Russell Smith of Parity Projects explains why a whole house plan is the best way forward for tackling a renovation.
Interview with Russell Smith
Russell is a chartered civil engineer whose interest in renovation began after a secondment with the charity Forum for the Future. He began to understand the gravity of climate change and learn about the impact of energy and carbon emissions attributed to the housing stock. This led him to tackle his own housing renovation project, around 16 years ago, at a time when most of the talk was about new builds.
The renovation of his Victorian property managed to get his heating bills down to around £50 per year. He opened his house up to around 3,000 visitors during the three years he worked on it and was honest with them about what he had discovered, how hard it was and how much it cost.
Russell realised there was a business opportunity in it and started his own company, Parity Projects.
A ‘whole house retrofit' is something of a misnomer
Russell describes retrofit as being the bits and pieces that are retrospectively fitted. A whole house retrofit is actually a deep refurbishment where everything is done at once.
“Provided you’ve got a game plan right at the start knowing how everything should fit together in the long-term then your retrofits should add up to a whole house refurbishment in the long-term.”
Too much information can scare off new customers
Providing full and detailed calculations and drawings at the outset is likely to overwhelm the majority of people, as they wouldn't be aware that quite so much was needed.
Instead, Russell starts by using just enough data to help a customer understand the size of the problem and the opportunity of what is possible with the house. By displaying what the priorities are, they can agree on an appropriate package of measures before moving to the next phase. This would involve much deeper analysis and calculations for every element of the building.
Phasing a renovation over time takes extra consideration
Russell explains it can be particularly difficult to get all the elements to fit together if they're not carried out together in one plan.
“If you’re only installing some of the measures or you’re only tackling some of the things that you would want to do upfront, really you want to make sure that those things don’t have to be undone to do the next things later on.”
So ideally it makes the most sense to carry it out in one go if possible. It's the least costly way of doing it, materials can be bought in bulk, it can all be carried out while no one is living there, it doesn't have to be tidied away completely at the end of each day, and the airtightness layer and ventilation can be considered for the whole building rather than just room by room.
Russell does acknowledge that this won't always be possible as people might not have somewhere else to stay or the finances available all at once.
Ultimately we want to reduce our demand for heat
The first step therefore is looking at where heat is being lost. Using the example of a three-bedroom semi-detached property, he explains the different areas:
The biggest proportion of heat loss will be through the walls, and without a cavity the insulation will need to either go on the outside or the inside of the building. Careful consideration needs to be given into the way the building was designed to behave, and whether there is already moisture in the brickwork that needs to dry out before any work can start. External wall insulation can be relatively straightforward provided it's designed properly.
Windows and doors
This involves heat loss both through the windows and doors themselves, as well as infiltration around the outsides where they have been installed. If they're not going to be replaced then the gaps around the structures need to be dealt with very well.
Russell says typically around 15% of the heat loss can be through the floor so it's important to address it early on.
The roof makes up a large part of the surface area of the house and there are plenty of elements which make each unique, such as the different type, orientation, and rainfall.
Once the building has been made more airtight and insulated, you need to ensure a good level of ventilation so that the air quality for the occupants is of a high standard.
“Once you’ve got all of those things dealt with in combination, you’ve resulted in a much lower energy demand than you would have done in the first place. And that’s the point to start considering your heating system and how you would put some heat into the building.”
The Passivhaus standard deals with these elements
It is important to ensure that you are ventilating and insulating in combination to get to such low levels of heat demand where a heating system can be virtually unnecessary. But while that's an aim for every property, the restrictions of budget, priorities and logistics will mean that not every building will be able to reach that.
There needs to be government backing
Russell believes there needs to be a government campaign to make people understand the potential of their property and where it can get to provided that strong decisions for a whole house plan are made.
“It’s got to happen. We’ve got no choice. That is going to happen so that when they are planning their shiny new kitchen, the new bedroom or they’re just redecorating, they can incorporate those things into their thinking.”
There also need to be low-interest finance options to enable people to move forward.
Quality depends on good communication
Quality starts with the design, putting the right list of things together and communicating it properly to the contractor.
“I think people tend to bash contractors in the first instance for poor quality but the bottom line is, if the contractor’s not been told what to do very well then it’s never going to work.”
Something Russell has been working on for the last seven years with a cooperative he set up called RetrofitWorks, is bringing those disparate parts of the industry together as part of one organisation. The aim is to give everyone tools at their disposal to do the design, communicate with each other and implement the work so that they can all check anything at every step of the way.
Cosy Homes Oxfordshire is a manifestation of the key partners they have built up in that area. With some central government funding buying into the model they have been able to define the marketing, clearly describe the approach they think their customers want, design their processes as a cooperative, push forward with the advice, the whole house plans, the detailed design and putting a tender process in place so the right contractors are selected and they can make sure their work is done well.
Charlie Luxton visits a deep retrofit in central Oxford
Charlie Luxton visits a refurbishment of a listed barn
Charlie Luxton checks out a retrofit of a semi-detached property
There aren't enough skilled workers to meet government targets
Parity Projects have used modelling tools to identify that the current workforce of around 160,000 in the sector would need to be virtually tripled in order to achieve the government's target of every house in the UK hitting a minimum EPC score of C by 2030.
Russell sees this time as a massive opportunity to be training people up from other industries for working in managerial roles as well as the labourers. He thinks that all students in the building sector should complete the same one year course before branching out into their specialities. That way there might be more respect and understanding on site.
Select a team that is willing to learn
Russell's advice to a homeowner considering a renovation project would be to contact a local retrofit coordinator. They will be able to give you advice and technical knowledge to put a plan in place for your property.
He stresses that if you're going to do your home up you will probably need to accept that some people working on it might need to learn something new, so ensure that you team up with people that have the right attitude, a genuine interest and are keen to help. Even if they don't necessarily know it, they will learn and find out.
Find out more
Visit the website of Parity Projects
Learn more about RetrofitWorks
Follow Russell Smith on Twitter
Parity Projects carry out an energy assessment at Ben's parents' house
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