View all news

Bristol partnership project receives £4.6 million to retrofit homes for Net Zero

Press release issued: 1 September 2023

Researchers from across the GW4 Alliance of Bristol, Bath, Cardiff and Exeter universities will work with industry, community groups and local authorities to transform existing housing into ‘Beyond Net Zero’ liveable homes as part of the Green Transition Ecosystem awards.

They will co-design energy efficient and low carbon housing fit for the future, thanks to a £4.6 million award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Green Transition Ecosystems (GTEs) are large-scale projects that focus on translating the best design-led research into real-world benefits. Capitalising on clusters of design excellence, GTEs will address distinct challenges posed by the climate crisis including, but not limited to, realising net zero goals. GTEs are the flagship funding strand of the £25m Future Observatory: Design the Green Transition programme, funded by the AHRC and delivered in partnership with the Design Museum.

The housing sector is responsible for around 20% of the country's total carbon emissions and with 80% of the homes that will be occupied in 2050 already built, retrofitting the country's existing housing stock to improve energy efficiency, and reduce carbon emissions, is critical to achieving the UK's Net-Zero targets.

The team will design, test, implement and monitor innovative prototype bio-based lower carbon solutions to improve the energy efficiency and resilience of housing, and evaluate their performance compared to traditional synthetic materials. The goal is to create scalable and transferable designs and solutions to retrofit a greater number of houses and different house types.

The project will also demonstrate bio-based solutions across a small number of traditional brick-built houses in Bristol and Swansea, constructed by councils between 1920-1940. These account for approximately 1.1 million of the homes occupied in the UK today and are generally viewed as one of the more challenging styles of houses to retrofit.

Eleni Toumpanaki, Senior Lecturer in Civil Engineering at the University of Bristol said: "To tackle climate change and fuel poverty, a multidisciplinary approach is required by connecting environmental, social and technical sciences and putting local communities at the forefront of the decisions. Training and upskilling current and future generations are critical for beyond net zero solutions. I am excited to be part of a wide and diverse community that addresses the key current challenge of energy retrofit of the existing building stock through a holistic approach and by focusing on bio-based materials."

Minister for Energy Efficiency and Green Finance Lord Callanan said: “Today’s £4.6 million funds – backed with Government funding – will be a key contribution towards helping cut emissions and making homes more energy efficient. 

“By testing different renewable resources to help keep homes warm and save households money on their energy bills, this project will further support our ambition to cut energy demand by 15% by 2030. 

“And by working closely with communities, the project will also help ensure that local views and experiences are front and centre in our transition to a cleaner, more secure energy system.” 

Professor Pete Walker at the University of Bath, and project lead, said: “It is not enough to simply implement design solutions, we need to create comfortable liveable homes that are resilient to climate change and will withstand future weather events. Our design process will embed community participation at its centre by creating spaces for co-developing knowledge, sharing experiences, and reshaping designs for Beyond Net Zero homes.

“Our innovative solutions will use bio-based and non-extractive materials together with renewable energy supply and storage. We will explore the impact of these materials not only on achieving Net Zero design but also the potential impact on residents' comfort and wellbeing.”

Professor Jo Patterson at Cardiff University added: “This project evolved from a GW4 research community, and would not have been possible without the support of the GW4 Alliance. I am excited to be part of a team that will expand on that research, working with colleagues across the alliance and alongside new regional partners to transform existing housing by working with, and for, communities.”

Retrofitting existing houses is an infrastructure priority for the UK Government. It is also a significant design challenge. Poorly executed retrofit measures can lead to problems with damp and mold, and poor design can cause damage to building fabric and cultural heritage.

Current retrofitting approaches rely heavily on synthetic and non-renewable materials, such as plastics and foam insulation, which can have negative environmental impacts. In some cases, the embodied carbon emissions of retrofitting measures can even exceed the carbon savings from reduced energy use.

Bio-based materials are derived from renewable resources, such as crops, mycelium, cork and wood, and have the potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions and environmental impact. Non-extractive materials are derived from a supply chain based on circular reuse and recycling of waste. As well as environmental benefits, bio-based products and systems offer energy efficient, healthy, and sustainable improvements to existing homes.

The interdisciplinary nature of this project brings together expertise from architecture, engineering, social sciences, and sustainability and will work with a range of partners; Woodknowledge Wales, The Alliance for Sustainable Building Products, Mikhail Riches Architect, timber frame manufactures Sevenoaks Modular Limited, Swansea Council and WeCanMake, a community land trust based in Bristol.

This award is part of the Future Observatory: Design the Green Transition programme, the largest publicly funded design research and innovation programme in the UK. Funded by AHRC in partnership with Future Observatory at the Design Museum, this £25m multimodal investment aims to bring design researchers, universities, and businesses together to catalyse the transition to net zero and a green economy.

The project will run for 24 months and aims to deliver a green transformation, fostering a legacy of positive behaviour change, supporting local and regional supply chains, and strengthening local delivery capacities.

The project team will communicate their research findings through educational and wider community engagement, in partnership with the Future Observatory, and will develop and deliver training to reduce the design skills gap in retrofitting.

Edit this page