video Podcast Episode 1

Noel Brosnan from Octavia Housing

This week, we're talking with Noel Brosnan, previously the Director of Asset Management at Octavia Housing. We talk about the climate emergency, what housing providers need to do to achieve net zero, decarbonising the UK's energy grid and the latest and greatest in energy saving technologies.

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Podcast Transcript

Alastair:
So a very warm welcome to the first of, hopefully, many Switchee podcasts. We're still titleless and working on the jingle but we do have some themes that we want for these discussions. We want to discuss points of interest, changes in strategy and indeed shared problems within the housing sector in the UK. We hope these short videos become something useful, interesting and dare I say enjoyable for you to watch. I’m Alastair Thorpe. I’m the Commercial Director for Switchee and I’ll be hosting the videos and every good podcast needs a good guest. And luckily, we've got a great one for you. Noel Brosnan is joining us today. So, Noel please could you just introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your experience in the housing sector?

Noel:
Good morning Alastair! Thank you very much for the invite. I’m Noel Brosnan. Up until very recently, I was the Director of Asset Management at Octavia Housing. I’ve been there for 13 years and had an incredible time doing that, working on a lot of different projects. But the ones that gave me the greatest pleasure were around improving the environmental impact of our housing stock. We developed or worked on the first passive house retrofit in the country, which was a real challenge. But it allowed us to develop a strategy and one of my motivations in leaving Octavia was actually to spend more time in this area. I think this is a massively important area for the world, for our own people. And this is where I want to spend my time over the next 10, 20 years doing. So there you go.

Alastair:
That's great Noel. Yeah, it's interesting when you talk about energy efficiency, climate change, there are quite a few people that have been really into this for quite a while and something that I noticed last year in 2019 was some discussion and rhetoric around net-zero. Also quite a few of our local authorities declaring climate emergencies. From an outsider's perspective, I’m quite intrigued to understand what that actually means for housing providers. What do they think net zero means and what do they do next, if they've declared a climate emergency or they've decided that they want to go for net-zero?

Noel:
Yeah, I mean, this is an incredibly tough target, I should say. Although I’m really pleased actually that the government have recognized the importance of housing and addressing it as part of their clean growth strategy for the nation. Housing currently accounts for about 22% of UK emissions. To get to the performance that we need to deliver is really tough. I mean, if you take the average house at the moment, it generates about 1.4 tons of carbon a year and consumes huge figures. Now to get to where we need to be, you're talking about a net-zero target of under 5000 kilowatt-hours of energy. To put that into perspective, when we deliver, as housing associations and local authorities are expected to do, the challenge of getting all our homes to an EPC of C, by 2030. The emissions will still be and we will still be consuming 9,400 kilowatt-hours in an average home. So, we won't have actually made a big difference and that's when you start to think about these authorities who are coming out with these claims that they're going to bring the target down even quicker than 2050. The real difficulty is achieving this.

And a lot of people will be surprised as to why are we putting so much effort into delivering the EPC 'C' when it's not going to deliver those benefits as you can see from the figures. Well, one of the main reasons for that is that the system of calculating EPCs uses a system called SAP and SAP is still heavily takes the cost of energy as a major player in determining our SAP scores. Of course, we in this country are still dominated by fossil fuels. In fact, probably 90% of it is gas. Typically it's the gas boiler, isn't it? And those are the areas that actually need to be challenged. That is the real challenge that we face over the next few years if we are actually going to deliver these immense targets in front of us.

Alastair:
Okay. From your perspective is there an ideal approach to achieving that net-zero?

Noel:
Well, as I said, the biggest thing in front of us is how we're going to decarbonize the grid actually. That's the biggest challenge and we have seen this move towards sort of low carbon energy. You know, we've heard the big things - we've heard about wind and the fact that at times of the year we've not needed to use coal as a source of generating electricity. But, the problem that we face actually with the national grid is that the demand is ever-increasing for electricity and the capacity just isn't there. It's not just housing that will be increasingly moving to more electric type heat. Industry is moving towards exactly the same thing and you've even got to think about this drive for electric cars. Well, all of this is going to require an electric source which the national grid at this time is just nowhere near able to deliver.

