Rising temperatures aren’t going away – we need action on cooling retrofit now

In her new bi-monthly column for elemental, Longhurst Group’s Head of Environment and Sustainability Fallon Warren calls for urgent action on overheating homes.

Summers in the UK are becoming ferocious. Against a backdrop of general year-round warming, the summer months are seeing scorching temperatures more frequently than ever before. The 10 hottest years since records began have all taken place since 2002, and in July 2022 the Met Office issued its first ever red weather warning for heat ahead of the record-breaking 40.3°C seen in Lincolnshire – a temperature that’s predicted to become the norm within a few decades.

Heatwaves are a disaster for public health. There have been more than 50,000 heat-related deaths in England and Wales since 1988 – over 4,500 alone in England in 2022 – so it’s no surprise experts are considering naming heatwaves in the same way they name storms, in a bid to have the public take them seriously.

As climate change increases, things are only going to get worse, and our approach to retrofitting isn’t helping. For decades we’ve been focused squarely on reducing heat demand through a fabric first approach, with funding KPIs leaning heavily on external wall insulation and keeping heat inside. Good news for chilly winters, bad news for sweltering summers.

More than half of UK homes are affected by overheating, the most impacted being smaller properties – flats and bungalows – typically inhabited by social housing residents who are often more susceptible to heat-related illnesses. There’s no passive air flow, there’s no space for cooling equipment, and installing effective cooling measures such as air ducts involves major disruption and upheaval to tenants. There’s no easy fix, with some figures suggesting tackling the problem will cost upwards of £250 billion.

But it’s a problem that can’t be ignored. In January, the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee called on the government to extend Part O building regulations to all homes – not just new builds – noting that “there are opportunities to combine existing initiatives on insulation and energy efficiency into a much more ambitious and comprehensive housing retrofit programme which also addresses the risks of overheating.”

Innovation in cooling technologies will be crucial to addressing the challenge, as relying on carbon heavy air-conditioning is the last thing we want to do. We also need a more holistic approach to building retrofit. I’m always surprised how little building orientation features in plans, but there are quick wins to be had in shading south-facing windows to prevent reflective heat gain, and installing shutters and canopies. Similarly, shading from trees has been proven effective at reducing building temperatures.

Of course, these measures are just one piece of a much bigger puzzle and won’t be feasible in all instances (historic and protected buildings will bring their own set of challenges, for example), but the conversation has to start somewhere.

At one point not too long ago the topic of ventilation was in the same spot, pushed to one side until the issues of damp and mould could no longer be ignored, and lobbying and funding changes made it a key retrofit consideration. I’ve no doubt the same will eventually happen with cooling, but we need to use the lessons learned from ventilation to drive action much further and faster. Measures such as tree-planting will be critical, but they take years to come to fruition, so decisions need to be made sooner rather than later.

As is often the case in our industry, it’s direction from the top that helps things get done, so we need robust government input on the issue, and more focus from key bodies such as the National Housing Federation. We’re all facing a raft of conflicting challenges, but overheating is one that’s only going to get worse. As we get ready for another hot summer, housing organisations need to get cooling on their agendas now.

Fallon Warren is speaking in the Housing Hub at this year’s InstallerSHOW. Register for FREE tickets here: installer-2024-splash.reg.buzz