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Jon with his insulation and solar PV project for a community centre

Jon with his insulation and solar PV project for a community centre

Episode 5

11 Oct 2021

17 min 🎧

8 min 📖

Jon’s Venture into the Green Retrofit Industry

In the backdrop of gas price hikes around the world, energy efficiency is more important than ever. Today’s guest, Jon, is showing us how he kills two birds with one stone. By improving the energy efficiency of houses, Jon’s business Ring Tree Project not only helps people live cosier and save money, but also makes a difference in the battle against climate change.

Listen to the podcast or read the transcript below.

Greensider: Tell us about the Ring Tree Project. How is it different from other retrofit businesses?

Jon: I’ll start by explaining what building retrofit is. Retrofit is essentially making energy efficiency upgrades to existing buildings. For UK domestic properties, we’re talking about measures such as adding insulation into cavity walls, adding loft insulation and replacing old heating systems with more efficient modern systems.

My company is a consultancy, aiming to provide high-end services to the market with focus on quality and good design. Historically, retrofit in the UK has not always been carried out very well. This has led to some poor outcomes for homeowners, and also for the environment in terms of missed opportunities to reduce emissions.

Beyond the essential focus on quality, we have specialised services, such as thermal imaging surveys and computer modelling to better understand the building and upgrade it in the most effective way. Over time, I also see us moving into different areas of interest, such as historic buildings, the use of natural materials and undertaking life assessments for retrofit.

Greensider: But there are many areas to tackle climate change, why retrofit?

Jon: Prior to setting up the business, I was studying a Masters in Carbon Management at the University of Edinburgh. When the lecture mentioned buildings as a key area, it really stuck out in my mind, because of my background in civil engineering and more recently building surveying. I immediately thought that’s probably where I should focus my attention, if I want my career to have the biggest impact on emissions reduction.

As the rest of the economy decarbonises — in general, the UK is decarbonising quite well — the emissions from buildings are not going down. That’s mainly due to lack of action on home insulation. The Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget noted that 70% of UK homes do not meet the EPC rating C, which is seen as the minimum desirable level for most properties. It was estimated that 50 million houses will need fabric insulation upgrades. In the retrofit industry, there’s a mantra ‘fabric first’. The idea is insulating the building before spending money on low carbon heating technologies, such as heat pumps or potentially hydrogen boilers. The reason is simple: there isn’t enough low carbon electricity to allow us to waste it through leaky roofs and walls.

There’s also a strong economic argument for energy efficiency. With fuel poverty, some people can’t afford to pay for energy that isn’t actually heating the home. On top of that, fuel poverty might lead to houses not being heated or ventilated. In these cases, too much moisture will build up and promote black mould growth, causing health problems such as asthma.

There’s obviously a massive challenge to address the problem of the UK having leaky houses. The Green Finance Institute has just published a study, showing that the retrofit industry needs to grow by 10 times in order to align with the 2050 net-zero target. Going back to your question, I just saw that there was this massive market for retrofit and a real need from a climate change perspective. That was why I thought that it was a good time to set up my own business focusing on retrofit.

Greensider: Why did you decide to start your own company instead of working for others?

Jon: My father had his own company, so perhaps it’s in my genes. I think I’ve always seen it as a challenge that I should embrace at some point in my career. In the past, I mainly worked for large companies. That has the advantage of being supported and quite often working with clever or inspirational people. On the slightly more negative side, there is less professional freedom to explore things that you are interested in within an organisation that has its own strategy. Those two things together, taking up the challenge of working for myself and wanting that professional freedom were the main drivers.

I did discuss with my previous employer about me building a team for retrofit works. But they were too busy and not so willing to start putting resources and time into a new sector. Therefore, I decided I should leave and set up my own company.

Greensider: Retrofit was obviously quite new for you as well. How did you prepare for the career change?

Jon: I’m a chartered engineer, but my background is in civil engineering and construction management. That’s a good basis for setting out in this industry. Plus, my experience of project management is a qualification that is lacking throughout the building industry. In addition, as I mentioned previously, I’m studying for the Masters in Carbon Management. I think that sends a strong signal to the clients that I’m serious about climate change, and I understand how retrofit can fit in within the larger net zero challenge.

