This is the third part in a short series of month notes about our Neighbourhood Warmth project. It has also been cross-posted on the blog of our project partner, Dark Matter Labs.
A recap of what we’re working on
Home energy is a major source of carbon emissions in the UK. If we’re going to reach our Net Zero goals, our existing homes need to be more efficient in the energy they use, and need to use energy from renewable sources. This process is called ‘retrofit’.
The UK government has set a goal to become Net Zero by 2050, and many local authorities have goals that are even more ambitious. Yet most of the homes of 2050 already exist today. If we’re going to reach this Net Zero goal, the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) estimates that we need to be retrofitting two homes every minute.
In previous stages of this project we heard how the current individualised approach to retrofit isn’t working. Technical expertise, access to finance, limited supply, and trust in solutions and suppliers were all listed as barriers to the adoption of retrofit. Neighbourhood Warmth is our prototype of a digital service to overcome those barriers, through a community-led approach to domestic retrofit.
What does a community-led approach look like?
As is usually the case with early stages of a digital tool, our understanding of the core purpose of Neighbourhood Warmth (NW) has evolved with the feedback we’ve received.
Our early versions of the prototype suggested a service that supports not only the formation of neighbourhood groups around a shared retrofit challenge, but then gives some amount of advice and support for those groups as they progress through retrofit projects together.
As the process has gone on, we’ve come to understand these as two more separate phases in the overall retrofit journey.
Structuring, coordinating, and delivering community retrofit projects is an incredibly complex challenge in its own right. But when demonstrating our prototype this summer, we were encouraged to discover a few organisations already attempting this – notably Novoville’s forthcoming Shared Works platform.
It therefore became more clear that a key role Neighbourhood Warmth could play is the bit that comes before that – something that enables neighbours to kickstart action. Something that surfaces and then builds demand, and allows neighbourhood groups to connect with suitable suppliers, coordinators, or support schemes.
Co-design & feedback workshops
In the previous monthnotes we named some of the co-design workshops we were organising with various groups to gather feedback on what works and what doesn’t with the current alpha version of Neighbourhood Warmth.
We hosted several online workshops with community-based groups in Birmingham and Frome, and one with local authority retrofit specialists in UKGBC’s officer forum.
What did we learn?
1. Local Authorities see potential for how they could talk to residents and structure funding
With Net Zero targets in place, but huge gaps in funding and resources, many local authorities are struggling to engage and understand where interest in retrofitting and energy efficiency might be. Having a map of where neighbours are connecting and what they’re interested in organising around could support local authorities to play a convening role to unlock action that is greater than the sum of its parts. Combining that data with information on deprivation, population density or other relevant factors might reveal opportunities for better deploy funding to drive change.
2. We should be more explicit about the problems Neighbourhood Warmth exists to solve
In our workshops we heard that Neighbourhood Warmth was both too specific, and not specific enough. Some residents asked for a version of Neighbourhood Warmth that extended beyond just home retrofit, and into shared infrastructure like solar panels, green spaces and transport. Others felt the different types of “challenge” presented in the tool were already too confusing for most users, and that a clearer focus on one specific “ask” would be the most effective way to spur local action.
One challenge here is that people have different motivations for exploring retrofit. Our alpha acknowledged that by flashing these up on the homepage: “We’re connecting neighbours to… stay warm… save energy… save money… improve health… save the planet…” Common Cause Foundation emphasises the importance of framing in communications. Framing activates different values and impacts on people’s propensity to exercise those in future. More consistent framing could create a more coherent experience for users of a digital service like this, and overcome confusion about its purpose.
Other feedback suggested that we should consider gauging users’ interests, experience, capacity and preferences upfront to inform a more tailored welcome journey before encouraging them to connect with neighbours?
3. Giving too much advice could be risky
The one thing to remember about building science is that it’s complicated, and can go wrong quickly. If we’re enabling people to self-organise and take home energy action, then what responsibility do we have to make sure that things go well. Because retrofitting is often highly dependent on each individual home and the residents living there, professional knowledge can’t be easily codified and made digital. But grouping people into similar house types in similar locations could reduce the cost of accessing knowledge, increase the chance of people doing so and provide safety in numbers for neighbours engaging with suppliers collectively.
4. There are group projects in the UK that we can learn from
Levenshulme Area Based Retrofit by Carbon Co-op – “Homes will be offered a set package of retrofit works, similar to the other houses in the scheme, but with small adjustments to fit the home and household’s priorities. The scheme’s approach is based around learnings from Carbon Co-op’s Retrofit for All Toolkit to ensure householders are centred in the process.
POWER in Walthamstow -”a ‘show and do’ project building a solar POWER STATION across the rooftops (streets, schools, community buildings) of North East London via enacting a grassroots Green New Deal – working with art and infrastructure to tackle the interlinked climate/energy/cost of living crises.”
HUBBUB’s work -”In partnership with OVO Energy Solutions, we’ve begun a trial to explore ways that residents of a selected street in Glasgow can make collective changes to tackle increasing costs of energy to retrofit homes at the scale needed. We aim to work with approximately twenty households to make individual and collective home improvements from ‘try-it-now’ behaviour changes to insulation and renewable energy measures. The project will also test how economies of scale can cut the cost of retrofitting.”
Novoville – “Our ambition is clear: to be the countrywide platform for energy efficiency and decarbonisation of homes in Britain. Crucial to our ambition is building on our existing collaborative platform: retrofitting 26 million homes will not happen flat-by-flat, but block-by-block. Buying a heat pump will not be done home-by-home, but street-by-street.”
With this early alpha phase of work coming to a close, we’re a bit clearer on the research questions described in earlier monthnotes. But we haven’t got to the bottom of them yet. That said, there’s consensus around the idea of broadening our collaboration in order to do that.
In particular we’re keen to collaborate with an organisation that engages directly with householders to help them take home energy action. This should allow more rigorous testing of the next version of Neighbourhood Warmth, based on whether householders and other actors behave differently when a digital service exists to support their efforts.
And while we continue to grapple with the scope of the service and delve into the value it might provide to different stakeholders, some interesting avenues are emerging. Recent conversations with potential collaborators have led us to consider the potential for Neighbourhood Warmth to broaden participation in flexibility markets and heat networks. And with that, a whole new set of research questions suggest themselves. We’ll hope to share more on that in our next set of monthnotes, but we’d love to hear from you in the meantime.
Please get in touch to share thoughts or suggest a chat – especially if you provide home energy services and have thoughts on how this work could help!
Image: Elissar Haidar