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F4F_conferenceThe Sustainable Traditional Building Alliance (STBA) and Fit for the Future organised the Responsible Retrofit for Traditional Buildings conference in Bristol on June 3rd.  My challenge here is to condense 15 pages of notes into something useful for you to take away!

The event saw disparate parts of the industry came together: knowledge leaders, such as STBA, CoRE, Centre for Sustainable Energy, building ‘landlords’ – the National Trust, councils, housing associations – DECC, Historic England, professionals, insurers, suppliers and contractors.

A packed programme of speakers and hands-on workshops created a refreshing energy throughout the day. The sun-soaked terrace break-out space of the venue At Bristol certainly helped the honest and sometimes blunt opinions to be received gracefully and constructively.

he many challenges the retrofit of traditional buildings face were raised during the day. In summary these in particular stood out:

  • Neil May (STBA, UCL) set the overarching scene that the government’s drive for improving energy performance of traditional buildings has been based on the assumption there is knowledge in the sector of how these buildings perform. The fact remains that very little in-field research has been carried out to date, but what pockets have been conducted have highlighted how little the industry understands, even now. Computer modelling has been proven time and again to bear little resemblance to conditions within actual buildings.
  • Neil May also emphasised that standards against which energy saving measures are benchmarked are simply incorrect. To counter this Hunter Danskin, Principle Technical Advisor for DECC, highlighted an interim update of BS 5250 (moisture in buildings) is due out.  Colin King (BRE) warned that certificate awards, warranties and condensation risk analyses lead to false comfort – and posed the question – is the answer to put retrofit projects on hold until regulations catch up with the real physics of traditional buildings?
  • The U-values of solid wall construction assumed in the buildings regulations are simply wrong with traditional buildings performing much better than expected. Again the message seems to be getting through, although no mention was made of regulations being revised. Individual buildings and projects will have to continue to self-fund monitoring and measuring to prove performance of existing fabric.

    Measured U-values compared to calculated (assumed) U-values of a solid wall, presentation by NBT

    Measured U-values compared to calculated (assumed) U-values of a solid wall, presentation by NBT

  • Shortage of funding, its irregular nature and short timescales for implementation featured highly as a significant barrier to retrofit measures. A problem with there being no funding whatsoever for the design element of a project was raised to which the room of experts floundered to come up with a solution to this – currently overlooked in government initiatives (Green Deal, ECO) where typically detail design has been left (often unsuccessfully) to installers.
  • Quick wins’ can often be at the expense of potentially more successful longer-term approaches. The risk of ‘unintended consequences’ increases if a project does not take a ‘whole building’ approach, resulting in often very short years or even months in reduced quality of indoor air, deterioration of building fabric, and reduced quality of living.
  • Reluctance and lack of funding to conduct end–of-project monitoring to provide feedback of actual performance is hampering intelligent progress on learning from mistakes. It was noted by Julia Bennett of Encraft that of all retrofit ‘measures’ indications are that the largest gap between predicted performance and actual performance is found with cavity wall insulation: a gap of 35%!
  • Heritage buildings not protected by listed or conservation area status were highlighted as vulnerable to inappropriate measures: Chris Wood of Historic England underlined the importance of these to our collective heritage – although there was no suggestion their benign contribution to cultural context would be bolstered.
  • A strong message was need for education of householders to aide informed decision making and to reduce the knee-jerk reaction of being attracted to single measures with the most financial subsidy – external wall insulation (EWI) – which may be an inappropriate solution. Lack of householder knowledge on how to manage properties following retrofit is a key item to tackle. Potentially an ‘easy win’ with regard to funding the implementation of educating home users needs to be carefully managed and thought through.

New News
Several speakers took the opportunity to announce forthcoming publications or to outline future plans in the pipeline.

The Guidance Wheel – by STBA and DECC – was launched over a year ago (see my previous post on this here). Nigel Griffiths (STBA) gave a view onto the horizon for the wheel:

  • CoRE has developed a training course for the wheel as part of its Professional Diploma in Retrofit which should see its beneficial impact increase.
  • A ‘reverse’ wheel is being considered where the starting point of review is the retrofit measure itself.
  • Foreign versions of the wheel – interest has been expressed from other countries; in particular France is seriously looking at a French version.
  • Wheel Lite? – this could be developed to be less technical and more accessible to the householder for more informed choice of retrofit options.

Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) and Historic England – CSE revealed a joint publication with Historic England is to be available later this Summer. The information aims to bridge knowledge gaps where retrofit schemes have planning implications.  Within local authorities it will facilitate understanding between discrete planning teams: heritage, energy saving (climate change and fuel poverty) and housing standards, and for householders it will aide navigation of the planning system particular to retrofit. Originally conceived as a single publication it is likely to now be four shorter documents.

Bristol City Council Guidance – Nick Heath (NDM Heath Ltd) presented a draft of a publication he is working on with Bristol City Council. This will include good practice details which show relative heat flow through cold bridging and how this can be improved step by step. This particular publication does not yet have a title but is due out later this year.

Make Do and Mend
hris Wood of Historic England reminded the conference just how well traditional buildings can perform compared to current building regulations. Not only U-values are lower than assumed, but also air tightness can be half that of the buildings regulations benchmark – test the fabric for informed decision making!

There is nothing more sustainable than a well maintained building’, remarked Matt Smith of Natural Building Technologies (NBT). Assess the external condition and consider causes of any internal damp areas. The U-value of a wall is considerably compromised by being damp, and if wall insulation, internal or external, is applied to a damp wall this could trap moisture causing unintended consequences.  Colin King (BRE) offered a thought: in some circumstances it could be better to spend money on maintenance and repair, ‘…make the wall dry and move on…’ Certainly it should be the first step in the retrofit ‘journey’.

Colin King's experience of the range of unintended consequences found in post-retrofitted traditional buildings

Colin King’s experience of the range of unintended consequences found in post-retrofitted traditional buildings

Outcomes of the Conference
Whilst a lot a knowledge is shared on-line the benefit of gathering people in the same room from across the spectrum of opinion and experience was evident. Colin King summarised the swell of knowledge as having moved us from a state of ‘unconscious incompetence’ when not enough data was available to inform best practice, to being in a state of ‘conscious incompetence’ now.
Perhaps the worse place to be in – just doing something for the sake of not doing anything – could now be considered professional negligence; the knowledge is available and we have to implement it. The aim for the industry is to move to ‘unconscious competence’ where appropriate measures are taken as a matter of course.

The positive energy was tangible and everyone seemed to be buoyed to continue their individual project-based challenges with confidence.  Conference Chair Ingrid Samuel of the National Trust remarked her single impression of the day was one of positive optimism, which she believed was not the case 2-3 years ago.

News of in-progress research and monitoring promises more knowledge will be available shortly. My impression is that the exploration of the real performance of traditional construction, even before retrofit measures, is growing every day – getting closer to a state of ‘unconscious competence’.

The best way to keep tabs of change is to network and be connected to updates issued by the many groups involved – or simply stay tuned here!