I also took specific courses about retrofit. PAS 2035, a new standard for retrofit in the UK came out in 2019, aiming to improve the quality of retrofits. That has become compulsory on government funded projects starting in July this year. I took a course specific to that standard, so I can work in a central role on those projects. Further to that, I became accredited with TrustMark. This is the government’s quality assurance scheme, tied in with the PAS 2035 standard. At the moment, TrustMark is a requirement for the professionals working on government funded retrofit projects. I see PAS 2035 being an integral part of most retrofits going forward, and certainly those that are incentivised by the government.

To build on my knowledge about buildings and to expand the range of our services, I did some peripheral training, such as energy assessments, heat loss calculations, thermography using infrared cameras. I also learnt other things related to retrofit, such as damp surveys. As I mentioned previously about issues with damp, it can be exacerbated by retrofit projects without taking the building behaviour into account.

Greensider: Your business has been around for a year. What are the challenges you’ve encountered so far?

Jon: A lot! I think the market itself is the challenge at the moment. Like any business, we operate within the broader market. With retrofit, the market is very much a moving target at the moment. The UK retrofit industry has been around for quite a long time, but it’s dependent a huge amount on government incentive schemes. The whole industry has gone through fits and starts due to government money being introduced and then taken away. A prime example is the Green Homes Grant.

But we offer quite a broad suite of services. That was the challenge itself, deciding what services to offer. To begin with, there is the necessary training and accreditation. To take on a larger project, there’s also the consideration of potential recruitment.

Moreover, we need to look at how we can best add value to the retrofit sector. While there are lots of different areas to work in, it’s important to know where I should focus the business’s attention. A prime example is loft insulation. It’s a low risk item. Generally, it doesn’t bring any problems to the property, unlike some other retrofit measures. Loft insulation is relatively cheap, and incredibly effective. This has been identified by the Climate Change Committee as an area where the supply chain isn’t big enough at the moment to meet the demand of improving 10 million plus houses in the UK. But then I have to step back and think, I can’t just pursue every opportunity just because there’s a big market or a potential for financial success. I try to be more focused on what’s the best thing that I can do. Installing loft insulation isn’t particularly challenging, so I’m sure that demand will be met by other suppliers. It’s probably best for me to focus my attention on other things that my skills lend themselves to more urgently.

Another challenge, like for any small businesses, is the general but unavoidable elements, such as administration in general, tax, IT systems, sorted out premises, recruitment, marketing. I haven’t been a huge fan of social media, but having a social media presence is important. That’s something I need to work on. I am working on it, but it takes time. At the same time, it’s quite interesting. Every day is a day at school, learning something new.

Greensider: Finally, what would you say to people who are interested in pursuing a career in retrofit?

Jon: I would encourage anybody to get involved in retrofit. Like I’ve spelled out, the market is going to grow a lot in the coming years. We need people in the industry of all levels, from installing loft insulation, right up to developing innovative policies. Then there is every level in between contracting companies for installations and consultancy such as myself. It’s a real opportunity to make a difference. In terms of the battle against climate change, it is an essential part of the net-zero challenge.

We’re currently awaiting the publication of the government’s heat and building strategy. This is going to be a key piece of policy. Hopefully there’ll be some grant money to offer, so the government will share some of the costs. But they’re also going to incentivise people in other ways. I think it’ll be carrot and stick. We’re probably looking at some new regulations in terms of getting houses up to EPC rating C at least, by people who are able to pay. These are the wealthier sections of society who aren’t in fuel poverty and will be expected to insulate their houses if they want to sell them. There might be some economic packages as well. A big part of it could be green finance. I’m excited to see what’s going to be in that heat and building strategy, because that really is going to define the market over the short and medium term. Hopefully beyond that it’ll be a strategy that will go right through to 2050.

In a nutshell, I would say it’s a very good time to be joining the retrofit industry and there’s a lot of work to do. We need able, interested and enthusiastic people.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this podcast are solely those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the mentioned organisations. Greensider Foundation does not accept sponsorship for the production of this content. The above interview transcript has been edited.