Episode 95

095 To Retrofit or Not to Retrofit with Professor John Edwards

Professor John Edwards is a practitioner, researcher and educator working in property and construction with specialisms in building pathology, energy efficiency and dealing with older and historic buildings. John is the lead author of BS7913 the BS for historic buildings and a co-author of BSI standards on retrofit. He is a Director of Edwards Hart Consultants and Professor of Practice at the University of Wales Trinity St. David.

What Is Covered: 

  • What is retrofit? 
  • The complexity of retrofitting 
  • The problems with current standards and documents on retrofit and energy efficiency
  • How surveyors can apply knowledge on retrofits in their work
  • How to improve the process of producing standards and documents for built environment
  • How John got into property and construction and which courses he provides 

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Today, I'm speaking to Professor John Edwards, a practitioner, researcher and educator working in property and construction with specialisms in building pathology, energy efficiency, and dealing with older and historic buildings. John is an author and co-author of many standards on historic buildings and retrofits. And he's also a director of Edwards Hearts Consultants and Professor of Practice at the University of Wales Trinity St. David. Welcome to the podcast, John. You're a professor, do people call you Professor?


Sometimes they do.


How do you feel about being a professor?


n involved in education since:


And is that award is by a particular university?


Yes, it's awarded from the University of Wales Trinity St. David. So the campus I go to is in Swansea SA1, which is, I suppose, most of the time, I would be in the Construction Wales Innovation Center, which is where my area of expertise is set within the university.


Now, for anybody listening to this podcast, I need to apologise in advance because I'm actually from North Wales, and I'm very fickle with my accent. So there's a chance that by the end of this conversation, my accent may have changed, and I might have slipped into a very Welsh accent. I live in what I call Middle Earth now, which is just outside Milton Keynes. And I've been everywhere, so the accent goes, but anybody's listening and wondering, what's she on about? So I was really keen to have you on, John, because I sa, well, there's two things. One, I saw quite a bit of your content being shared on LinkedIn, and some of the things that you were talking about and commenting on. And also a few surveyors reached out to me and said, you should get John Edwards on the podcast, hence, we've got this booked in. And you specialise in, I guess, environmental sustainability, how would you describe it?


inking back to my time in the:


Yeah. I just want to ask you, specifically, what is retrofit?


Well, there are lots of people using definitions, which really do stretch the Oxford Dictionary, but I like to use words that people can actually go into a dictionary and see what they mean. And retrofit basically is adding something to a building that did not have it when it was constructed. That's all what retrofit is. And what I say is all the time, it should never just be about retrofit, because there are lots of other things we can do to buildings to improve their energy performance, like putting them into good repair, like reinstating the original performance characteristics, if it's an older building, removing all those modern materials and modern insertions, which are causing problems in terms of defects, in terms of their energy performance. And that's the way we should be looking at improving the energy performance of buildings and not just sticking to that word retrofit all the time.


Yeah, it's much broader. And I think, I speak to a lot of surveyors and myself, I've got a Victorian property as we're recording this now, I've got sash window, single glaze, you look at it. Ultimately, we all live in properties. So we all get to experience what it's like. As we're recording this, it's in the middle of a heatwave, you're looking a lot cooler than I am today. And you know, I think this year will really have brought it to the fore for many people. And in many ways, it's a shame that global warming, and the climate is actually so nice in the UK, because we don't get nice weather like this. But it's very much on everybody's mind, it's been talked about wider. But for me, there seems to be a huge gap between explaining what it is, what's happening on a scientific and global level, and then what individual homeowners can do to make a difference. And I don't think ever it's been very well communicated how we look after the environment for the change to happen. We have to properly ban and charge money for carrier bags at supermarkets, for example. It's sort of that fiscal change needs to come into force at companies and people to do it. So I think there's a big gap in understanding and also creating a structure, a mechanism for people to go out and make a difference to their homes and make a difference to their business. And it seems so complicated.


