Blog from Catrin Maby – The ‘stuckness’ of energy policy for buildings – taking a different standpoint

Energy efficiency policy can sometimes seem a bit stuck, and perhaps nowhere more than in the sphere of buildings. There is a natural human need to focus in on ‘technical fixes’ (like ‘smart’ technologies) because they seem like they could be easy solutions. This is sadly an illusion – in reality there is no quick fix, and no single solution. This energy efficiency thing involves everyone, everywhere – at home, at work and at play.

The debate around the EU winter package ‘ Clean Energy for All Europeans’ has got me thinking again about how different the matter of energy consumption and energy efficiency looks from the many different standpoints that people may have – whether as a home-owner, a tenant, a landlord, a business manager, a civil servant, a politician, an engineer, an architect – or even (the last people that policy makers tend to consider the views of) the building trades people and installers who actually carry out the physical work on buildings. Part of the ‘stuckness’ in policy may be due to the lack of consideration of these different standpoints.

I recently reconnected with an old friend with whom I wrote a handbook for energy advisors in 1986 (1) – in which we attempted to pull in the practically useful knowledge we had built up in advising households and tenants’ organisations and housing providers. This encompassed heating systems, heat loss and insulation, dealing with fuel debt, ventilation, understanding and avoiding condensation damp, and the related health issues. For me, as a young engineering graduate, the driver was about making technical knowledge about the things that we used in our everyday lives more accessible, in normal everyday language – helping people as far as possible to have control over their lives and not letting the technology (and those who sold it to them) get the better of them. My co-authors came with experience of consumer research and welfare advice. Fuel debt and disconnection was a real threat for many of the lower income service users we had contact with.

One of the things we devised in our handbook was a decision tree – starting from the many points at which people might contact us, and working through what the causes and possible solutions might be. This could be a high energy bill or even an escalating debt, or a home they couldn’t get warm, a health problem that this exacerbated, or the need to replace a broken down heating system. For the better-off home-owners that I worked with later, some of the issues were the same, but with a focus also on home improvements, comfort, house value and sometimes a wish for a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. The ideal solutions might involve thermal insulation, a more efficient heating system, changes to the lighting or laundry arrangements, ventilation adjustments, options for renewable heat or power generation, and discussions around supply tariffs and repayment agreements. What was actually done, at least in the first instance, was inevitably a compromise – and this is the nature of advice, the interface between people’s needs and priorities, and the technical knowledge of the world of energy, construction and finance.

This approach can be adapted to the needs of energy policy today – what makes people actually want to take action, and what are the ‘trigger point’ occasions when they are either prompted by other factors to think about everyday energy use – or a practical opportunity is thrown up for them to do so? And how can this be supported in as effective and helpful way as possible?

We might do well to start by looking at each of these potential trigger points, and who the building owner or manager is actually in contact with in each case, as well as the framework within which decisions are made about the building. Who influences these decisions in practice, and who influences the influencers?

One type of trigger point is the practical need for repairs or maintenance – ranging from the urgent ‘distress purchase’ of a new boiler or getting a leaky roof fixed, through to re-plastering, rewiring and decorating. The demand for these is not energy-led, but offers the opportunity to include energy improvements – with the additional cost and disruption rendered relatively marginal by the fact that works are being done anyway. Similarly, a drive for home improvements, whether just a general freshen up or extensions, new kitchens or bathrooms, is a chance to review and improve building energy performance.

Another kind of trigger point is a social one, such as a change of occupancy – new people, new lifestyles and perspective. Or a life-change phase for the existing occupants – such as retirement and planning for old age, independent living for the first time and learning to manage living costs, reducing household income and looking for ways to reduce living costs, a new baby and being at home more, with more laundry to do….

There are small steps within energy policy towards realising the opportunities provided by trigger points, such as the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive Article 7 requirements for ‘major’ renovations, and Energy Performance Certificates when a home is sold or re-let. These early steps need to be strengthened and built upon within national renovation strategies, and linked into a more comprehensive framework of drivers and enabling mechanisms, which take account of who the building owner is in contact with at these times. Estate agents, building tradespeople and suppliers, planning and building control authorities, architects, health and social care agencies…..these are the contact points that are key to ensuring that energy improvements get built in at these times of change.

To get unstuck, an effective strategy for improving the energy performance of the building stock must work around these realities, and ensure that the both the message and the mechanisms communicated with and through all these key actors are consistently driving towards the same objective. There is no single solution – it’s a systematic and integrated framework that is needed, of building regulations, financial support and incentives, design, product and installation method support and training, well-publicised examples and success stories, and expert and accessible advisory services supporting building owners through the whole process.


Catrin Maby is a member of the Energy Advice Exchange


(1)                The Heating Advice Handbook, 1986, was written by Julia Green, Catrin Maby and Joan Osbaldeston, and published by the London Energy and Employment Network



3 thoughts on “Blog from Catrin Maby – The ‘stuckness’ of energy policy for buildings – taking a different standpoint

  1. Every single energy efficiency programme administrator should read this excellent down-to-earth advice

    1. I fully agree and we are trying to get this disseminated to as wide — and appropriate — an audience as possible. Your comments certainly help.

      1. I have already forwarded it personally to the most senior official in London dealing with residential energy efficiency, urging him strongly to read, mark , learn and inwardly digest this wisdom

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