Applying Best Practice in Solid Wall Insulation Schemes
In December 2016, Dr Peter Bonfield OBE published the results of an extensive investigation to the energy efficiency industry. Entitled "Each Homes Counts", the Report was the result of18 months of research and was billed as "an independent review of consumer advice, protection, standards and enforcement for energy efficiency and renewable energy.
Commissioned jointly by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and by the Department for Communities and Local Government, the 68 page review covered three key questions. It considered 1) the quality of customer advice and protection, 2) the standards frameworks underpinning the quality of works, and 3) the effectiveness of monitoring and enforcement measures. In addition to evaluating the present state of the industry, it also set out a clear action plan for improvement over the coming years.
In the Report, Dr Bonfield devotes considerable attention to the question of how to raise quality standards across the industry. Inspectors found evidence of widely varying standards between different schemes and contractors, and the Report emphasises the need to address this. In his foreword, Dr Bonfield writes: "...my Review seeks to ensure that, in the future, conventional measures, such as insulation, always deliver the quality levels and outcomes that consumers have every right to expect, underpinned by the protection, service and advice so critical for householders."
Examples of Best Practice
Later in the Report, Dr Bonfield also notes: "In conducting this Review, many examples of exemplary performance in installing energy efficiency measures have been highlighted, two of which are presented in the industry chapters of this Report."
One of these examples cites a 3-phase, £8m solid wall insulation scheme delivered by Sustainable Building Services (UK) Ltd (SBS) on behalf of Nottingham City Homes. The work involved the treatment of more than 1,100 properties - a mix of social and private housing - and was procured through the Efficiency East Midlands (EEM) solid wall insulation framework.
In 2016, members of Dr Bonfield’s team and the then Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) visited the three key sites in Nottingham while work was in progress. They made detailed notes on a number of important innovations, which the Report holds up as examples of good practice. SBS is the only contractor specifically referred to in the whole report.
Clear Brief and Cost Certainty
The Report's case study commends NCH for the clarity of its brief and the technical focus on property archetypes. Together, these factors helped to ensure that contractors' bids would be accurate. Specifically, the Report states: "NCH’s detailed knowledge of the housing stock meant they could develop a clear brief, and allowed them to structure the procurement around archetypes. The certainty of social housing properties meant contractors could provide a competitive price. The bid process was weighted towards quality, technical knowledge, best value and a commitment to ensuring that the works would deliver important social benefits by NCH, as well
Supply Chain Collaboration
Early and effective supply chain collaboration was a critical factor for the scheme's success. The proposed work would entail fitting external wall insulation (EWI) to a variety of properties constructed from Nottingham red brick. While the energy efficiency benefits of the work were never in doubt, local authority planners had misgivings about whether the fitted systems would downgrade the characteristic appearance of the housing stock.
These planning concerns threatened serious delays to the scheme and, with strict time constraints on the availability of Green Deal and ECO funding, it was important to make speedy progress if the scheme was to be rolled out to as many local families as possible. NCH had prioritised work in favour of those households most at risk of fuel poverty, so it was especially important that the scheme should not be downscaled.
To address this, SBS, NCH and the EWI system designer PermaRock Products Ltd worked together, months ahead of the formal contract award, attending planning meetings and producing literally hundreds of visualisations, detail drawings and product samples - including a special Nottingham Red Brick slip finish that would accurately replicate the colour of the existing walls within the design. Ultimately, this convinced planners that the work would preserve the character of the buildings and consent was duly granted.
This effective collaboration was noted in Dr Bonfield's review, together with an acknowledgement of the importance of NCH’s and SBS's meticulous mobilisation plan. It states: "A detailed mobilisation period was used to align processes and NCH's systematic project management, developed whilst delivering Decent Homes. This ensured the project delivered consistently, with cost certainty, and without any weak links in the process."
Throughout the Report, there is a constant emphasis on ensuring consistent quality and, again, the Nottingham project was used to illustrate a highly effective approach.
