Addressing retrofit issues with real life answers

Professor Richard Bull, Deputy Dean of the School of Architecture Design and the Built Environment at Nottingham Trent University, discusses the launch of the Centre for Sustainable Construction & Retrofit.

What is your role at Nottingham Trent University?

There are really two parts to my job. I’m Deputy Dean of the School of Architecture Design and Built Environment, which means I’m responsible for the learning and teaching quality process of the school and all student experience.

We have five departments within the school, including construction management, architecture, civil engineering, property and product design.

While I don’t specifically line manage the heads of each department, I oversee student experience and learning, teaching, and generally take a more holistic view of each course.

In addition, I also hold a professorial role focusing on energy and behavioural change, which I am actively researching alongside my other duties.

In fact, that’s how my role in setting up the centre came about. As well as being interested in teaching and how we prepare our students for the future, I’ve always wanted to contribute to resolving the issues around construction within the built environment sector, and exploring how we can try and reach net zero and make buildings more energy efficient.

What has been your key objective over the course of the last year?

In terms of my day to day aims, I’ve been very focused on ensuring the student experience is as positive as possible. Obviously, in a post-COVID world, making sure that students are engaged and regularly attending classes has caused problems across academic settings. We’re fortunate, as so many of our courses are practice based, with many students eager to come in to do the surveying and to utilise technologies within workshops or the studio; however, you still have to maintain high levels of enthusiasm amongst the student base by providing great teaching and experiences. This has been especially key with our ‘sandwich students’ who were affected by COVID three years ago.

Regarding the centre, we secured funding back in February 2022, so we’ve been handling logistics around the launch and recruitment since then. After securing a new professor in-post in May, we’ve been consistently trying to just keep the momentum for the centre going.

What are the long term goals?

Financial sustainability is of great importance to the university. Universities are generally going through a challenging time, and with student fees frozen for between six and seven years now, we’ve had to seriously consider how to handle the ongoing inflation and cost of living crisis, and how this is impacting on overheads. Making sure the university as a whole is able to operate, and that the School of Architecture Design and Built Environment is attracting students to our courses, lies at the core of our plans moving forward.

One of the aspects we’ve been really prioritising to ensure this financial stability is research funding, and we’re excited about what the future will hold in terms of using research grants to help fund the institute.

Are there any recent successes or innovations from either your department or the university more widely that you are particularly proud of?

We were very pleased to gain some crucial university funding last year. The university has strategic themes, and every few years will invite the various schools to bid for strategic investment funds in areas which are up and coming and innovative. For example, the Business School gained funding to look into fintech technology services.

I pitched the vision for the School of Architecture Design and Built Environment, as it was becoming clearer to me what an obivous skills gap there was regarding retrofitting buildings across the sustainable construction and energy space.

So, we proposed to the university executive team, requesting funding which would allow us to develop courses around both retrofitting and future homes. We were successful, and alongside this university funding, we’ve also acquired some European backing which will facilitate some sustainability consultancy with local SMEs.

Before this funding, we didn’t really have the resources required to develop funding bids, so being acknowledged with this grant has really opened up more doors for us as we look towards the future.

What are your next goals regarding future funding?

After the initial strategic investment from the university to set up the centre, we did secure subsequent Innovate UK grants. Our aim moving forwards is to continue to secure these external links and grants, whether from the likes of the previously mentioned Innovate UK, or from projects along the lines of Horizon 2020.

The university, through their funding, have made great statement about their commitment to their sustainability ambitions, and have always shown to us how seriously they take their own responsibility in this space.

How will the centre provide wider benefits to Nottingham itself?

As well as its sustainability targets, the university has always shown a steadfast commitment to providing opportunities for social mobility and widening participation. Our School of Architecture Design and Built Environment echoes these sentiments fully.

For example, with many of our courses, we have deliberately launched them on our Mansfield site, just north of the city of Nottingham, in traditional mining communities which have also historically been more deprived.

When we looked at the statistics across these areas, we found a very low proportion of individuals with qualification levels of Level-4 and above. Regarding the skills gap surrounding the low carbon energy transition, many of the empty positions aren’t graduate roles, but jobs requiring Level-4 qualifications.

For that reason, we purposefully launched some courses at our Mansfield site, along with a lower tariff point for entry than with our undergraduate degrees, to try and target and encourage young people in these areas to explore our courses, and to support widening participation in those areas.

Are there other centres like this across the UK, or do you hope to see more popping up as universities invest similarly?

There have definitely been other notable, recent research centres also focused on sustainability and built environment.

Other universities have invested in similar institutes, such as UCL and Oxford University, and actually, their activity is quite a lot larger in scale than ours, as a £1.5 million investment is relatively small.

However, what makes our centre truly unique, in my opinion, is we are using our research capacity to find sustainable solutions across retrofitting which are realistically scalable and possible to rollout.

We don’t focus purely on innovative technology which might never see practical application, but rather on how we can address current issues with real life answers.

Many institutions are solely engaged with the research aspect to their work, and aren’t interested in running a Level-4 HNC course, or a five credit micro credential retrofit training course.

I often say to my colleagues that really, this isn’t purely a research centre, and instead is something far more interdisciplinary and holistic.

We want to find the areas of intersectionality between skills, knowledge exchange, and research, which I think is quite distinctive.

Following the launch of the Centre for Sustainable Construction & Retrofit, what were some of your greatest takeaways?

All of the panellists were people who have, in some way, contributed to the development of the centre, whether through working with local authorities, large construction companies, smaller consultancies or even the very small-scale SMEs.

