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An Active Upgrade for the 21st century

An Active Upgrade for the 21st century

As the UK looks towards recovery from the impact of the COVID-19 crisis many people, businesses and organisations are calling for a green recovery. That makes sense given the future must be greener. 

As ever the question is going to be, what’s best to focus on? The UK has long had policies to address the poor energy efficiency of homes. It has been a long-term challenge given many of them were built before the concept of building regulations. And as with all regulations, the mechanism lags behind both the technology and the innovations available to make for even better homes. 

Going big 

Given the scale of the challenge, and the recession we face, it would make sense to pick an opportunity that itself is a significant challenge.  The economic win of upgrading our homes from whatever state they are in, to the standards required for the 21st century state is massive.  Of our c.27 million homes we have perhaps as many as 25 million have been built to standards that we would now say are insufficient. 

This is a challenge that offers a significant opportunity for almost every community, which in turn resonates with the general political ambition for levelling up. 

Retrograde retrofit 

While there have been retrofit policies, programs and resources, many would recognise they have been insufficient in scale and nature. There is also an issue about the whole idea of retrofit, given it is saying to many people - your house is in some way deficient and we will come in make up for that deficiency!  

And then often all that happens is a boiler replacement with some new insulation- be that in spaces that hadn’t originally been designed for it (older homes), or where it may have been forgotten (newer homes with poor quality assurance). 

Moving up 

The more we think about what is required the clear sense is that we need to move towards the language of improvement, or Upgrade - a  phrase that people understand in their every day, week, month-to-month use of things like their mobile phone. 

So, let’s Upgrade our housing stock - the most potent route to a green, levelling-up recovery we have. 

Included in your Upgrade / Choosing the right Upgrade 

In the first instance we need to think about the state of the housing we currently have: some of it is quite old, some of it was built to ‘breathe’ with fireplaces and wall materials that are not meant to be impervious. Then there are post-war homes which offer clear opportunities to improve the fabric at relatively low cost, while even more recently built homes may have limited scope for fabric upgrades, given how they have been built. 

We are taking the view that a nuanced approach to Upgrade would recognise there are some homes where you would start with fabric improvements and reduce net demand, and there are some other homes where are you might start with the technology of energy. 

Technologies of energy 

Building-based technologies of energy include all those things that allow you to capture or generate energy on or off the building. It includes all of those technologies that allow you to sense the state of the house and its energy needs, then manage and control how energy is used in and around the building. It also includes those technologies that flow energy to meet any need that we might have, be that charging an EV for mobility power, a computer for leisure or work, or to heat space, water or food. 

Fabric improvements 

Making fabric improvements first is both theoretically the best approach and often the best practical route given it reduces the energy we need to achieve the desired performance. Yet there will be a significant number of homes where fabric upgrades are disproportionately invasive or expensive. A more effective response should then beto start with technologies of energy. 

Technologies first 

For a meaningful number of homes and home types it will be more effective and more deliverable to Upgrade through the deployment of technologies of energy than to start with, or only, address the state and efficiency of their fabric. If you accept this approach, then we can look at different typologies of home and start to understand the best 21st century energy technologies for each type. We recognise that in some cases this approach will mean no attention to fabric efficiency because of the nature of a particular home type. Equally then for some cases the home energy technologies may be somewhat over capacity as a result. 

We do not consider this unduly disadvantageous as long as we ensure all of these future technologies are renewable, have a low whole-life-cycle carbon impact, and increase the level of local energy generation or capture. There are plenty of benefits these technologies offer the energy system including reduced peak and lower fossil fuel demand  

Upgrade ahead 

It may also be the case that it is easier to engage homeowners of every tenure in the opportunity of Upgrading their home with these new energy technologies than in rectifying their home with a retrofit - especially where that involves working on the fabric of the home. 

We have proposed that the BEIS Select Committee instigate an inquiry into the potential of an Upgrade approach as part of their Parliamentary work and will take a similar approach with the current EAC inquiry into home energy efficiency. 

We look forward to working with anybody who sees the potential of the Upgrade approach and has tools, techniques and technology, in addition to those being developed at the Active Building Centre, that may help deliver it. 


Hywel Lloyd
Government Engagement Manager
Active Building Centre Ltd. (RTO)

Jo Atkinson 
Building Project Engineer
Active Building Centre Ltd. (RTO)

The Active Building Centre (ABC) is a £36m investment made by UKRI under the ISCF Transforming Construction Challenge.  The ABC programme aims to transform the UK construction and energy sectors by demonstrating and advancing best practice net zero carbon technology for Active Buildings. 

As an independent national centre of excellence, Active Building Centre Ltd. (a Research and Technology Organisation) convenes industry, academia and government to enable the deployment of Active Buildings at scale. ABC aims to improve efficient energy use and decarbonisation across the built environment, providing open access to data and statistics for analysis and optimisation of system performance, and delivering the skills and training required to change the construction sectors belief, thoughts and actions. 


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