But one of the areas that they're looking to develop is the use of hydrogen. That needs a major strategic push from the government, the infrastructure just isn't there to support hydrogen. And as a result, we're looking at other renewables and in housing, one of the things that's been talked about a lot at the moment is the use of air-source heat pumps. Now, there are two factors to consider with this move. The bit that we've got to do in housing is reduce energy demand and that's where the approach that we should be taking, adopting first as part of our carbon strategy, is to look at a fabric-first approach. Actually when I talked to you about the EPC 'C' and how bad that is. A lot of what that did involve actually was putting in fabric-first. Probably not to the extent that we're going to need it. We're going to need to do a lot more but the first stage has to be around improving the energy efficiency of our stock.

Actually some of these systems and, I’ve mentioned air-source heat pumps, operate at a lower temperature than our conventional gas boilers and will only operate effectively if we have well-insulated homes. So that is the big challenge ahead of us, in terms of improving our stock. Also if I add, just quickly, that the other area that we've got to consider is that when we build, and we are building a lot more homes thankfully today than we have in recent years, we will need to make sure that the standards of those houses are a lot better than it is. I mean the current standard is something like 45 kilowatt-hours per meter squared, which is very poor. We need to be moving to about 15.

We're going to see the ban on fossil fuels in 2025 and that needs to be encouraged now. I’m still seeing lots of contractors and developers pushing fast through their plans to avoid having to do this. This is where the client needs to step in. This is where the housing providers need to set the standards of what they want. They need better provisions, better energy solutions coming in now. And they also need to think about insisting on improved energy standards above those in the building regulations. Typically, if you spend an extra four to five thousand pounds, you'll get to the sort of targets we need. If you leave it and have to do it as retrofit works, which we will need to do, you're talking about 20 to 25 thousand pounds. So that's the other side that we need to look at. So, it's a huge difference.

Alastair:
It’s a huge amount of money. It's interesting that you were saying there about some of the fabric-first approaches that have already happened, we've had eco funding to help with insulation for quite a while. Some of my experiences from the kind of monitoring perspective have shown that actually doing one measure, even if it's a fabric-first measure, can sometimes have some unintended consequences. I’m really keen to sort of see that a whole-house retrofit scenario is taken into account. You put a nice warm blanket around the property, fantastic, people aren't cold anymore but the property starts sweating and you get bigger problems with damp and mould, which is quite an issue in this country. I’m just thinking about a conversation we had a little while ago, Noel about the retrofit coordinator area and the sort of move towards this whole house retrofit side. What's your experience with that or your thoughts on doing it that way?

Noel:
So, you're absolutely right. I mean it's called deep retrofit, isn't it? It takes the whole house as the approach and you are again very right that there are unintended consequences of doing partial works. I mean, funnily enough, I first saw this in the 1980s. In the 1980s, there was this great selling campaign to get everyone to take out their windows and put in lovely plastic double glazed windows. It was amazing and hands up. Yes, I was looking after housing at that point and I’m sure I was involved in a number of schemes to do that. But very soon afterwards, we suddenly noticed that it's a lot wetter in some of these properties than it had been before. For all their faults, the old double-hung sash windows were excellent as a ventilator as well as a window. Drafts would be all over the place and these lovely new classic windows sealed everything up and caused this unintended consequence because we didn't think about the need for ventilation. Buildings need to breathe in the same way we need to breathe, buildings need to breathe.

Now, the move to the latest standard - PAS 2035, is setting a trademark standard for retrofitting. It will demand the need for better planning and more consistency over the whole-house approach. I’ve got to say though that working in the industry for a number of years this does not mean, unless you are very fortunate and you have lots of money and lots of resourcing, that you can suddenly take a house or take your housing stock and suddenly do mass, deep retrofit plans on it all. Logistically it just won't work. Financially it will not work. What you have to have to deliver a deep retrofit, is a plan to get to 2050 or sooner if you can. Which will involve a series of measures to get there and for most housing associations and local authorities - that first milestone, if you like, on their plan to deliver the whole house will be the EPC 'C', which is required by 2030. The skill, of course, is to understand the impact a single or a number of measures will have and to mitigate those. Now, what the PAS 2035 standard is bringing in is a number of new roles. One of which is the one, that I’m currently training on, is a retrofit coordinator.

