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March 8, 2022

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Emmelie Brownlee

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Women in retrofit: a Q&A with our Emily Braham

On International Women's day, discover our Emily Braham's career path, her insights into the challenges of retrofit and why she thinks the sector has such an exciting future!

How did you get started working in the sector?

I did a degree in design, development and regeneration, which was part building surveying, part quantity surveying, part project management and part law! It was kind of a jack of all trades degree and I had no idea what to do next.

A friend pointed out a job in a social housing company as a graduate trainee development manager, which I went for. Because I was passionate about climate change, I became the champion for sustainability in new builds –including doing SAP assessor and Code for Sustainable Homes Assessor courses.

From there, I started working with Efficiency East Midlands, a collaboration procurement organisation of 15+ social housing providers, to develop procurement frameworks and support which enabled scale up delivery of retrofit measures in the region. When the role of a strategic energy lead came up at Nottingham City Homes, it seemed like a good next step.

Was social housing something you particularly wanted to work in?

To be honest, I kind of fell into working in the sector. But what I hadn’t realised is how much of a fantastic opportunity it is – not only are you helping people and doing social good but you also get to work on really exciting projects. There’s plenty of scope to get involved with innovation and regeneration, especially around sustainability.

What does your current day-to-day role look like?

As the head of strategy and operations at Energiesprong UK, I do all sorts of things!

One of the great things about working for a smaller organisation that aims to unlock market potential is the ability to be quite agile – we can respond quickly to challenges and step in and help our partners solve their problems. And as we are involved with lots of different projects, we’re able to draw on these lessons to help inform future schemes.

This means I get to work on a huge range of things, ranging from strategic thinking, and considering how to solve retrofit problems using innovation, to getting monitoring installed into homes so we can evaluate their real-world performance.

I work with lots of different stakeholders, from housing providers to supply chain.  I could be doing anything from interviewing tenants to see how their homes are working out for them to meeting with policymakers to make recommendations on how to push retrofit further forward in the UK.

So very varied then!

Yes, in terms of what I do in my day to day, I might be developing short, exciting initiatives such as our whole house retrofit hackathon, running events to help suppliers consider how to productise retrofit, or planning big strategic projects such as the Innovation Partnership.  Everything we do is aimed at creating a functioning net zero market in the UK, but that require slots of different activities to overcome different challenges.

What skills do you think help you in this role?

Working in new build development helped me understand how social housing organisations make the business case for investment, which helps with developing the Energiesprong retrofit business model. Although I think many organisations still don’t fully consider the entire lifecycle and whole life costs of a building or how this interacts with the energy performance, even from a new build perspective.

I also think that the ability to be honest and open about the challenges is also invaluable if we want to learn from one another. And you have to like working with people and be really quite resilient. Creative problem solving, determination and the ability to manage lots of competing priorities come in handy too!

Why do you think the Energiesprong model is valuable to whole house retrofit in the UK?

In the last 10 years of working in retrofit, I have seen the same challenges crop up again and again. And everybody is trying to find the best way forward. I truly believe that the Energiesprong model provides a way of solving some of these problems.

You address the split incentive between landlords and tenants, using existing budgets to go much further in terms of energy performance, and it’s about taking a much more long-term approach to retrofit, in-line with social housing asset management.

Then there’s the idea of having a more innovative way of delivering it eg offsite construction, which has the ability to scale. On top of this, the performance guarantee is crucial – the tenant gets a home that they know will work.

You’ve been involved with the Destination Zero project with Nottingham City Homes – why is it important?

There are significant benefits to doing a whole house retrofit ‘in one go’ – both in terms of the business case and achieving the energy performance standards, but this won’t always work for landlords, so we wanted to test a way of delivering incrementally to achieve the same standards.

If they have just replaced the roofs, windows or gas boilers on a set of properties, it may not be the most cost or carbon efficient thing to do these again. It might be better to wait until they are at the end of their lifecycle. So, Destination Zero is exploring different asset management approaches for cases like these.

Plus, if we can gather lessons on making asset management smarter overall – and share these widely – then everyone can do better in terms of building management and planning ahead for future retrofit measures.  We are already starting to see some of these lessons.  

What needs to happen in the UK to make net zero retrofit at scale a reality?

  • Policy change: The Government needs to change policy to meet the ambition for retrofit – a few interventions, such as Zero VAT on retrofit, and longer-term strategic funding for innovation would make a huge difference. You can see more on this with our 5 asks for government.
  • Business case: We need a business case to sit behind retrofit, which includes harnessing the energy savings (the comfort plan) and using existing investment, along with starting to value the co-benefits such as health improvements.
  • Replicability: We need to segment the UK housing stock and develop replicable solutions for the archetypes which are best suited to offsite solutions and net zero.  This would enable an industrialised retrofit sector to support faster scaling.  It would also generate big carbon savings across a large number of homes; therefore reducing the pressure to go as far on homes which are more complex and reducing the burden (and cost) to the electricity grid as we decarbonise heating.
  • Different tenures: We need to consider how to deal with different tenures.  This could be through policy change, or through different market vehicles, but it needs addressing for a large-scale programme.  We also need desirable retrofit solutions, which appeal to social housing tenants, landlords, and owner occupiers.
  • Honest, shared learning: And in all of this, we need to find ways to share learning more effectively. We won’t achieve the scale and pace of retrofit we need without being honest about what works and what doesn’t.

What would you say to young people, especially women, who are thinking about joining the sector?

We need to transform the retrofit industry so it’s no longer thought of as just a construction-based industry. The sector is crying out for some young, fresh thinking from a more diverse group of people with a wide range of skills. Nottingham City Homes is a great example of an organisation that has already done this (you can see this through our other recent Q&As) and take a look at our hackathon results for some inspiration!

From engaging with tenants to technical elements like digital twins, there are so many different aspects to the sector and we need new ideas in all of them.  I think retrofit has had a bit of a branding issue, but it really is an industry with an exciting future where you can help save the planet and change people’s lives for the better.

Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn for more insights into the future of retrofit.

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