If anyone can pull off a green home renovation with the minimum of fuss, it should be Michael Liebreich.
He is a clean energy guru and a Harvard MBA. He won a prize for thermodynamics at Cambridge. He is married to a climate scientist who is also a green energy analyst, and he is not short of a quid.
In 2009 he sold the New Energy Finance research firm he had founded in his living room to the Bloomberg News group in a deal that made him a multimillionaire. Yet he still has painful memories of what it took to carry out an upgrade on his Victorian terraced townhouse in west London four years ago — one of the most ambitious green projects ever on a UK private home.
“The architect and I only just managed to stay on speaking terms,” he says, rattling off a list of refit woes from the comfort of his sitting room, one wintry day in February. There were mulish council officials. A relentless search for green installation experts. Tradesmen he “would be happy to never see again”.
In retrospect, he says he underestimated the knowledge, patience and skills that would be required for the project, which took the best part of two years to complete. The result is a light-filled, 3,200 sq ft, five-storey, five-bedroom family home. “I’m really glad we did it because the house is now amazing,” says Leibreich. “It just took a lot more effort than it should have.”
That matters when about 20 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions stem from its 29m homes, which typically use a fossil fuel — gas — for boilers and stoves. Many homes are so poorly built and insulated that thousands of poor people battle to stay warm every winter, and experts say 1.6 homes will need to be refurbished every minute between now and 2050 to meet the UK’s climate goals.
Yet if people like Liebreich struggle, what hope is there for the rest of us? His green refit may have been more ambitious than most, but many of the hurdles he faced could affect anyone. And things may be getting worse. Instead of going down, emissions from housing rose slightly between 2016 and 2017, according to a report last month from the government’s climate advisers, who listed the many green home policies that have been ditched, weakened or overlooked in recent years.
The report singled out one of the biggest headaches for Liebreich: a green skills gap in the housing industry.
The problem was evident from the moment he went looking for an architect. The house was built around 1865 and had not been renovated for years when Liebreich bought it in 2010. After a few false starts, he and his wife, Alice Tyne, found an architect they liked. There was just one problem: he had never done an ambitious green refit.
Liebreich did a deal. The architect agreed he would not charge for his time while his company learnt on the job, and Liebreich would pay for a consultant to calculate how the various parts of the home’s energy system should interact.
That left Liebreich doing a lot of project-management himself and, even so, some big opportunities were missed. He learnt too late that the heating system could have been fitted so it also supplied air-conditioning, but by the time he figured that out it was too late to make any changes.
The builders also ended up learning by doing. The insulation on the external walls was so thick they had no idea how to attach it. The insulation company had to send an expert to explain how to do it and Liebreich had to pay the builders for the time they spent learning.
“Really, it raises questions about the skills of our trades,” he says. “Coming out of building school, shouldn’t you know how to do that sort of stuff?”
Liebreich also remembers how one builder reacted to the idea of using more climate-friendly fibreglass components instead of steel. “He said, ‘Fibreglass? Listen mate, it’s not a f***ing yacht’ .”
Tyne says she would do things differently if she were tackling the job again. In retrospect, she says they needed specialist green energy installers to design the system their consultants had recommended, not regular builders. But by the time they found suitable specialists, half the work had been done and the new team had to “take what had already been done and try to make it work properly”.
Then there were local planning rules. Liebreich wanted a skylight and chose a triple-glazed one that would minimise heat loss. Since the addition would not have been visible from the street, he was not expecting problems. Local authorities had other ideas. “They said we could have a skylight but it had to be what they called a ‘conservation skylight’ ,” he says. “So they forced us to install one with a steel frame which acts as a heat bridge — a route for heat to escape — even though no one will ever actually see it.”
None of this is unusual, says Lee Woods of Be Green Systems, a renewable energy installation company that ended up working on Liebreich’s house.
“We see it all the time, especially on retrofits,” he says. At one listed home by the river Thames, he says local authorities refused to let the owners put in secondary glazing behind the leadlight windows to stop heat loss. “They were worried about the reflection off the glass being different,” he says. “It was just madness.” On the same project, Woods was told he could not pipe in water from the river for a heat pump. “They said, ‘If everybody along the river did that you might freeze the Thames’ ,” he says. Instead, he was forced to drill bore holes near the river to extract water for the pump. “It was a waste of time and money.”
The green skills gap also poses problems for his company, which works on about 20 installations a year, mostly on homes worth £1m or more.
“We’re desperate to grow but we can’t,” says Woods. “We would if we could employ the people to do the work for us but we can’t. We turn work away because we can’t get the right people.”
It’s payback time
Despite the teething problems, Liebreich and Tyne ended up with a striking example of what a green renovation can offer — not least when it comes to utility bills. When they bought the house it was so run down that buckets had to be deployed when it rained and heating was a nightmare. “We were paying £3,300 per year in utility bills, and we weren’t even warm,” says Liebreich.