Well, and it is complicated, to be honest. But I think we all have a role to play in making the messages clear and simple. I've been delivering a lot of training in Europe in recent months. And in some of those countries, well, they are being very, very hot indeed, to be honest, I was in Madrid, where it was 40 odd degrees. When you walk around Madrid and walk around any lots of other places where you have very warm climates, then you notice they got shutters to keep the heat out. In the UK if anybody got shutters that's already on the inside of the building when it should be on the outside of the building. So solar shading, and that sort of thing is very, very big in hot climates. We will need solar shading in the UK. And I've been saying this for years. And if anybody comes to my training courses, they realise that. But the other thing that we don't focus on much either is thermal mass, and if you go, I was in Qashqai in Portugal delivering a course at the presidential palace and to their staff there in retrofitting older and historic buildings. And I started getting quite warm at moments because the aircon stopped working. And so what I did I leant up against the wall, and thank, God that's nice and cool, because that wall has got thermal mass, it's a solid masonry wall, hard plastered on the surface, that's great. If you go into a building in the UK stand up against the wall, you're not going to get that coolness, because we love dot and dab plastic walls, or we love internal wall insulation. And so when we think about things like internal wall insulation, we don't think about the loss of that thermal mass in the summer. Because of solar shading, good passive ventilation, air crossing over surfaces which do up thermal mass can help provide some assistance in keeping the building cool. So we don't focus on that, not many of us focus it on it in terms of our professional knowledge, expertise and advice. And certainly we're not telling homeowners about it. Another thing is that, I think about when we got this heatwave is decrement delay. If you think about with loft spaces rooms in the roof, whereby we're trying to make them as warm as possible, as warm as possible in the winter. In the summer, we got another problem, that's overheating. We're not thinking about the sort of insulation material we should be looking at in such a location, we want dense materials like wood fiber boards, maybe like sheep's wool, maybe like cellulose, and not lightweight insulation products, because they haven't got that decrement delay. If we got decrement delay of between 8-10 hours, then when the sun's beating down on the building, by the time that's going to have much of an effect on the inside, the sun has gone down. And that's why we need to be looking at things like that right now. But if many of us as professionals don't really focus on this issue much, then how can we expect the ordinary person in the street to think about these issues? And the other thing is, we're just talking about retrofit all the time. But what about the way we use buildings in the wintertime? Why are we heating all our internal spaces? Why are we not keeping the curtains closed to keep the heat in spaces, which are not getting any benefits of daylight? And lots of things, we could talk all day about those particular things.


No we don't, or we do, we just get really confused, and then it becomes really hard for people then to take action. And so it seems to me there's, one part is everything new that we build going forward, and making sure that that's right, it's sufficient, future proof; there's looking at the past, which is the whole retrofit side of things, and there are challenges and arguments on that, we'll talk a bit about traditional and period property, I'm sure, and how practical cost efficient and all of those things are. And you're absolutely right, it's then how we actually use the spaces that we live in, that we work, what's effective. And there's got to be those changes. And I guess, what I see is people looking to governments or industry bodies, or leaders to say, how do we do this? Whereas they're almost turning around to us and saying, well, what do you want to know? It almost feels as though there's a bit of a deadlock or impasse in actually practical things happening. And I'm very much of the view of, start where you are, use what you have, do what you can. And so long as it's not detrimental, and we don't know until we don't know, I guess, we need to be doing something. And even small things like signposting people to, I mean, if you think about surveyors going out, doing their surveys for house purchase, and those kinds of things, they can be helpful, it doesn't have to come under advice. It's just information and signposting people to useful websites, government guides, or whatever on things that can be done. And even that's a start, but I do believe that if you think about the number of homes, surveyors and valuers go in and out of every single day in the UK, and even if they made one change or recommendation, impact that has the potential to have, then starts to see things change in you have a movement. And this is a learning journey for me to talk about this, and to learn about this. I've recently been doing, I'll pop a link to it in the show notes, a funded course called Get to Net Zero or something like that with your business. It's a business course with Cranfield. And it's really good but it's complicated at the same time. I work from home, there are things that I can do, but there's one guy on the course and he runs a microbrewery. And so he's thinking about all the different component parts, and where they come from, and energy and all of those things. So there's much more help that's needed, so it seems to me that there's a huge opportunity for people to get involved, add this to their service, or at least signpost people, but you've got to start with being educated. And I think particularly for surveyors, who listen to this podcast, if you're not trained or you've not been on a retrofit course or something like that, you need to be, even just for awareness and to keep up with what's going on in the industry. Do you see that there's a lack of knowledge in terms of technical professionals are understanding all of this?


