In the journey to net zero carbon, it is tempting to believe the path will be straightforward and linear.
However, the reality is much more complex. This is illustrated in one of the biggest areas where progress needs to be made – our homes. They account for 20% of all UK emissions. Decarbonisation of the spaces in which we live will require not a single solution, but multiple ones.
Livv Housing Group is one of the biggest housing associations in the North West. Based in Knowsley it was originally formed in 2002 as Knowsley Housing Trust and re-branded to Livv in 2020. It now manages almost 13,000 homes across Liverpool City Region.
A major challenge of the net zero mission is the retrofitting of existing housing stock. This represen
ts a different challenge to building new homes. Livv is taking on both in a drive that will cost, according to executive director Tony Cahill, around £120m.
“All housing associations must put together a long-term investment plan,” he said. “And that £120m comes on top of the money we would have to spend anyway to maintain and improve our homes.”
And it is the customers, said Tony, who must remain front and centre of this sustainable revolution. He added: “Many of our customers are older and have been using the same type of heating systems for decades. Some may find it difficult to adapt and we can’t lose sight of that.”
Livv started implementing its long-term net zero plan in 2018 which has three main elements. The first is the decarbonisation of its own estate – its offices and the common areas in residential buildings. Second is the retrofitting of its existing housing stock and the third is the focus on its new builds.
The organisation has already achieved measurable success on the first point. It has utilised a range of measures including solar, LED lighting, a move away from gas and the installation of energy control systems. This has resulted in a 53% reduction in carbon emissions between April 2019 and March 2021.
“Housing associations are not obligated to have SECR (streamlined energy and carbon reporting) but we do one anyway,” said Tony. “We’re now waiting on an updated report up to March 2022 which we think will be even better.
“As you can imagine, this has had a huge impact on our energy costs, which increased dramatically earlier this year, but would have been even higher if we hadn’t taken this proactive approach.”
Moving on to its current housing stock, Livv has set a target for all of its homes having an energy performance certificate (EPC) rating of no lower than C by 2025. The legal minimum for rental properties is E.
Tony explained: “Getting all of our homes to a C rating by 2025 would put us five years ahead of the Government target. From 2026 onwards we will push on to achieve net zero by 2050.
“We have done two things. Firstly, we have improved the thermal efficiency of homes. That is through measures such as loft insulation or floor insulation. And we have also focused on energy-efficient gas boilers.
“A modern A+ rated condenser boiler can save our customers around £300 a year compared to a 10-year-old boiler. That is quite a saving in terms of the cost of energy now. That has been a big impact for our customers.”
Much of the discussion around decarbonisation of homes focuses on how heat and power are generated. Heat pumps and solar panels can be rendered ineffective if the home is poorly insulated, Tony points out. He added: “The fabric always has to come first.”
This is particularly critical when it comes to air source heat pumps, something the Government is putting at the front of its decarbonisation strategy. Tony explained: “It’s likely the majority of homes will have air source heat pumps.
“This is a large device that needs to partly sit on the outside of the property. That is a real practical challenge with some of our housing stock. And it also means big changes in the home. All the pipes and the radiators have to be bigger.
“It also comes back to what I said before as well about how easy this will be for our customers. A gas boiler heats up quickly, so people are used to switching them on and off. But air source heat pumps take much longer so it will be a case of them being on all of the time to regulate the temperature.”
Livv is getting creative when it comes to improving the fabric of homes. It is looking for obvious solutions such as better insulation and triple-glazing. But it is also trialling more innovative ideas.
Tony said: “We’re working with a small family company of three sisters based in Speke in south Liverpool called Flutter Shutter, to trial their innovative new product. These are window shutter blinds that are designed to stop heat escaping through the windows.
“Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) is currently assessing their performance and the BRE laboratory will soon give the products an energy performance rating. The feedback we have had from customers so far has been great.”
And this willingness to innovate is an integral part of Livv’s strategy when it comes to new-build homes. This, in one sense, is easier than retrofitting an existing home because you can start from scratch.
However, there is still a choice around which method or technology is used. Livv is currently building 15 new homes in Kirkby. And, in a pilot project it will be trialling three different methods of energy efficiency and heating.
As part of the project, five homes will be fitted with a gas boiler and five will see the installation of air source heat pumps. The remaining five will be built to the ‘Future Homes Standard’ which is proposed to come into effect in 2025 and will have a wider range of energy efficiency measures.
“Once customers have moved into the homes a team from LJMU will undertake a 12-month study,” said Tony. “We’ll get to know the real practicalities of each approach and how much they cost to implement.
“We’ll also look at how the experience is for our customers. We’ll learn so much from this exercise. This is a complex process and we need to make sure we’re getting it right and that it is right for our customers.”
He added there is also the possibility of using digital technology to set up a real-time remote energy monitoring system for all of its homes. This would allow Livv to be more proactive in identifying and then fixing faults. However, Tony said there would also have to be safeguards over personal customer data.
Livv will also look into the feasibility of other forms of heating too, including local heat networks. These comprise a central neighbourhood energy centre that pumps hot water to homes across a specified district or community.
They are common in countries such as Denmark and are becoming popular in the UK, with more than 14,000 already in operation.
Tony said Livv is also looking at building homes through so-called modern methods of construction (MMC). MMC homes are starting to appear across Merseyside, most recently at Wirral Waters, New Ferry and north Liverpool.
He explained: “We are definitely very interested in MMC but are still being quite cautious about going down that path. It is vital we get a better understanding of the energy performance of those homes, as well as taking advantage of the speed of construction that they can bring.”
Money from the Government is coming to Livv via the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority to help with the huge cost of its decarbonisation plan. The CA has secured the second-largest allocation of funding from the first phase of the Government’s Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund and Livv has secured the biggest slice in the region.
“Data is key to how we manage this journey. We’ll be collecting a lot of data and we will be prepared to share that. In partnership with our customers, we are building a model that will see every single one of our homes become net zero carbon.”