Chris McGinn: ‘Carbon jargon’ is barrier to net zero progress

Chris McGinn: 'Carbon jargon' is barrier to net zero progress

Chris McGinn

Chris McGinn, commercial manager at PfH Scotland, believes Scottish social landlords need to get back to basics when it comes to reducing the carbon footprint of their homes.

More than ever, improving the thermal performance of social homes in Scotland feels like an uphill battle.

Housing associations and local authorities are facing challenges on all fronts: from the rising cost of retrofit labour and materials to a lack of direction on energy efficiency strategy - the sector is still waiting for new fabric efficiency and clean heat requirements in the proposed Social Housing Net Zero Standard (SHNZS).

Funding headaches are common and there’s also tension between policy forces. I’ve heard reports of relatively well-insulated homes with combi boilers sometimes scoring higher on EESSH2 energy performance SAP calculations than properties with heat pumps.

No wonder social landlords are often hesitant around the procurement of green improvements. The worry is they will invest limited capital funds in the wrong measures.

There is another challenge, though, that is muddying the waters. When we talk about greener homes there’s an assortment of complex language used. Terms like ‘operational carbon’, ‘embodied energy’, ‘carbon neutral’, ‘zero carbon ready’ and ‘carbon sequestration’ can be tricky to decipher. And that’s even before we get to the different carbon standards for social homes.

Councils and housing associations can retrofit their homes to the heady heights of EnerPHit, or they can go for AECB Building Standards, PAS 2035, BREEAM Standards or maybe the New Build Heat Standard 2024. The list goes on.

This multitude of net zero models and criteria means that housing providers can, understandably, become overwhelmed by ‘carbon jargon’ – resulting in them developing retrofit schemes that are more expensive and comprehensive than is needed. This is wasting valuable time and money, all whilst the clock is ticking for the sector to improve its stock and become compliant.

So, what’s the best way for Scottish social landlords to get back to basics when it comes to enhancing the energy efficiency of their homes? Here are a few principles to focus on:

  1. Be realistic: EnerPHit is the nirvana of retrofit. A sister standard to Passivhaus (which is for new builds), homes improved to EnerPHit levels are extremely airtight, with low heating demand and very high levels of comfort. But retrofitting all, or even a significant proportion of social homes to this top standard just isn’t financially viable. Instead, social landlords need to find the most economically advantageous route to making their entire stock more energy efficient, rather than wasting time on EnerPHit pilots that will be tough to scale.
  2. Keep it simple: It’s easy to be dazzled by the range of energy efficiency certifications around but there are some core principles that are worth focusing on. In 2021, the PAS 2035 domestic retrofit standard was introduced to Scotland and across the UK, outlining a specification for the design of low carbon measures. Making eco-improvements to this level will bring homes up to a decent energy efficiency standard, whilst keeping within budget.
  3. Do it in stages: When I speak to retrofit experts about the reality of greening social homes within restricted budgets and time scales, some of the most common advice I hear is to break work into chunks. Rather than developing complicated, pricey, all-inclusive programmes, it’s better to make a plan, then deliver initial measures, take stock, apply for funds for the next round and so on. This makes the process more manageable, and it allows time for reflection on what’s working.
  4. Use a common language: It’s easy to get lost in the detail of carbon terminology. The National House Building Council (NHBC) have created a useful ‘carbon jargon’ glossary of terms. They recognise the need for a straightforward, consistent set of explanations and definitions around energy efficiency which housing organisations can adopt.
  5. Future proof: There are still many challenges to finding alternatives to gas boilers. We don’t yet know what the future will look like. As a result, it’s vital that housing associations and councils are adaptable and open-minded. Heat networks are key here. They can supply heat to a cluster of buildings from a central source, negating the need for individual boilers or electric heaters. But they are also agnostic to heating technology and can integrate with new, cleaner technologies as they become available.

It’s understandable that housing professionals are holding back on retrofit until they have clarity on Scotland’s new green landscape. But my message is to make it simple and get started now. If you cut through the jargon and complexity, there are some clear steps you can take to begin your retrofit journey and successfully deliver the eco-improvements that are right for your tenants and your organisation as a whole.

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