r of the BSI standards on PAS:


And this is where I say, yes, the supply chain can't meet it. Yes. We've got to be doing something about it to change. It's not just a case of going on a course and working out and understanding things. This is almost a systemic change in the way that we do things, and how all the component parts come together. So how does it, you may or may not know this, I don't know, but we talked about the institution and I know that particular article, which I had something to say about when I saw it. How does the guidance come out? Does it come out from one technical authority? Is that a government department? Or is it the different institutions and bodies coming together? Because we need one source as the truth and information we can trust.


le on the panel producing PAS:


That's really interesting. And we'll get the details of you for some of the things that you've mentioned, and pop them in the show notes, cuz I know people like to follow up. But I think that's interesting, because when it comes to creating guidance and the rules, you've got that authority somewhere to do that. And that's important because people are relying on that guidance, which adds a layer of legal complexity and money involved, which always changes the pressure. And it gives people certainty as to what they can then do with their businesses, what the opportunities are, etc. And I wonder almost as though we need to rethink how we even do that, because I think you're right, if you don't have the right people on the panel, the right experts, and certainly, if it's not diverse, but you're pulling from a pool where actually there aren't that many knowledgeable experts in a particular area, you're always going to get in a struggle. But you're working with what you've got now. Each of these documents, or guidance or anything that was put out, it should only ever be a working version. And now we know we do better, and it's almost approaching it as a leadership Think Tank, if you like, rather than this is the way to do it. And we might need to change our culture and approach to do that. But also, it's got to be very much two way, two-way thinking if we have one particular method is the correct way, or the way that's promoted now. And if we discover that it causes problems, we need to have mechanisms in place to say, okay, we've just got a development now that's in inhabitable, we've learned. And to have that constantly come round that sort of two-way communication. And that's an uncertain way of working. But that's the quickest way, I think, to have to have real change. And again, we think about spray foam insulation, there's the installation itself, which might tick some boxes, but then you've got the whole installation, which is often a problem. That's something that we see often on the Surveyor Hub, but then also that material, how do you get rid of that, because we're just creating problems. So it seems there's a real rethink in terms of how it's all approached. And maybe even that's the place to start, rather than what's the best advice we can give people.


g to eco must comply with PAS:


Does that make you angry?


Well, I could be angry about lots of things. I would say, I'm annoyed. I'm very annoyed that people can't see sense. And at the very high levels, they can't see sense. And sometimes, if I'm a little bit cynical, I do wonder why certain things are written in certain ways. But I don't like to be too cynical, because then I might get depressed, and I don't want to be depressed about it.


I was thinking. Because you mentioned this summer, you've been traveling all over the place, and I imagine you've learned a lot about different countries, and how they they approach things. And there are a lot of people out there who do get climate anxiety as to what could we do about it. And you're in a position now to help others influence, does it feel like quite a hard slog? Or do you feel optimistic about the future?


a traditional building in PAS:


I think this is actually at the heart of it. I've mentioned there are diverse panels. And I wonder how much bias is in there, of prejudice, and that's natural in a way, we're humans.


Maybe there's vested interests, you never know.


Yeah, there are financial gains you might get. But it's being able to come together in a different way. Respect everybody, respect the knowledge and pooling together. And for me that takes leadership, and I think it's very much a culture change. And that's the only way it's really going to happen. Yeah, interesting.


It's the culture change, to be honest. And when I think about, all my training courses, 90 odd percent say that they're good or excellent. There's some people say, I don't know what I'm talking about, because I'm telling them something, which is completely different to what everybody else is telling. And they think I'm talking nonsense. Because they just don't believe it.


Yeah. And it's too big a gap, and they don't trust it, and so there's a lot to do around that. I'm a big fan of a chap called Sidney Decker. And he talks a lot about human failure, he's a professor in Australia and he's written lots on when there's health and safety incidences on oil rigs, and all of those kinds of things, how does that happen? Why do people make mistakes? Why do they not follow the rules? And he talks about, you've got to get inside the tunnel where that person is and see it from their view. And I think that's the key thing I think we're gonna have to look out if we're gonna make this change, and to chip away at it is, what does it mean and what's the impact? And what can that person, I often talk about today on a wet Tuesday in Margate, what can they do? What can a homeowner do? All these different people, and sort of get in the tunnel, so we can see their perspective? Because although we've might have rules to follow, it's human nature at the end of the day, and I think until we we get there I think we'll struggle. You mentioned Cadw. Tell me about that, you're on a board with them, have you worked with them?