The idea of the retrofit coordinator is to try and bring together the plan and actually have an understanding of good design. What's required, what can be delivered over this longer period to avoid the unintended consequences. Now from July 21st, if you want to claim eco grants, you will have to go down the path of following PAS 2035. So, it's a change. Giving it a trademark, giving it a lot higher backing with BEIS fully behind this. It's really important giving confidence to the industry. Giving confidence to residents, both in the public and private sector because previous schemes haven't had that confidence behind it. And that's something that PAS 2035 I think will address.

Alastair:
That's great Noel, thank you! I’m kind of interested to know your thoughts on who in our sector is kind of doing this well. I appreciate that it's really complex and there are lots of things to tackle and maybe no one's got the answer at the moment but, yeah, have you got any examples of where housing providers are doing this well at the moment?

Noel:
Ah, that's slightly tough. I mean, I think the impression I get actually is that associations up north have put a lot more effort into delivering this. And if I go even further North, Scotland has got some excellent examples. It's no surprise that their temperatures are a lot lower than down south. And I think it does have an impact because if you've got lower temperatures, you've probably got your heater on longer and you're probably more likely to be in fuel poverty than the rest of us. And it's no surprise that you find that it's the Scandinavian countries that actually dominate in this area for similar reasons. I’d add to that actually, Canada. I can't actually name any individuals. I know there are a number that are really pushing this. But, yeah, I’d be at a loss to say, “Oh! It's that one, go to that association.” There are quite a number now that are picking this up and delivering really good performance. And I think what is important though is that we do need these trailblazers and we do need to be able to look at good examples as a body.

As a body, over the last few years, I think we've been distracted by other areas that were equally important. I mean, fire safety being the biggest topic of the day at the moment and compliance even. There's been some excellent work I’ve got to say by the housing federation in actually bringing together the knowledge of the industry and working together. I think the next area needs to be around energy efficiency and delivering retrofit and the carbon agenda. We're already starting to see ourselves, aren't we, with the impact of extreme weather that we're seeing. This is the start of what we will face unless we now take really significant measures as a body to reduce the impact.

Alastair:
Just to concur with what you were saying there about seeing some more organization, perhaps up in the north of the country and in Scotland. I’ve certainly experienced that around the Greater Manchester area where a lot of the local authority and the housing providers have sort of clubbed together. They've done what housing providers do best which is put some put a tender together with a problem to get the market to try and fix it. So we've been included at Switchee in a few different tenders around the electrification of heat and moving to ground source heat pumps and air source pumps and things like that. But it does feel like if you can band together and create a sort of European OJEU compliant tender around this and make sure that you're advised correctly by the consultants in the first place, that things can happen on that. I just wanted to sort of move us slightly away from our core subject there and ask you if there are any carbon reduction technologies that you're particularly excited about. There's lots of stuff going on out there. Is there anything in particular that you're excited about?

Noel:
Excited about? Well, actually personally at home, I do a little bit of retrofit on my own home and currently, I think next Friday, the Q-Bot team are turning up to do a survey of my home. If people don't know Q-Bot, they're the people who do the under-floor insulation. I’m getting my house insulated. I’ve already done the external wall insulation and my next project after the under-floor is possibly going to be around thinking about installing an air source heat pump but there's great big questions in my mind about does that mean I’ve got to sling out all my radiators because they're too small or do I need to go to the expense of under-floor heating. So, there are some of the challenges.

Other than that though, some of the things I really like actually at the moment are the inventiveness that we are seeing across the world in dealing with the challenge of carbon and actually turning carbon into a product. Capturing carbon and turning it into a product - there's actually a company up north who've come up with an idea of capturing and turning carbon into bricks and blocks for building purposes, which is a fantastic idea. Talking about bricks, The Washington University in St. Louis, they've come up with a polymer coating for bricks. Not the one I recently used which are nanotechnology but there are some elements of that. What this polymer does is it reacts with the iron oxide in a brick and the iron oxide is the thing that makes a brick red if you don't know, it's that thing. And it turns it into a super capacitator. Now, if you have 50 bricks with this coating on, you get emergency lighting for five hours.

Alastair:
Amazing!

Noel:
So you're building a generator which is fantastic. And sort of on that theme, one of the areas that I think will take off over the next 10 years is the development of glass. We all have glass in our homes. We have glass in our buildings but wouldn't it be great if the glass could be the PV panel? Now, up until now, it's not been possible because it's not translucent. But the development of Nanotechnology and Quantum Dot Technology will mean that it will be invisible. You will see through it and it will collect energy. And I do think that is going to be one of the most exciting things that we'll see as well as that development of the battery technology, but there you go. There are a few things there.

