Opinion

The supply chain is now key to green retrofits

18 December 2017 | By Alice Owen

The Green Deal may have failed, but the retrofitting market is still a huge opportunity for innovative contractors – if they work with their suppliers, writes Alice Owen.

Alice Owen

Currently, government environmental policy includes a promise to cap energy prices. That will be welcomed by consumers, but has Westminster forgotten about another relatively recent policy goal – reducing energy demand to cut the running costs of buildings? 

The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy’s “call for evidence” on why the Green Deal failed closed at the end of November. It was a scheme that failed not because technologies are unavailable to improve insulation and reduce energy consumption, but because the process of financing and accreditation of works which was cumbersome and expensive.

The idea of “creating a market” for the retrofitting of existing building stock – including upgrading boilers and heating systems, improving insulation, glazing, roofing – was sound enough. It just didn’t work in practice.

But there is still an opportunity here for the construction industry. There are already more than 50,000 construction workers engaged in repair, maintenance and improvement of existing buildings, and the market is worth more than £10bn each year.

Could construction companies do more to promote the greener building technologies available to their clients, by promoting the longer-term benefits of reduced running costs?

For instance, extending a building may provide opportunities for installing solar panels as well as increasing insulation and airtightness. But if the client has only asked for additional floorspace, they may not see the benefit of extra upfront costs.

And there’s the practical issue that realising these opportunities means more communication between different trades – an electrician needs to understand enough about airtightness not to punch holes in new insulation panels so that cables can run through.  

More generally, in a market still driven by price, when innovation is perceived to cost more, in time or materials, what’s the point of innovating if it loses you business?

Current research by the University of Leeds is trying to shed light on how the industry really works.

One aspect of this is the importance of merchants in the supply chain. Relationships between construction firms and merchants can stretch over decades, and for contractors they are a useful source of advice, as well as sharing financial risk through credit. 

While manufacturers may be developing greener construction products, that alone will not be enough to achieve change at site delivery level. Suppliers of contractors, including builders’ merchants, need to get that equipment or material in stock. So a supplier’s stock policy matters. On a smaller site, where a contractor’s trusted merchant doesn’t stock the particular wall ties specified, then the contractor is unlikely to shop elsewhere, more than likely they will use an alternative that is in stock.

We also need to recognise that many clients evaluate work through what they see and experience, not necessarily through how close the project is to the design specification. They ask themselves if the surfaces and finishes are good quality, and did the construction workers treat the site and client with respect, and complete the work to the agreed timescale?

So for the contractor, maintaining a good reputation means taking decisions about a project that reduces damaging these customer-facing aspects. This, in turn, may be a barrier to innovation. If a contractor has to install, commission, and maintain new technology, there is a natural fear of call backs and rocketing costs.    

If we want, or expect, the construction industry to deliver a revolution in the energy performance of our existing buildings, then we need to work with the grain of how projects happen. This means much more attention to the role of the merchants, who hold tremendous influence over what gets delivered, the ways in which a project team share information between trades, and working out how to align what matters to the client with delivering a greener building solution that offers real-long term value and reduced energy costs.

Dr Alice Owen is an associate professor at the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds

Image: Lianem/Dreamstime

Leave a comment