Prior to doing this job, which I've been doing for about eight years, I was the director of Cadw responsible for our state, so as you saw, for managing 129 historic sites.


So this is a an organisation in Wales that looks after historic property.


It's the Welsh Government's Historic Environment Service. It's equivalent to, I suppose, is not equivalent to Historic England. It's equivalent to a combination of Historic England and English Heritage, equivalent to Historic Environment Scotland, because they do everything that Cadw does.


And I was interested in that when I have been stalking you on LinkedIn, because I did a degree in state management up in Wrexham, back in the late 90s I think it was, and I did state management. And on my first year, there was like a retreat that Cadw had organized. As it was, it wasn't anywhere exciting. It was literally down the road in Llangollen. It was just like 10-20 minutes from my home as it was. It was just, I can't even remember full detail, but it was a retreat they organised. We talked about the importance of property and the impact. And I can't tell you how much it opened my eyes to just our built environment. Because where I've grown up on a council estate, yes, they were country parks and things around us, but they're not heritage properties as such. So it was a real eye opener for me to come from a different background to start to see that. And it really sparked my interest in property and how I then went and did my career. So thanks Cadw, this was 25 plus years ago now. It's all changed, but there's a lot of good work.


Thank you for employing me for two and a half years. I didn't stay there very long, to be honest.


So how did you get into, I'm interested, so as a child, were you always interested in building construction?


ion as well. I left school in:


That's the thing, isn't it? It's not just about learning an academic subject, if you like, it's all the different ways you can look at that subject, how it's managed, how it's created, what will happen in the future.


It's variety really, and variety is the thing that interests me, I do lots of different types of things, I don't just do one thing. I know htere are some surveyors that will do residential property inspections every day. I couldn't do that, I got to do different things, because I want to do different things.


I'd like to ask you about your courses, because on your LinkedIn, I saw a slide and it was a retrofit circle or something. Tell me about the retrofit type courses that you do, I was just interested because I thought that's a an interesting module to help understand and do the checks and balances for what to watch out for.


any years now, probably since:


But yours is the best.


cation that's required by PAS:


What I'm always interested in is what people then do with it afterwards. Because sometimes, if you're working on projects or going to tenders, it can help you in that work, it's part of your plans or whatever. But if you're an average surveyor, how are you going to use that knowledge? While you're learning it, it's in your head, but where's the opportunity to then make an impact?


it does. If you work into PAS:


I'm not a fan of EPC I'll be honest, I think it's difficult. I remember when it first came out, I just moved from being a surveyor on the tools to running a complaints team or giving technical advice to a team of administrators at a corporate I used to work for. And I'd missed out on all the training that we had for EPC, so I was basically given a manual and said you'll deal with any complaints that come in. And literally the next day, I remember it was February, and they just started coming in. And in one short month I had 176 complaints about EPCs from homeowners who didn't understand. I remember the first complaint I dealt with, one lady and she told me that she worked for the government. And this was all statistical nonsense and she couldn't work it out. And it was something to do with, if you change the light bulbs, it takes into account the heat around it and then you have to have a different boiler and she had pellet boiler or something or other. I just say yeah, what I didn't say is your government brought it in is what I felt like saying at the time. And it's really difficult because I know there's a lot of surveyors out there who actually trained to be domestic energy assessors who knew a lot about energy, really passionate about that, and then it just sort of got just got cut away, if you like they didn't become members of the RICS and then all of that stops. And that's where the RPSA organisation had its roots, and so I think there's a lot of surveyors out there who do have a good interest in knowledge, but it needs to be refreshed, and see how you can bring it into the work they do now. It seems as though it's become so devalued,, you get paid 35 quid or something for doing it. The number that we see in the Surveyor Hub, the community group that I run, so many that are wrong, and it's almost just a paper exercise, estate agents don't tell you about it. Now, I know there's changes on the rental side, where you've got to have a minimum number, I think, rating coming in. And it was only, we talked about fiscal measures at the start is only ever going to make a difference when someone that affects their pockets. But it just seems such a one size fits all, and clearly, the UK housing market just isn't like that. Clearly, you're not necessarily a fan, either. What would you replace it with? Or how do you think?