The range of properties requiring treatment meant that SBS and its supply chain partners had to plan works around 30 different property archetypes. In order to ensure rapid progress on site, it was therefore essential that operatives were familiar with all these designs and the detailing associated with them. Consequently, in the mobilisation period, SBS and PermaRock worked together to establish a dedicated on-site training facility. Here, they built full height walls that accurately reproduced all the archetypes that would be encountered on site. The centre also provided practical training, training videos, product samples, technical drawings and models of completed installations.
In all, (including the period after the DECC inspectors' visits) the centre provided training for over 300 operatives, who were then able to move straight from one property type to another without the need to pause for re-orientation and planning revisions. This contributed greatly to the speed of completions - enabling the three phases to be completed three months ahead of schedule.
In addition, training to project stakeholders was also provided throughout the course of the contract.
Another unusual (indeed perhaps unique) feature of the scheme was the extent of supply chain support and co-operation. SBS, PermaRock, NCH, energy company E.ON and other key supply chain partners all worked together in shared office space, thus encouraging a collaborative approach to problem solving. Moreover, to ensure that the highest standards were maintained throughout, PermaRock assigned two of its site technicians to work full time on the NCH sites. Working alongside SBS's site managers and in tandem with the company's own quality checks, the PermaRock technicians inputted into every stage of sign-off to provide added surety that all work was completed exactly to specification.
Ultimately, this support - together with similar support from E.ON and NCH inspectors - produced a 100% handover success rate. The work produced zero defects and no rectification notices were issued for any of the 1,100 properties.
Commenting on the scheme, NCH Assistant Project Manager Leanne Edmond said: "SBS and PermaRock have provided NCH with an outstanding delivery model that focuses strongly on quality. The collaboration with PermaRock ensures that the technical installation is of the highest standard possible and their self-motivation to exceed expectations and delivery KPI targets is a credit to both companies."
Quality Control of Materials
In order to maintain both the speed and quality of installations, SBS devised an unusual approach to the supply of materials such as special feature insulation boards, window sills and other adaptation products. Typically, most installers will measure and cut items such as sills and feature boards on site but in the case of the NCH scheme, SBS required its suppliers to survey each property individually and supply pre-made or pre-cut components. It was recognised that this would demand exceptional levels of communication, co-operation and logistical control but the potential benefits in terms of speed and quality assurance made this worthwhile. In the event, this bespoke, property-by-property approach worked exceptionally well and was regarded as a key reason for the scheme's early completion.
One of the most important of these pre-manufactured elements was the special detailing necessary to replicate distinctive brick banding on many of the properties. PermaRock devoted considerable effort to replicating the architectural feature using its UKAS-accredited EPS-Premium insulation board. A bespoke red brick slip finish was also produced to ensure aspects of the 'Nottingham red brick' were maintained.
To help overcome the associated logistical challenges, SBS set up a bespoke distribution centre to service the three phases of work. This ensured stringent controls on all materials ordering, while its proximity to the sites helped to minimise the environmental impacts associated with delivery. Moreover, the centre also served as a waste collection depot, which ultimately achieved a waste recycling rate of 95.8%.
Resident & Community Engagement
Given the risks of no-access delays, SBS and its partners invested heavily in effective community engagement. Prior to commencement, it recruited four resident liaison officers from within the local community and hosted a series of presentations and coffee mornings to explain to residents the benefits of the proposed works.
In the earliest phase of the scheme, SBS worked on a vacant property, which then served a threefold function. It acted as a demonstration house, which residents could visit to see how the finished system would look. It provided a venue for community meetings and discussions, and finally, it served as a 'respite' facility - a quiet refuge that residents could visit if they wished while works were going on at their own homes.
The extent of community engagement was noted in Dr Bonfield's Report, which stated: "Resident engagement was key to the success of the scheme with consultation/community events, inductions, aftercare advice/literature and energy efficiency advice provided. Full time site-based Resident Liaison Officers were provided by both NCH and SBS to ensure a high level of engagement with both social and private consumers. Pilot properties were completed and a ‘show home’ and information centre was opened for residents."
In the final phase of the scheme, SBS, PermaRock and other supply chain partners supported a major upgrade to a popular community centre, which received a new EWI system to improve its energy efficiency, together with WiFi/broadband and new ICT equipment.
Private Sector Offering
Most major social housing projects will normally afford an important opportunity to extend benefits to local private homeowners. When workers, materials and access equipment are already in the neighbourhood, such households stand to enjoy significant economies of scale.
