We need to focus on retrofitting our homes and buildings now, to reach net zero by 2030

Tue, 08/24/2021 - 10:47

Edinburgh Climate Commissioner, Calum Murray is a Director of CCG (Scotland) Ltd specialising in land acquisition and urban regeneration.

In the latest in our mini-series on the draft 2030 Climate Strategy, Calum lays out the scale of the challenge posed by decarbonising our homes and buildings and stresses the need for immediate action if the sector is to reach Edinburgh’s goal of net zero by 2030.


The Scottish Government’s open acknowledgement of a climate emergency coincided with the creeping onset of the global pandemic and the spectre of one existential threat being rapidly overshadowed by another.  

As the threat of Covid-19 begins to recede, the scale of the climate emergency looms large over our economic and social recovery. Steadfast, bold and collaborative national and local leadership will be critical to confronting this crisis with the necessary sense of urgency.  

Climate Change is everyone’s business

The City of Edinburgh recognises this challenge with its Draft 2030 Climate Strategy, stating that addressing climate change is everybody's business – as are its impacts. Change lies at the fulcrum of the strategy and whilst modifying culture and habit is usually a marathon, the City is in for a sprint. 

It’s clear that we owe it to future generations to start now, with success dependent on early action across politics, our communities and our economy. Younger generations already understand this, and the strategy acknowledges that they have primed and will sustain the conditions for change.

But action needs to be more than a wish list

Edinburgh has set the bar high with an ambitious commitment to delivering a net zero city by 2030, ahead of targets set by Holyrood and Westminster of 2045 and 2050. 

In a post-pandemic economy of competing demands for scarce resources and if the strategy is to be more than a wish list, it will require assertive leadership, policy resolve, innovation of thought and technology and unparalleled financial dexterity. No small challenge indeed and very wise of the Council to seek to enlist the acumen of the city’s business community.  

The strategy adopts a preventative moral compass by embedding net zero design into ‘the building fabric and culture of the city’. This will drive improved energy efficiency and decarbonisation of homes and buildings from which a quarter of all carbon emissions are currently produced. 

Decarbonising buildings presents a significant challenge

Retrofitting the built environment therefore presents an early and necessary focus, if the 2030 ambition is to be realised.

This is complex and far from low hanging fruit. It presents operational and logistical challenges in assembling a skills base and supply chain that will ensure efficient and cost-effective delivery and installation.  The sheer physical scale and structural change decarbonisation requires highlights the scale of the technical challenge, particularly in a rich heritage environment such as Edinburgh.

Multiple property ownership will frustrate implementation and may result in decants or households living in situ whilst change pivots around them. Retrofit solutions are still largely at prototype stage, but will involve installation of non-gas heating systems and improved thermal insulation across  floors, walls, windows and roofs. It will also be:

  • Highly disruptive and demand consensus, particularly with owner-occupiers and private landlords, and require a modicum of behavioural change.

  • Expensive, particularly within the City’s older tenement stock. Rightly, Edinburgh is committed to a ‘Just Transition’ which will ultimately mean success will be governed not just by technology or innovation but by affordability.   

And new builds are not immune

In new build property the solutions are less complex but still challenging. The means and methods of build enhancement are better understood, though perhaps not sufficiently wide enough. Change will be fairly rapid and driven by upcoming amendments to the Scottish building regulations, requiring installation of non-gas and water heating solutions in all new build housing from 2024.

The associated heat standard remains to be confirmed but the Scottish Government consultation paper suggested a metric of 15-20kWh/m2/pa, which is two thirds more efficient than current levels of demand.

If introduced it will fundamentally change the way our homes are currently designed and built and dictate near passiv standards of construction, requiring significant fabric enhancement and installation of mechanical extract ventilation.

We need to plan and respond to expected changes

Early confirmation of this, within the next year, is a critical if the housing and construction sector and its supply chain is to adequately plan for and respond to the change. With project lead-in timescales averaging 18 months duration, time is not on our side and 2024 is right on top of us - yet the response needs to consider much more than just design. 

For example, such a change will lead to additional build costs which are likely to be in excess of 10%, how will these costs be met? Typically, home-buyers don’t differentiate properties based on emissions and as yet, surveyors don’t value low carbon properties more highly despite the fact they cost less to run.  

We believe that a fresh look at property valuation practice will be an essential part of the mix and perhaps Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) need become integral to valuation. Within the same short time frame mortgage lenders, warranty providers and insurers will undoubtedly require to be satisfied on product quality, performance, safety and durability.   

As will consumers, who will need to be sold on the benefits for the planet against the pocket. 

Priming the market and the consumer to adapt, to value and pay for sustainability presents a far bigger challenge than designing it in.

Financial  incentives for example, linking property tax to EPC, reduced Land Building Transaction Tax for low carbon homes, VAT reduction for low-carbon retrofit,  will be essential and rely on government to legislate on and implement timeously. 

Key areas such as this that will determine whether targets will be met or not in the timescales set out by Edinburgh and by the Scottish Government.

Edinburgh is already taking action

Encouragingly, in Edinburgh the process of change has already started with the recent planning approval of Western Villages in Granton. This project will be delivered by CCG for and with the City, led by a collaborative approach to construction procurement that will ensure minimal project lead-in time and fully utilise timber offsite modern methods of construction. 

This fabric first approach (designing and constructing a building based on maximum energy efficiency) is inherently sustainable - low in embodied carbon, low in waste and requiring low energy in use - and designed to complement zero emissions technology.  

Importantly, the site, with a car parking ratio of only 25%, will support a key place-making component, to support active travel and reduce reliance on the car. 

This 444 homes development will be the benchmark for low carbon, net zero delivery across Edinburgh, Scotland and the UK.  More fundamentally, it demonstrates the necessary vision, pace and commitment that the City will need to sustain its 2030 net zero ambition.