop new structures for the provision of training. This must include general knowledge of low energy construction and skills in understanding the ‘whole house’ needs, alongside tailoring to specific skills for the trade or role. In addition, COVID-19 has left many sectors (e.g. travel and hospitality) with increased levels of unemployment. It would be fruitful to explore how the transferable skills of these workers can be utilized in retrofitting. For example, experts in consumer protection from these sectors could potentially combine their existing knowledge with new training on buildings and energy to work within retrofitting.


With their benefits for the environment, economy, and employment, large scale building retrofit programmes are exactly what is needed to recover from the impacts of COVID-19 as well as transition the economy over the longer term. A strategic approach to creating a qualified workforce for high quality building retrofit would offer clear economic and environmental benefits in the longer term. Such an approach is being pursued by the European Commission through their Renovation Wave, and Scottish Government who are continuing development of the Energy Efficient Scotland programme.

The benefits outlined here, coupled with vociferous campaigning for retrofit from numerous organisations, emphasize the need for multifaceted support for such schemes. Government roles include:

  • providing incentives (through funding like the UK ‘Green Homes Grant’ scheme announced on the 8th July 2020 and the EU Renovation Wave scheme)
  • capacity building through developing training programmes and supporting registration bodies, across all of the roles needed to deliver successful retrofit.
  • creating strong support for homeowners (robust advice, supervision and validation; processes enabling occupant understanding and agency about operation and practices, post-occupancy evaluation, consumer protection)
  • developing legislation and regulation to provide clear long-term energy performance targets
  • enabling through providing oversight and supporting consumer protection.
The success of any retrofitting programme is reliant on bringing all of these elements together.

The importance and delivery of such wide-scale energy retrofitting will be explored in a forthcoming special issue of Buildings & Cities: Retrofitting at Scale: Accelerating Capabilities for Domestic Building Stocks. The special issue will focus on the accelerated delivery of domestic energy retrofitting at different scales: national, municipal, neighbourhood and individual sites. It will draw out distinctions and complementarities for policies and delivery strategies for different scales, stakeholders, inhabitants and disciplines


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