The pivotal role of ‘community’ in retrofit programmes has been widely recognised, yet, there is ample evidence to suggest that even social landlords, who tend to be considered experts and front-runners in both retrofit and community activities, often struggle with successfully combining the two in practice.
Our ongoing CHARISMA project has engaged social housing stakeholders in research for approximately 12 months. On 6 October 2014 we ran our practitioner workshop focusing on community engagement. Apart from sharing our emerging findings, the workshop heard from two industry speakers, Nicola Scorer from Gentoo and Naila Ilyas from Northwards Housing. Approximately 30 professionals took part from across the registered provider sector, the construction industry and local authorities in Greater Manchester.
Gentoo Group, a North East based ‘social business’ with a housing stock of nearly 30,000 properties, is known for its extensive work in finding out “what works” in engaging customers, improving their ‘Art of Living’ and getting better results for retrofit programmes. Their successive reports entitled “Retrofit Reality” document in detail how and why the energy and therefore cost savings associated with social housing retrofit are often less than anticipated. According to Gentoo, the majority of the variation can be explained by “tenant behaviour”. Behaviour, however, is not just simply “doing the wrong thing” such as leaving windows open while having the central heating on. There are underlying structural issues to consider such as fuel poverty, which results in many households using less energy than anticipated in standard assumptions, meaning that achieved savings are often modest. Alternatively, increased efficiency can mean that households opt to heat their homes more to achieve comfort.
Our own research revealed that unanticipated, counter productive behaviour is often related to uncertainty or disruption caused by retrofit interventions. Installation of energy efficient equipment such as heating systems, smart meters, and solar PV often fails to include training for end users to ensure that they get the most out of their system, or even to gain a basic competence in understanding the new equipment. Landlords who have installed PV have reported getting calls from tenants whose electricity bills have shot up due to misunderstandings about when and how the “free” electricity could be used. Others imply that tenants sometimes simply switch new equipment off if it doesn’t make sense to them. Our interviewees confirmed this to be the case with solar hot water panels and similar evidence has been published concerning smart meters in a detailed retrofit study from Cambridge. Perhaps at the root of this issue is the lack of resources in creating retrofit communities, where discussions and learning from each other could improve outcomes for all. An insightful example of how a community approach can improve outcomes came from Gentoo, whose contractor performance had improved significantly after they started to share their customer satisfaction ratings with contractors.
In Greater Manchester, too, a number of social landlords are innovating and trying different approaches to creating communities around retrofit. These experiments can be instructive not just for landlords, but their contractors, partners, tenants and their friends and families. They can be used to trial a new technology in a specific community or housing style, or a new way of engaging residents and encouraging energy efficient behaviours. Emerging examples of community approaches to housing retrofit include:
- Technology pilots: with a small number of tenants to introduce and test a new technology (heatpumps, solar panels)
- Demonstrator homes: occupied/ unoccupied
- Energy champions: peer-to-peer, ‘word of mouth’ methods
- Energy advice: third party e.g. energy doctors, or in-house teams
- Mainstream tenant engagement: e.g. leaflets, coffee mornings
Our research found many examples of these different approaches in action. For example, St Vincent’s housing association ran an influential “Cozy Home” demonstrator home in Farnworth, Bolton for over 12 months. They engaged a wide range of professionals and community representatives on how a traditional terraced house can be made super efficient at a fraction of the cost that many would associate with such a high level of performance. Southway Housing Trust have adopted an experimental approach in recruiting three different households in their communities, each trying out a different retrofit strategy, from A-rated appliances to improved insulation and solar PV. They then arranged visit with neighbours to demonstrate how the retrofit strategies work and also evaluated their energy bills. They have combined these demonstrator homes with an “energy doctor” service that is run by an external voluntary sector partner. Northwards have embarked on an ambitious behaviour change programme, with a dedicated officer who provides practical energy advice and crucially, follow up support, with 231 households. They have used group training, individual support and events in local communities. Using the Energy Saving Trust’s methodology, Northwards estimated a carbon savings of 85 metric tons over a 10-month period.
The day concluded with brainstorming on how retrofit communities could be engaged and supported, and how long term beneficial community impacts could be achieved.