Cost of living crisis: how Your Home Better is retrofitting houses to bring down heating and energy bills

Your Home Better offers expert advice on how residents can adapt their homes to lower bills and helps them find contractors.

Soon after Lyndsey Kavanagh and her husband bought their first house together around three years ago, they realised it was ‘absolutely freezing’. Aesthetically, the Edwardian semi-detached house in Swinton did not require any work – but it was so cold, the couple wore coats indoors during the winter.

“We had a baby on the way,” she said. “I didn’t want to live in a house that was so cold. We would have had to move because it was really unbearable. But we hadn’t been in the house that long and the thought of moving out and wasting money on it… we thought we’d rather put the money into the house.”

The 35-year-old who works for the NHS wanted to adapt the house to make it warmer, but to do so sympathetically, preserving the character of the property. So she commissioned Red Coop to assess her property in Folly Lane and the retrofit co-operative then carried out the work to make it warmer. The couple spent around £15,000 insulating their home, focusing on the front.

With the work just completed by last Christmas, a few months after their first child was born, the Kavanaghs haven’t yet been able to compare energy bills. But with energy costs increasing since then, there’s no doubt that the couple are saving themselves a tidy sum as they enter winter in a much warmer home.

“It really has made a difference,” Lyndsey said. “From an environmental perspective, it’s really nice as well.”

Retrofitting for environmental reasons

For Jane Ward, the environmental impact was the main motivation. After retiring five years ago, she bought a 1920s semi-detached house in Whalley Range in Manchester with a view to doing it up and reducing its carbon footprint.

Starting with underfloor insulation, the work also included insulating the back and sides of the house, internal wall insulation at the front, new triple glazed timber windows and doors throughout and a partly-refurbished bay window.

Jane Ward outside her retrofitted house in Whalley Range. Credit: Your Home Better

Jane now wants to install solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on the roof as well as getting a heat pump and mechanical ventilation and heat recovery system too.

She has also spent some money on other improvements to the house which makes it hard to calculate exactly how much the energy saving measures cost. But she says the retrofit work has made her home much more comfortable.

“I’ve been a climate and environment activist for a long time so it seemed like a good thing to do,” she said. “There have to be some people who go first.”

How was Red Coop set up and how was Your Home Better launched?

Charlie Baker has been banging the drum for retrofitting for 15 years now. He co-authored a retrofit action plan for Greater Manchester more than a decade ago and set up Red Coop in 2014 to put his proposals into practice.

Based in Chorlton, the organisation creates fully-costed plans for properties and brings together tradespeople capable of carrying out the work required. Charlie says Red Coop has geared itself up for an ‘exponential increase’ in work post-lockdown, while rising energy costs will only add to the demand.

Now, backed by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), Charlie is running Your Home Better which offers expert advice on changes people can make to their homes and helps them find suitable qualified contractors.

The scheme launched in the summer and has already offered free advice to 401 households with 43 now committed financially to carrying out the work.

Charlie speaks of one customer in Salford who faces a £4,000 energy bill this winter, but retrofitting the three-storey semi should bring this down to £800. This major project, which will cost around £70,000, requires remortgaging the property and spending savings – but there are cheaper options available too.

“You can make lots of savings on lower hanging fruit,” he said. “If you’ve got draughty floors, that could cost £3,000 [to fix] and save you £300 a year. With £15,000 you can get a long way. You can’t replace the windows and you can’t change the heating system, but you can change the floor, walls and roof – obviously depending on the house.”

How much of a help can solar power be?

Making the average house zero carbon costs between £45,000 and £50,000, according to Charlie, who says this could also bring energy bills down to zero. Referring to his trusted spreadsheet, Charlie explains how the rising cost of energy means retrofit measures have started paying for themselves sooner.

But the quickest way to save money on bills, he said, is through solar power. By buying a battery together with solar panels, costing around £11,000 in total according to Charlie, people can actually sell energy back to the National Grid. This means, with the right energy tariff, it can pay for itself within seven years. And for those who cannot afford the upfront investment, loans are available.

How does Your Home Better find the right contractors and finance plans?

As well as providing customers with a retrofit coordinator to support the householder and make sure the work is delivered to a quality standard, Your Home Better works with ‘socially minded’ companies such as Lendology CIC.

One lender, Manchester Credit Union, is now offering loans for carbon reduction measures at a rate of 5.5 pc over 10 years which means that repayments are the same or even less than energy bills currently cost.

Long-term, the biggest challenge will be finding builders to do the work. According to the GMCA, Greater Manchester will need an extra 7,000 to 8,000 construction workers over the next five years – and around 80,000 of those currently working in the construction industry will need to be ‘upskilled’.

Retrofitting buildings helps cut carbon emissions

It comes as the city-region aims to become carbon neutral by 2038 which means 880,000 homes, 2,700 public buildings and many commercial properties across Greater Manchester will need some form of renovation.

However, Charlie believes that to bring all homes in Greater Manchester up to modern standards and tackle fuel poverty, we will need 30,000 new workers.

“We’re still not finding the capacity in the construction sector,” Charlie said. “But I’m really hoping that builders will see some of the work we’re doing and want to put their name to it.”

What services does Your Home Better provide?

Your Home Better offers free online tools to help residents make a retrofit plan, taking into account the type of property they live in and their budget.

The plan provides an estimated annual fuel bill saving as well as estimating the tonnes of CO2 saved annually if the recommended improvements are made. However, not all of the services offered by the scheme are free of charge.

A basic house assessment which should provide householders with enough information to decide how they would like to proceed, costs £120, while for a full house retrofit or complex properties with unusual requirements, it’s £450.

The team also manages the contractors so that the homeowner doesn’t have to, charging a project management fee at five per cent of the total cost of the work.

Your Home Better is commissioned by GMCA which contributed £200,000 towards the set up, launch and communications costs, and while it may invest more later down the line, the idea is for the scheme to be self-sustaining.

What has been said about the scheme?

Bolton Council leader Martyn Cox, who is the GMCA lead for Green City Region and waste and recycling, said: “Your Home Better can support residents on a journey to create more energy efficient homes in Greater Manchester.

“Just about all homes in the city region have the potential to use less fuel for heating lighting and appliances.

“By planning ahead and making changes to your home, whether that is reducing how much energy your home uses through better insulation or installing solar PV and batteries you are going to see those benefits in years to come.

“This is about not only reducing energy bills for people but also looking at our carbon footprint and working to reduce that together.”