Well that's the probelm really, at the moment, EPCs cost very little to produce. If you want to do it properly, you're gonna have to consider how building is used for stars, and EPCs give it a standardised rating of this is how this building's used for so many hours on the weekend, so many hours during the week.


It also depends on the occupant, family with kids or adults.


It doesn't give the real performance, when we look at all these default values for U-values. So it's all been produced. I mean, S is the word, isn't it? The standardized nature of it is the issue, whereby it does allow you to compare a property with each other. But I think not enough people know how flawed it is, and how inaccurate it is. So you may not be able to do a proper comparison. But any EPC should reflect the way the building is used and properly reflect the external environment. Because that is how you will really know how well or not that building is performing. But have I got a methodology up my sleeve to say this is the way we're going to do it? No, I haven't, but somebody needs to work it out. Because at the moment, chasing the energy bands, so you probably can be let out, could cause a lot of problems. Because all the things that you think you need to do to reach the energy bands, may or may not ensure that the building performs any better. In fact, it might perform worse. Let's think about the cavity wall insulation saga. A lot of cavity wall insulation is very well installed in the right building, fantastic. But there's a lot of cavity wall insulation that had to be removed, because it was installed in the wrong building in the wrong place, in the wrong condition, creating lots of damp, and a damp wall can be over third less energy efficient than the drywall. So far from actually improving the energy performance, it makes the energy performance worse. But the energy rating in the EPC will be better.


And this is where it comes full circle, doesn't it? What we talked about before about the wrong things. I don't know how you don't get so cynical about it. When I remember just before EPCs came out, I remember I think in England, they used to have a an English Housing stop condition survey. And these have data on the condition of the properties in England or the UK and that stopped. And then I think EPC then sort of took over I suppose in a way, it's all given them data for something, isn't it? For me, I think there's massive opportunity because we've got an appetite for a lot of homeowners and a lot of people out there now, who want to do something, and even if they can start small, some practical things that can be done makes a difference to their energy bills and everything else, right the way through to, let's install something fancy on the roof and a windmill in the garden. There's a huge range, by giving people some signposting, you're giving them options which empowers them, which makes people feel like they can do something towards it. And that's how we then start moving people moving forward, isn't it?


Repair the building, draught proofing, ut curtains in front of your front door as well as your window. That is an almost very, very basic things. And the test then is looking at how much energy you're actually using or not using because you've done all those things.


Maybe John it's fair, but it's a fashion thing because saying putting a curtain in front of your door sounds a bit like your grandma and granddad back in the day. Maybe if THEY made it fashionable, maybe we can get the Kardashians to have curtains in front of their doors and probably they'll go for it.


That reminds me of when I went to North Wales, I was speaking at an event near Machynlleth, and on the mountainside there on the corner of a road, major junction on Snowdonia, you have this pub and it's a hotel as well. And I stayed in that hotel and bear in mind the climate there in the winter is quite harsh, it's snowing, but there weren't any curtains on my bedroom window. There were these like shutters you put inside. And whereas you go in some hotels, they leave the chocolates on your bed, I knew they were going to be problems in this hotel room, because what they left me on my bed was a hot water bottle.


But you didn't say no.


I had to have the hot water bottle, it was freezing.


John, it's been so lovely to talk to you today. Thanks ever so much for joining me.


You're welcome, it's been nice speaking to you too.

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Marion Ellis

As a chartered surveyor with a background in defect and valuation claims, Marion has first-hand experience of why we make mistakes and what we need to do to support ourselves to prevent them. A Fellow member of the RICS and qualified customer experience professional, Marion is passionate about empowering people. At Love Surveying, she provides the support, coaching and networking surveyors and property professionals need to handle career challenges confidently and navigate the right business journey for them. Founder of The Surveyor Hub podcast and community Marion also supports surveyors in business through her coaching and mentoring programmes. Marion is an Ambassador for Lionheart.