Today, thanks to its super-efficient appliances, double-glazed sash windows, low-energy lighting and thick insulation, the house uses less than half the energy it used to, and a lot of its electricity is homegrown.
“We’re actually a power station,” says Liebreich, padding across the heated floors that act like a giant radiator.
Solar panels on the roof pump out electricity, as does a gas-fed fuel cell, which also generates much of the home’s heat. The rest comes from an outdoor heat pump that extracts warmth from the air.
Because the house generates more power than it uses, Liebreich can sell excess electricity back to the grid.
He reckons that alone would have cut his utility bills by about £400 a year. But because the solar panels, fuel cell and heat pump qualified for subsidies, the bills are not just low but occasionally negative. Some months, Liebreich is paid to keep his house warm and lit.
All this required a lot of money up front. In total, the couple spent about £150,000 — or nearly a fifth of the renovation bill — on everything energy-related. However, given the state of the house, about half of that would have been spent anyway. An extra £16,000 or so went on green additions with no payback, such as an outdoor tank that collects the rainwater used to flush the loos.
Just over £60,000 was spent on windows and insulation, plus equipment such as the solar panels and heat pump that should pay for themselves — eventually. Liebreich estimates a payback period of between 25 and 30 years for the entire project. “We didn’t do it to make money,” he says. “If we ever sell the house, we’ll get our money back. It has made the house so much more comfortable. And if you did the same thing today, it would already cost a lot less.”
The UK has by no means ignored the need to make homes more energy-efficient and there have been signs of progress. UK government figures show emissions from houses have dropped by about a fifth since 1990, even though there are nearly a quarter more homes.
A raft of schemes has been introduced to make homes greener, but some have been wound down, like the solar panel subsidies Liebreich secured for his house. Others have been scrapped and some have proved to be a disappointment, like the flagship Green Deal scheme launched in 2013. It was supposed to encourage people to borrow money to insulate, double-glaze or draught-proof their homes. But it was axed in 2015 amid claims its interest rates were too high, its rules too complicated and its visibility too low.
Experts have one word for what should be done: Germany. Its schemes work quite differently from those in the UK, says Richard Twinn, senior policy adviser at the UK Green Building Council. More money is offered at lower interest rates than the Green Deal, through banks that give the programme more visibility on the high street.
Crucially, Twinn says the system is simpler to use than the mix of measures in the UK, where some subsidies are paid through energy bills and others by the government, while energy companies pay for insulation and other measures in the homes of vulnerable people.
“It’s all a reasonably seamless process in Germany,” he said. “Whereas in the UK it’s all quite ad hoc.”
The Netherlands is also making strides with Energiesprong, or energy leap, a scheme that offers a radical green makeover with wall cladding, solar panels and other measures that have cut energy bills by as much as 60 per cent.
The system has been rolled out in social housing in Nottingham but it is expensive and experts say it will need to expand before costs come down.
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It is obvious the UK must do more, but it is unclear what a Brexit-distracted government will achieve. Ministers listed 17 measures to improve homes and lower bills in a 2017 clean growth strategy, but some were reannouncements or vague commitments, while others required public consultation.
As the government’s climate watchdog, the Committee on Climate Change, put it in a report on housing last month, the government needs to take urgent action because “current policies are not driving the required changes”.
The chancellor, Philip Hammond, announced an end to fossil fuel heating systems in new homes from 2025 in this week’s Spring Statement. But there was little immediate action on emissions from existing homes.
In the meantime, Liebreich hopes would-be green renovators will press on. “The big lesson is that you can do it. You can really make a big difference to the energy footprint and to utility bills and to the comfort of a house. But you’ve got to be prepared to really work at it.”
The green home shopping list
Air-source heat pump £6,000- £8,000 (annual fuel bill savings: £400-£1,350 depending on existing heating system; annual subsidy payments: £875-£1,030)
Ground-source heat pump £10,000-£18,000 (annual bill savings: up to £1,470; annual subsidy payments: £2,335-£2,750)
Solar water heating system £4,000-£5,000 (annual fuel bill savings: £50-£95; annual subsidy payments: up to £485 for a six-person household)
4kwp solar panel system £6,200 (annual fuel bill savings: up to £220; annual subsidies:up to £275)
Loft insulation for semi-detached house: £300 (annual energy bill saving: £130)
Wall insulation about £13,000 for external walls and £7,400 for internal (annual savings: £245)
Replacement double-glazing panes and frames £6,400 (annual savings from double glazing: £75)
Prices depend on size of property and type of equipment. Savings vary according to existing systems being replaced.
Some subsidies are under review or are winding down
Sources: Energy Saving Trust, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy