Collective action tackles fuel poverty

The Community Approaches to Retrofit in Manchester (ChARisMA) project is looking at how strategic approaches by social housing landlords could cut fuel bills and raise living standards.

According to the UK Government, 19% of the English population is in fuel poverty. Poor insulation and inefficient heating systems force four million occupants to spend more than 10% of their income on energy bills alone.

Researchers at The University of Manchester are investigating whether a number of 'retrofit' solutions – such as loft insulation, more efficient boilers and double glazing – can be applied strategically and communally to cut energy waste so that low income households can heat their homes.

The Community Approaches to Retrofit in Manchester (ChARisMA) project is investigating the complexities behind energy efficiency initiatives that prevent them from achieving their full potential. In particular, the project will look at how the combination of technologies and occupant behaviour affects the overall impact of retrofit programmes.

The researchers are working in partnership with social housing providers in the Manchester area who have the potential to upgrade significant portions of the housing stock across the city and improve the lives of thousands of tenants.

“Coming from the US, it is easy for me to see how energy inefficient most UK houses are,” comments Dr Andrew Karvonen, co-director of the Centre for Urban Resilience and Energy (CURE). “This needs to change but making retrofit initiatives work is challenging. We cannot simply focus on installing energy efficient technologies or changing the behaviour of occupants; we need to develop strategies that combine both approaches.”

Dr Karvonen and his colleagues, Dr Saska Petrova and Dr Jenni Viitanen, are interviewing social housing providers and installers to understand how occupants interpret the new technologies. Visits to homes which have already received energy efficiency upgrades are also essential so the team can discuss living standards with tenants and analyse their fuel bills.

Early findings suggest an obvious but challenging solution to fuel poverty. “We must integrate end users into energy-efficient retrofit programmes,” says Dr Karvonen. “After all, energy consumption depends not only on the physical system but also on how it is used by occupants.”

“When you improve the energy performance of a house to lift a tenant out of fuel poverty, you see surprising behavioural changes too. A tenant who once wore woolly jumpers and kept the curtains closed at night will start to blast the heating. The upgrade measures improve their quality of life but do not reduce energy consumption.”

Nevertheless, warmer homes improve resistance to illness so play an important role in public health. ChARisMA suggests that retrofitting for energy efficiency goes hand in hand with efforts to raise living standards in deprived communities.

The project will pioneer an 'energy culture' where housing providers, installers and policy-makers work together. “We must initiate a move from haphazard retrofits to systematic upgrade programmes that consider how occupants use energy and involve the end user from the start,” says Dr Karvonen. “A few social housing providers are already doing this, but the knowledge is isolated: we must now establish standard practices across the housing industry.”

“This is not an ‘either/or’ scenario: by increasing the efficiency of homes and helping tenants be energy-aware, retrofitting can save energy, save money and boost the standard of living.”

Project fact file

Project name: Community Approaches to Retrofit in Manchester (ChARisMa)

Researchers: Dr Andrew Karvonen, Dr Saska Petrova and Dr Jenni Viitanen

Research centre: Centre for Urban Resilience and Energy (CURE)

Research group: Poverty and social justice

Department: Department of Environment, Education and Development

Dates: September 2013 to December 2014

Funding: University of Manchester’s Faculty of Humanities Strategic Investment Research Fund

We must integrate end users into the solution

Did you know?

19% of the English population are in fuel poverty.
▲ Up to the top