Five ways to increase tenant engagement in retrofit projects

row of terraced houses
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Benoit Siberdt from Nesta shares its retrofit learnings from social housing providers.

Heat pumps are currently the best low-carbon option for heating the majority of homes in the UK. While our heat pump user survey showed that heat pump users are highly satisfied with their new heating systems, some social housing retrofits have led to tenant dissatisfaction, prompting complaints and increased support needs. Our previous work with social housing providers points to challenges linked to low tenant engagement or misunderstandings of the technology.

At Nesta, the UK’s innovation charity, we’re exploring how to successfully engage with social housing tenants to design, prototype and test scalable initiatives to improve their experience of low-carbon heating.

In doing so, we spoke to social housing providers – both local authorities and housing associations – across England, Scotland and Wales, to understand how they approach retrofit projects. We found that many social housing providers have devised solutions to some of these challenges. Here, we share five initiatives that we think have the potential to be impactful in social housing retrofit projects.

1.    Actively involve tenants in the retrofit project

All the housing providers we talked to emphasised the importance of building trust with residents to encourage engagement and support. Northern Housing Consortium (NHC) and their partners developed two useful toolkits to inform the way housing providers communicate about net zero, green heating and retrofit. The Self-Assessment Retrofit Checklist is a practical guide for housing professionals to put residents at the centre of retrofit journeys. The Heartwarming Homes Toolkit provides recommendations for effective communication with tenants.

Among other tips, these toolkits  provide useful recommendations for identifying communication channels, working with contractors, making energy efficiency an easy choice and using detailed evaluation frameworks.

2.    Provide online guides for tenants

Some housing providers are exploring how online resources could help better support tenants. One social housing provider we spoke to developed a video guide which contained short videos about heat pumps. Tenants could access this directly via a QR code on their own heat pump. Just as for the toolkits above, this initiative involved working with tenants to identify key questions, test and review the videos. Although the housing providers we talked to told us that it is unlikely to substantially decrease the workload of housing staff, it offers flexibility and clarity to tenants.

3.    Recruit tenant ambassadors

The Heartwarming Homes initiative found that other tenants are often the most trusted sources of information in social housing. Some housing providers we spoke to described the efficacy of identifying champion tenants who can act as advocates for the technology. Recruiting tenant ambassadors also ensures that residents can be involved in decision-making about sustainability throughout the project.

4.    Open doors to show homes

Most people have not seen a heat pump in real life. Being able to see one in person and learn more about what it’s like to have one from people who know best can help ease the transition to a new heating system. At Nesta, we launched an initiative called Visit a heat pump to enable homeowners who are thinking of getting a heat pump to see one in action.

One social housing provider we talked to organised a similar service, where tenants showed their homes to other tenants and talked to them about their experiences. This included concerns about disruption, heating comfort, noise and heat pump placement. As part of this initiative, the housing provider organised visits to see the work at different stages in the process, which enabled tenants to have a clear picture of the entire process. Another housing provider offered this service with a vacant flat, which they retrofitted first.

These housing providers reported much greater engagement and discussion with tenants following show home visits than other initiatives aiming to provide residents with key information about retrofit projects.

5.    Create excitement around the retrofit brand

As one social housing provider put it, framing can be key in retrofit projects. People want to be involved and appreciate being part of something worthwhile. Positive framing can help tenants understand that by switching to low-carbon heating, they are contributing to important societal change. This can be done, for example, by choosing engaging names for retrofit projects.

It is also important to advertise the project during the retrofit process, involve tenants at that stage and celebrate successes. The social providers we talked to have regular newsletters with photos and quotes from tenants who participate in sustainable projects.

If you’re a social housing provider and you can relate to one or more of these initiatives or have developed a different approach, we would love to hear from you. Contact: benoit.siberdt@nesta.org.uk