Homes are changing too slowly – but you can make your house a superhome

Keeping it cool: well insulated buildings give nothing away. Passivhaus Institut, CC BY-SA

Britain’s homes are responsible for almost a third of the nation’s energy use, despite decades of gradually improving energy efficiency. For the UK to meet its targets for carbon emissions reductions by 2050, around 600,000 homes per year will need to be renovated to generate sufficiently large energy savings.

But at the moment only a few hundred are being renovated to a high energy saving standard each year – many more people will need to be encouraged to take on the job for themselves and bring their homes up to modern standards.

Homeowners that have already done so can help make the case for others to follow, being as they are pioneers, and occasionally they open their homes to the public. For example, those homeowners in the Superhome nework, the longest established open home network in the UK, launched by the Sustainable Energy Academy in 2006.

Our study published recently in the Buildings Research and Information journal examined the experiences of Superhome owner-occupiers, to discover who they were, their motivations, and the costs and benefits of renovation. We conducted an online survey with 57 Superhome owner-occupiers (about half of all relevant households), and 14 detailed interviews.

We found that compared with a typical English owner-occupier, Superhome owners are on average better educated, live in larger household groups and larger homes, and have higher incomes – characteristics that are commonly found in those with pro-environmental values. Perhaps more surprising was the wide range of incomes: while many are better off than average, a significant proportion of Superhome owners live on much lower-than-average incomes. Having money helps, but low energy renovating is not the preserve of the well-off. Of course, one of the benefits of energy efficient homes is that they cost less to run.

Households had on average installed ten energy efficiency or renewable energy measures. The most popular were loft insulation (100%), wall insulation (91%), double-glazed or other high-performance windows (81%), and solar panels (77%). All these techniques and technologies that can deliver energy savings and low carbon buildings are well understood, and most households undertook similar work.

What this study confirms is that effective low carbon renovation work can be carried out over a long period. Renovation could be completed in less than six months or take several decades, with the most common time period (30% of respondents) being between two and five years. Renovations can also be split into those planned from the start (60%), and those which developed over time (40%).

Almost universally, the reasons householders wanted to renovate their homes were to reduce energy use and carbon emissions, with other benefits including better warmth and comfort in the house and reduced energy bills. During the interviews we explored their motivations in more detail: some were driven by environmental concerns, others focused more on reducing waste, others still saw energy reduction as part of process towards a better quality of life. As researchers are beginning to understand, deciding to renovate is not a simple or single issue decision.

Superhome owners are often asked about the cost. This can be surprisingly hard to answer, for two reasons. For a start, detailed records may not have been kept. And also distinguishing the additional costs of energy saving measures from the other renovations taking place at the same can be very difficult. For example, many home owners take advantage of trigger points, such as when extending their homes, to introduce low energy measures at the same time. Our interviewees estimated spending between a few thousand into the low tens of thousands of pounds on their renovations. Lower cost renovations usually involved an element of DIY.

Visitors are guided around John Christopher’s zero-carbon home, Birmingham. superhomes.org.uk

Most Superhome owners think in terms of whether the work will deliver the benefits they want, and whether it is affordable. One interviewee said:

Everyone always asks ‘what’s the payback?’ Actually the most important thing is I now have a house that’s warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and frankly I didn’t have that before because in the winter, all the heating was on maximum and it all went straight out the windows and walls. So now it’s a very nice place to live.

None of the Superhome owners funded their renovations purely through loans or mortgages, most used a combination of savings and other finance or paid for them out of income, particularly if carrying out the work over a long period.

So what would encourage more people to undertake low carbon renovation? While we have shown that many different combination of planning, financing and timing can be successful, taking action comes down to means, motive and opportunity. People need access to finance, knowledge, and advice, as well as DIY skills or skilled professionals. Low carbon retrofits engage with many important values and aspirations – the renovation must deliver benefits beyond just energy savings. And there must be an understanding of the opportunities to incorporate low-carbon options wherever and whenever possible.

Find the sweet spot that provides a means to get this combination right, and we might see more people taking the chance to live in better heated, more comfortable, cheaper, greener homes.