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Building net zero: the benefits of data driven decisions for housing retrofits

The decarbonisation of the built environment, responsible for almost 30% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the UK[1], understandably remains a fundamental focus for the construction industry. Stewart Little, Managing Director of IRT Surveys, outlines how the solution is deep rooted in innovation and technology, and explores the benefits of data driven decisions in retrofit projects.

As the nation’s path to net zero continues its acceleration – backed by key reports such as the Prime Minister’s ten-point plan for a green industrial revolution, the Construction Leadership Council’s long-awaited National Retrofit Strategy and the Green Finance Institute’s Financing energy efficient buildings: the path to retrofit at scale consultative document – an overhaul of the energy performance of the UK’s existing building stock has become even more imperative.

Undeniably, a critical element of achieving net zero will be reducing carbon emissions from existing buildings. This is acutely clear when you consider that 80% of buildings expected to be occupied in 2050 have already been built, with these properties anticipated to represent a staggering 95% of future built environment emissions[2].

Addressing the fabric of the built environment

What has become evidently clear, therefore, is major infrastructure decisions need to be made in the near future and implemented at pace in order to forge ahead with eradicating construction’s contribution to climate change by 2050, particularly for affordable housing.

In 2020, around 4 million houses were occupied by households socially renting, representing a total of almost 16.7 percent of all households. Reducing emissions to net zero for this sector will require retrofit work that is expected to be in the region of £104bn by 2050[3], making it a sizeable and costly venture and one that has become a matter of greatest importance for the construction industry.

Given the scale of the retrofit challenge, having a comprehensive plan in place will undeniably support the existing workforce in delivering the ambitious programme which could transform the housing stock and address the fabric of the built environment itself.

While the pathway to decarbonisation has a clear destination and starting point, fundamental to its success is understanding and agreeing upon the best, most optimal route to get there. This is where the value of data comes to the fore, arming the industry with critical insights that facilitate smarter decision making.

The power of data

The challenge for any retrofit or refurbishment is firstly identifying the issues inherent in existing properties, how much investment will be required to remedy it, and if it will deliver a reasonable Return on Investment (ROI).

It is this regard that data, when paired with accurate visual insights into the condition of buildings – driven by leading edge technologies such as infrared thermal imaging – can be deployed to great effect.

A housing survey underpinned by thermal imaging that doesn’t damage the building fabric – thereby creating more expensive problems – can deliver significant value. Such surveys have the ability to reveal everything from half-filled cavities or empty cavities when people assume they are full, to possible insulation defects, weaknesses in the waterproofing of properties and much more.

Poor and inaccurate data can often be impediments to energy saving solutions being deployed with the necessary speed and scale. By equipping professionals with hard data, free from bias that often comes with a traditional building survey, decisions can be based on facts, not assumptions.

DORIC project

The Domestic Optimised Retrofit Innovation Concept (DORIC) project is a prime example of the synergy of technology, cloud-based software and data being deployed successfully.

The £5.2m project – backed by the Department for Business Energy & Strategy (BEIS) £50m investment fund – will see 100 homes benefit from a multi-million-pound investment aimed at improving energy performance.

Led by IRT Surveys (IRT), one of the fastest growing thermal imaging survey companies in Europe, the scheme brought together a consortium of Aberdeen City Council (ACC) as project lead, SMS PLC as co-founder and supplier of PVs and batteries, and Robertson Construction as main contractor.

Building on an established relationship between IRT and ACC ­– which has seen the former thermally image 35,000 council owned homes, and survey a further 7,500 owner occupier homes under the council’s guidance over a number of years – this latest project started with IRT analysing ACC’s portfolio of 22,000 homes and identifying suitable properties to retrofit.

By uploading the council’s entire portfolio into IRT’s DREam online platform, a previous inordinate array of complex housing data was augmented, merged and filtered to help steer and dictate the programme of works.

What’s more, by effortlessly aligning data with investment criteria such as The ECO3 Funding Scheme, suitable funding opportunities could be identified for the project.

ACC’s portfolio was assessed against criteria including: whether homes could take PV structurally, as well as external wall insulation, and most crucially where the funding would be welcome and the timing aligned with the council’s ongoing investment programme. While asbestos, orientation, fuel poverty, kitchens, bathrooms, structural integrity and condition, were all factors in determining which homes would be best suited for retrofit.

The DREam output, shared among the consortium, ensured an extensive portfolio of 22,000 homes could be rapidly filtered down to 400 using critical data insights.

Once a total of 150 inhabitants responded to a letter advising they wished to take part in the project, a comprehensive survey process for IRT’s surveyors, in partnership with SMS and Robertsons, was developed and implemented. This resulted in a single assessment to capture all necessary insights to drive retrofitting works, in turn, minimising disruption for occupants.

Unlocking wider benefits

By bookending all works with thermal imaging and comprehensive internal surveys on 10 archetypes – comprising air tightness, EPC’s, retrofit assessment, retrofit co-ordination and gSkin U-value thermocouples – the efficacy of the project deliverables was attained, while an engaging, simple, visual audit trail was delivered. 

The decarbonising of ACC’s assets, and the lives of Aberdonians in residence, was further assured with the implementation of innovative Switchee smart meters and sensors that enabled rapid feedback and two way communication with the occupant.

As a result ACC were not only able to extract maximum insights and value, but also facilitate the retrofitting of the next 100 homes using the same model and an intuitive polygonal mapping tool.

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