Alastair:
Yeah, great food for thought. Incentivizing people to capture the carbon themselves because it becomes something that you can resell is great and can be sort of newer and more inventive ways of creating electricity that isn't reliant on fossil fuels that fit in with normal everyday practices. I think that's always been a key thing - when you're asking people to do anything too different from the norm, it takes a long, long time for that to happen. We've certainly seen with behaviour change studies and trying to get people to use their heating a bit more efficiently or ventilate their property a little bit more efficiently so that the internal air quality is improved. You can nudge people towards it. But, if it means that they have to alter their behaviour massively, it basically doesn't happen. So, yeah, trying to use the existing channels. Noel, conscious of time here, I think we've had a fantastic conversation. Is there anything else that you'd like to leave with our viewers, which I’m sure there's gonna be hundreds of thousands of them? Have you got any other comments for us on what we can look forward to or some of the challenges that we can try and get over together?

Noel:
Well, let's talk about the challenges then. I mean, one of the big things that we will all need to do as housing providers is spend more time collecting data about our property. There's a drive towards creating something called a building passport. It's a bit like the old EPC surveys but a lot more detailed and it becomes sort of the life of the building. It allows you within that passport to put in your retrofit plans and develop them over time and hand them on. In a funny way, this data issue is something that our industry is getting more and more understanding about. It's going to need to do it for compliance reasons now. It's got to do it for the fire safety requirement. So, it's going to be the thing to do. It has to be done a lot more consistently than it has been done in the past.

You know, as I said, we as a body have got to get ready for July 21 and PAS 2035. We've got to think about what will be seen as red tape but actually if done well, it will actually ensure that the quality is a lot better and it is also going to give access to the grants that will be out there. Procurement and you've mentioned procurement - that is a big, big issue. Actually, as part of the procurement strategy, it's about how you're going to go about delivering this. Now the way that I saw best to deliver was actually to add it to your maintenance strategy. You know, it is done as part of maintenance. So, in that way, some of the additional costs, the premium cost like scaffold costs could actually be offset as part of the cyclical works that you had to do anyway. It also struck us in developing our strategy for this, that it'd be great to do it straight away and maybe we'll have to do a lot of things quicker than we wanted actually. But actually, the reality is that it is very difficult to work inside homes that are occupied and the luxury of sending people away while you do the work is not really often realistic.

We have a turnover of anything between 3% and 5% in terms of empty properties a year in our industry and that's where we should be taking advantage of making sure those homes are retrofitted. Everyone should now be working on their targets for the EPC 'C', which is 2030. And although a lot of that will look at insulation, we also now know we need to start thinking about fossil fuels and the fact that they will be disappearing. They'll not be allowed in new-build in 2025, but there will be this move towards reducing them in existing homes as well. So there's an area of training staff, making sure the contractors are right as well - that's the next big thing. And at some point, we'll need to think about better ways of measuring. EPCs are fine but, actually I think it's more going to be around energy usage, kilowatt-hours, what are we using in your home as a sort of a matrix.

Finally, what I would say, don't forget climate change impact - the extreme weathers that we are now seeing. The flooding that we get. I remember even as I was leaving that the flooding was more in the summer than it was in the winter months. And that was because of the extreme amounts of rain that you were getting - our systems and our current construction couldn't deal with. Those are things we're going to need to think about. Also the issue of overheating. That will also be an area that we're going to need to look at. And finally, good systems of monitoring and measuring out there to see that the impacts that you're putting in are real and that there aren't the side effects that we don't want. We need to be aware of them so we can learn the lessons. And in my personal experience, that's actually where we use Switchee and that's where I got to know Switchee because that really did help in understanding and allowing me to compare properties - without retrofit and with retrofit to see whether or not we were getting higher levels of humidity and to see the boiler use. So, we will need that as a technology in our buildings. So there you go. There are a few thoughts there.

Alastair:
Great. That's a fantastic summary as well. Now lots to think about there. So that concludes our first podcast. Thank you so much for being guest number one Noel, in every sense and yeah, for everybody watching, thank you for watching! There'll be more from this channel. Bye-bye!

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