What can we do to help our tenants keep warm in winter?
With sustained rises in fuel prices and the ensuing increase in fuel poverty, this is a question we at Latch (Leeds Action
to Create Homes) had been asking with increasing urgency. Latch refurbishes empty houses which we then let as good quality homes for homeless people. These are mainly Victorian terraced houses which tend to be cold and expensive to heat, even when refurbished to a good standard. We were seeing more and more tenants who couldn’t afford to keep their homes comfortably warm, leading to money problems, condensation and mould and health issues.
Victorian terraces and other old houses are often described as ‘hard-to-treat’ as they have solid walls and attics, so can’t have cavity wall or loft insulation. In 2013 (the most recent year we could find data for) of the 8 million solid walled homes in the UK, only 3% were insulated.
In 2012, we worked with Andy Walker from Sure Insulation CIC and Jonathan Lindh from Leeds Environmental Design Associates to develop an affordable and practical system for improving the thermal performance of our Victorian terraced housing. This resulted in the manual ‘Very low carbon building improvements for Leeds Victorian terrace homes’. The approach focuses on energy conservation, through installing high spec insulation and airtightness measures, using readily available building materials.
We fit 150mm rigid insulation to the inside of the external walls and the loft room; mineral wool insulation underneath the ground floor; triple glazed windows and high performance external doors; and constant running extractor fans to the kitchen and bathroom to keep the air quality high and take care of condensation risks. We pay massive attention to detail, minimising thermal bridges and draughts. This is really challenging as every house is different and it can be very difficult to work out where air is getting in. However, where we’ve had airtightness tests done we’ve had excellent results far exceeding the Building Regulations for new-build housing! We generally achieve a B for EPC ratings after improvements are carried out.
Recently we’ve been surveying our tenants who’ve lived in these newly refurbished houses for a full year. They report only needing the heating on for a few hours in the morning, even in the middle of winter. The house then stays comfortably warm all day. They don’t have any problems with mould or condensation, and opening the windows keeps the houses comfortably cool in summer. The tenants can afford to heat their homes and are really happy.
We‘re working closely with the Sustainability Institute at Leeds Beckett University to monitor the properties for any problems and to try to establish savings in carbon and fuel costs. Our tenants only have a limited budget for fuel, so many of them won’t save a significant amount of money but will be able to afford to keep warm, something they couldn’t do previously. We’re also working with the Centre of Refurbishment Excellence to ensure that we’re up to date with best practice and the latest developments in the field. So what’s next?
- We’re planning a programme to improve all our properties over the coming years, starting with the coldest.
- We’re working closely with tenants who’re struggling to heat their houses adequately to ensure that they’re maximising the amount of heat they get for their money, by switching to a more competitive supplier and making sure they waste as little heat as possible.
- We’re planning to build four one bedroom houses to Passivhaus standard. The houses will be designed and built with high levels of insulation, airtightness and controlled ventilation, so that heating bills will be under £50 per year.
- We’re exploring the viability of offering Passivhaus building and retrofit services commercially and applying for PAS2030 accreditation.
We’re convinced that high spec insulation is the way forward for Britain’s cold and draughty housing stock: reducing fuel bills, carbon emissions and poor health associated with cold and damp housing. I’ve seen local schemes like Better Homes Yorkshire that are being used to offer some energy efficiency improvement grant funding for private rented and owner occupiers. This is a good start but what we need now is the political will to commit big money to insulate big numbers of houses so that economies of scale really kick in, and a skilled up workforce to do the work.
Mags Shevlin is the Refurbishment and Training Manager at Leeds Action to Create Homes (Latch). Latch is a charity that renovate derelict, empty homes with unemployed volunteers to create good quality new housing for homeless people. When she’s not renovating homes you’ll find her in the garden, up a hill or on her yoga mat.