‘We think in generalities but we live in detail…’ How do we help consumers make the right decisions on having an energy renovation?

Our energy efficiency policies in Europe give considerable attention, rightly so, to improving the energy performance of our existing building stock. And Europe certainly has a large and varied building stock, no doubt! While there is no template for building design, there certainly is no template for building renovation. Every owner and consumer has an array of questions that they need answered in order to feel comfortable with taking the big step to invest in a renovation. Catrin Maby, a member of the Energy Advice Exchange, has written a very thoughtful blog on the importance of the importance for an effective advisory service.


Life in imperfect detail

So everyone agrees, we need to make huge improvements to the energy efficiency of our buildings. And everyone agrees its difficult – for so many reasons: cost, disruption, availability of tradespeople offering the required technologies, objections to changes in building appearance, the risk of unintended negative consequences to making major changes to a buildings thermal and ventilation characteristics…..But the most significant challenge of all is that the decision to invest in energy improvements, and to what level, must be made by so many millions of individual building owners.

So how can this be enabled, incentivised, pushed along….? It’s happening painfully slowly at the moment, especially the thorny issue of ‘deep renovation’, a term used to describe taking existing buildings through to a significantly lower level of energy requirement. Perhaps the best way to understand why there is such slow progress is to ask yourself the question, if you are yourself a home-owner: have you attempted to make such improvements to your home? If so, how did you decide what to do? And if not, well, why not?

The all too frequent answer to this question is that it was difficult to find out what was the best thing to do, how to get it done and by who, how much it should cost and so on. If answers were forthcoming they were often conflicting from different sources, and/or from those selling the specific technologies being suggested, and so likely to be biased. As homeowners look deeper into these issues they learn that making the wrong choices could be risky, but so is not taking action – risking unaffordable heating and energy bills, or future health problems from a poorly heated and ventilated home, prone to damp – quite apart from being a small cog in the wheel that is rolling towards potentially irreversible climate change….

Finance providers looking for cast iron guarantees on loans simply make matters worse, because these are unrealistic – the home is not a sealed black box, which is sold intact and with a tightly controlled performance profile. It is an imperfect and ever changing living space, in which humans with all their imperfections interact with bricks and mortar and glass and timber and messy things like combustion and water running through pipes……What they really need is someone to help them to balance these risks and benefits and make their own decisions. And to explain in normal language when the conversation descends into jargon. What they need is expert, commercially unbiased advice to help them through the retrofit journey. As the philosopher A.N. Whitehead once said ‘we think in generalities but we live in detail…’

5 thoughts on “‘We think in generalities but we live in detail…’ How do we help consumers make the right decisions on having an energy renovation?

  1. Surely the best people to provide such advice are those living in homes that have already been energy-improved? Evidence from the “Open Homes” scheme here in the UK does show that enabling other prospective improvers to meet those living in such homes , to learn from their experiences, works so well. There must be equivalent schemes in other countries. Anybody know about them?

    1. I fully agree but country-wide, OECD-wide, globally that can only be one approach. Thankfully there is “Open Homes” and hopefully that concept will expand.

      1. I am glad you agree about the scheme’s value. t would be helpful if any of your readers outside Britain can alert us to an equivalent to the Open Homes scheme elsewhere. I understand that there is something akin to this in New South Wales: any others?

    2. i also agree that Open Homes is a good concept. I don’t know if the same thing exists elsewhere. Its not a replacement for a full energy advisory service though – although its a really useful part of a local ‘jigsaw’ of supporting activity. The ones I know typically run for say a weekend once a year and raise awareness of what is possible, and people get a chance to talk to homeowners about how they got things done etc, and local tradespeople can showcase their work too.

      1. Catrin, I fully accept that Open Homes concept can never substitute for a full energy audit. But as a way of permitting potential home improvers to speak to people similar to them who have successfully energy upgraded their own home, and thus persuading them to follow suit, the concept has proven remarkably successful in Britain ( I write as chairman of the Federation of Open Home Networks). I cannot believe that nobody else in Europe has attempted any similar scheme.
        Which is why I keep asking the question: who else is doing this?

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