It was great to break down the various challenges that we face with retrofitting. For example, the particular difficulties posed by listed buildings, and the fact that we proportionally have a huge number of Victorian properties, which need to be very carefully handled when it comes to retrofit.

There’s also a huge barrier to overcome in terms of financing. Large scale investment will be needed for retrofit, which means also convincing the most established construction companies to get involved. It comes down to individuals and shareholders looking beyond simply analysing the financial bottom line, and understanding the value of environmental, social and governance aspects of investing. It needs to be clear that sustainable development is a key part of future investment strategies.

For both the centre, and the wider challenge of achieving net zero, what partnerships will prove most important to progressing on climate aims- will it be a case of all institutions needing to be involved?

I actually come from a private sector and business background myself. So while local authorities will certainly play a role, I also understand the huge financial constraints on their efforts, and I’ve seen how they often struggle to engage with the private sector.

So while the Nottingham City Council obviously has a huge social housing stock and we have very strong relationships with them, we also are aware of the significant impact and resources that the private sector can contribute to our vision. My ethos has always been to try and bring all these parties together so we can properly collaborate.

Often the conversation can feel quite disconnected, and people are accustomed to stay within their respective fields, so it’s been really productive to have all these perspectives in the room. By facilitating the interaction of large private corporations with local policy makers, I think you create truly powerful discourse.

How great a barrier has the issue of green upskilling been in your experience within the energy industry, and how will this centre address these concerns?

Of course, engaging with young people is key, and the HNC future homes course that we’ve been running in Mansfield had its second cohort last September. We had twenty students in both years of the course, many of whom are now entering into jobs in the sector.

We have links with focus consultants, who are part of SMEs and locally based, and do lots of business, management and sustainability consultancy. These partners have taken on three of our first cohort students, so we’ve already been seeing a real-time impact from the education we provide.

We also have our micro credentials offer, which are short courses that people can do in their spare time. We supply funding for these courses, which tends to go towards people working in SMEs or may even be currently unemployed, and we aim to re-skill and teach these people about heat-pumps and how to retrofit existing properties.

We have a retrofit coordinator course which started this year, which rather than being online and quite theoretical, is very rooted in real world retrofit examples which we know are happening in the city. There is currently a severe shortage of coordinators capable of carrying out retrofit work, so as we both bring in new talent and also teach existing workers these retrofit skills, we will hopefully enact some proper change.

Much of your research explores the concept of ‘environmental citizenship’- how important do you consider more active participation from individuals in discourse around net zero initiatives?

 Environmental citizenship is really about all of us understanding what our rights and responsibilities are both as individuals and corporations within wider society.

For example, many of us would consider it a right to have access to clean-energy and affordable homes. We’ve seen some awful stories in recent years about people living in rented homes with poor, damp conditions, and I think most of us believe we all deserve the right to live in well-heated and safe housing.

However, from my PhD research, I concluded that it’s not enough for us to just lay claim to sorts of amenities, but that we all have to take responsibility in terms of how we use energy and and take accountability as individuals for our wider sustainability habits.

I think people will be a lot more willing to reflect and make changes if they aren’t just told to through intervention, and that real ownership of those behaviours will naturally develop if people feel they personally have a stake in their rights and responsibilities.

My stance has changed somewhat in recent years though. Whilst my research was initially very based within individual behaviour change, as I’ve gotten older and more involved with the policy making side, I’ve realised there are limitations to what we as individuals can achieve.

It’s impossible to ignore the substantial impact that governmental and corporate policies have, before even considering what a single person can affect. The relationship between the choices we make as both consumers and voters, against a lack of strong environmental policies and corporate responsibility, is certainly a very interesting dynamic.

I believe politicians and businesses find it all too easy to deflect blame onto individuals for every day actions such as recycling plastic and turning off lights, when these sorts of routines are dwarfed by wider policies, or a lack thereof.

It’s a complex social stage, and I’ve moved away from focusing so much on personal decision making, and pivoted more to ensuring we don’t abdicate responsibility from leaders who need to set the political and social foundations for change.

What has been your experience on the ground – are individuals keen to adapt their behaviours?

I think so, to a certain degree.

There is a very broad spectrum of environmental behaviours from say, recycling, to limiting your personal flying. Many will say they’re happy to do the former, but with the latter, there is more resistance.

I remain to be convinced that people are keen to make behavioural changes which will actually involve a cost to them. As soon as you suggest people limit their flying to once a year, suddenly it feels more like your personal freedom is being curtailed. Similarly, if the more environmentally conscious choice is also one which is more of a financial burden, people will be more reluctant.

More generally, what future trends or policies do you think will have the biggest effect on the energy landscape?

We need real clarity on the technological side of energy transition. People are still unclear, for example, on whether gas boilers are being phased out and if heat-pumps are the future. Fundamentally, it isn’t cheap to decarbonise homes, so we need clear financing solutions for homeowners, and much more readily available financial tools and incentives on offer.

What are your current thoughts about us reaching the 2050 targets for net zero?

I’m hopeful that a more consistent government approach in the next year will really help us on the journey. I also would like climate change to become less of a politicised issue.

Reducing our energy consumption and our subsequent carbon emissions, as well as acting more sustainably, shouldn’t be a matter of political opinion. Whatever your beliefs, the benefits to these behavioural changes are clear. We all want affordable, warm homes, and also to live in a healthier environments.

Since the launch of the centre, I am more optimistic. Even over the course of the last two years I’ve seen a real appetite to engage discuss more around these crucial issues. I am hopeful and excited that this enthusiasm will keep evolving.

Find out the latest on sustainable solutions at InstallerSHOW 2024 – running 25-27 June at the NEC.