Can tenements be made energy efficient?

In the last of three meetings organised by the Edinburgh Community Energy Co-operative, the answer to this question seems to have been:

“Yes, but...”

Following a successful campaign to promote insulation schemes in the city, guest blogger, Peter Roche of the Edinburgh Community Energy Co-op, takes us through the world of energy efficiency in Edinburgh tenements. 

So, why the but?

Well, under the auspices of its Climate Challenge Funded Leith Community Energy and Renewables Project, the conference organisers engaged a group of speakers focused on practical action that can be taken to improve the efficiency of tenement flats. As with any practical solution there is always a cost attached. In the case of energy efficiency this is not just financial but also requires a great deal of effort to give tenement dwellers the necessary information.

Why is this so essential though?

Buildings are responsible for about 40% of greenhouse gas emissions; and heating is responsible for half of that. Most buildings we will be living in 2050 have already been built. 45% of all housing in Edinburgh is made up of tenements, so if we are going to meet the Scottish Government's commitment to reduce emissions by 80% by the time 2050 rolls around, substantial progress is going to have to be made improving insulation in tenements.

Okay, so where do I start?

In many cases Loft and Cavity Wall Insulation is currently free or very low cost in Edinburgh. We need to persuade as many people in tenements as possible to take advantage of free insulation this year.

Next year only loans will be available for loft insulation. It’s not all bad news though; the Westminster Government is planning to introduce a new loan scheme in the autumn called the Green Deal. These loans can be paid from savings made on energy bills, and the repayments are supposed to meet a ‘Golden Rule’ - energy savings should be more than the repayment costs, so households will always be better off. There will also be some subsidies through the Energy Company Obligation, paid for by the utilities. 

That covers the financial situation, what about the information?

Well, opening the conference, Chas Booth went through the measures carried out in his Leith Colony Flat. This property had inadequate loft insulation, an old central heating system, old worn-out and draughty double-glazing and solid walls.

An efficient boiler was installed along with solar thermal panels on the roof; the aluminium double-glazing was replaced with double-glazed sash and case windows. Solid wall insulation was also installed.

Where there was plenty of space the solid wall insulation was added on top of existing plaster, where space was limited, the lathe and plaster was taken away and insulation added between batons and overlaid with a thin layer of insulated plaster board. The total cost of the work was just over £22,000, including just over £5,000 on the solar panel and £6,000 on the solid wall insulation. A mixture of loans and grants helped with the cost. Energy use declined by just under 50% as a result saving about £300 per year on bills.

Alistair Cant, Director of Lister Housing Co-operative, which owns 185 tenement flats around Lauriston Place, explained what Lister has been doing to improve efficiency. The buildings are in the Old Town Conservation Area, and World Heritage Site. So it was important to work in partnership with the Heritage agencies.

They wanted to do something that was fairly invisible and didn’t change the fundamental character of the properties. Topping up loft insulation and replacing old boilers was important, as was draught-proofing windows and refurbishing shutters along with some secondary glazing.  Using thick curtains and shutters on draught-proofed windows reduces heat loss almost as much as secondary glazing. Insulating solid concrete floors in basements was one of the more innovative measures. These tenements have an M-shaped roof, so in the middle there is a south or south west facing slope. Solar thermal panels were installed in the hidden inner slope.

Stuart Hay of Changeworks presented the results of efficiency projects in tenements. Lofts are the most important thing to insulate first. In the Tollcross area, 10,500 properties were targeted, but the half year-long project only insulated 266 lofts and topped-up insulation in 349 lofts illustrating how difficult it is to even give away insulation for this type of property.

Two projects in Balfour Street and Prince Regent Street looked at the costs of boiler upgrades, fabric upgrades, including floor and wall insulation, and microgeneration. The costs varied between £11,000 and £17,000 depending on the position of the flat (microgeneration included for top-floor flats). Carrying out this work would create savings on the average £1,000 per year energy bill of around £200-300 per year.

Changeworks' research showed that a loan for this type of property couldn’t be paid back just from the money saved on energy, so the Government is going to have to provide some grants.

Wilson Shaw looked at the options for insulating tenement flats. These include internal solid wall insulation, loft insulation for top flats, floor insulation for ground floor flats, secondary glazing, draught-proofing and flat roof insulation. He described various types of solid wall insulation and how it would be fixed to the existing wall. The average cost for insulating stone walls with hard plaster is between £75-85 per m2. Insulating walls with lathe and plaster can be more expensive depending on how it’s done. Stripping back the lathe and plaster can save a small amount of space, but it is expensive and doesn’t achieve such a good improvement in heat loss.

The meeting also heard a round-up of projects across Edinburgh from Balerno to Portobello from Sitar RamsayCommunity Engagement Officer with the Energy Saving Scotland advice centre South East, and Kim Harding from Spokes gave details of bicycle storage options in tenements and a pilot project the Council is about to launch. 

Where next?

Clearly, the immediate priority is to make sure as many Leithers as possible take advantage of free insulation while it’s available. When the Green Deal is introduced later this year we will need a few examples of some of the other measures such as solid wall insulation to tell people about along with details about how the finances work and the savings that can be made. Tenements can be made energy efficient, but carrying out the work is going to be costly. We need to make sure tenement dwellers have the information they need to make the most of grants and finance schemes available so that we can maximise carbon savings in areas like Leith.

For more information and to view presentations you can visit the Energy Co-op site.

- Pete