Recognising this, SBS and the local energy cooperative, Nottingham Energy Partnership, made strenuous efforts to engage with local homeowners to explain the potential benefits of the work. In addition to economy-of-scale savings, residents could also take advantage of Green Deal / ECO funding and - if required - a private finance offering organised by SBS through Barclays Partner Finance. By setting out a clear picture of the required payments set against the ongoing energy savings, the stakeholders were able to extend the scheme to well over a hundred private householders. As a result, many more local families now enjoy significant annual energy savings and improved living conditions.
Looking Ahead: Driving Up Standards
Many of the features of this scheme are examples of best practice that the National Insulation Association is now promoting UK-wide. Some months ago, in anticipation of the Report, the NIA, whose Vice-Chair is SBS’s owner Derek Horrocks, began developing enhanced industry standards and specifications for insulation measures including external wall insulation, cavity wall insulation, loft insulation and room-in-roof insulation. These will be rolled out in 2017.
The need for improved quality assurance is undoubtedly a key driving force behind a number of recent industry developments. For example, February 2017 saw the publication by BSI of a new PAS 2030 standard. In keeping with the recommendations of "Each Home Counts" this will impose additional responsibilities on installers with respect to initial property assessments and system design. There will be more stringent rules governing the required skills of site operatives, and certification bodies will have additional responsibilities for inspections.
Importantly, in order to deliver ECO-funded schemes, installers have to be PAS2030 certified. The additional requirements through the latest version of PAS2030 should help to ensure that more work is done by suitably skilled operatives, precisely to specification, and that more emphasis is given to technical competence at the tendering stages. These and other measures are likely to come into effect by May 2017.
Another important development was the Government's recently published response to the ECO Transition Consultation process, which took place in 2016. The new scheme will have a budget of £960 million and will run from April 2017 to September 2018. Its updated criteria place an increasing emphasis on insulation as an energy efficiency priority, and funding will be extended to social housing in the EPC bands E, F and G. The scheme is targeting a minimum of 32,000 solid wall installations over its 18 month duration.
In the longer term, it seems likely that further recommendations of Dr Bonfield's Report will be introduced. For example, his Report recommends that the sector "Develop an overarching standards framework document for the end-to-end delivery of retrofit of energy efficiency and renewable energy measures, building on existing standards... The standards framework will build on existing practice, including PAS 2030 and PAS 2031. It will include standards for assessment, design, installation, and operation, and will give particular attention to commissioning and handover."
Certainly these are the sorts of standards and procedures to which reputable contractors and groups such as the National Insulation Association have long aspired. Better, more rigorously enforced standards will drive up consumer confidence and thus, the country should see sustained demand for affordable, high-impact energy efficiency measures that deliver real improvements to people's quality of life.
Commenting on the findings of the Report, SBS Chair, Derek Horrocks said: "I'm very pleased to see such a clear emphasis being placed on quality standards. 'Each Home Counts' makes many very important points about the industry as a whole. It's essential for this sector that contractors and systems designer’s work together to raise standards, and introduce robust mechanisms for design, installation, inspection and - where appropriate - rectification.
"As a business, we have worked extremely hard to observe the very highest quality standards and I'm naturally delighted that this Report - by far the most significant of its kind - has cited our work for NCH as an example of best practice.
"Within the UK, fuel poverty remains a massive challenge for the industry and, as the Report points out, consumer trust is vital. Key to achieving this is the industry's ability to deliver a reliable service, backed by a solid consumer protection framework, and our ability to give householders confidence that work will be done to a high standard. Dr Bonfield's Report has called for precisely these kind of changes - including the establishment of a new quality mark - and I wholeheartedly support his recommendations."
Operating UK-wide, Sustainable Building Services (UK) Ltd is an award-winning management contractor with interests in building services, construction and energy efficiency. Its customer base is growing steadily and many of its current framework agreements - including maintenance, energy efficiency and whole-house refurbishment - are now in their second and third generations. Since 2011, the company's turnover has grown by 450% and through a combination of recruitment, apprenticeships and training, it continues to expand both its workforce and its skills base.