The Definitive Guide to Retrofit Validation

With the spread of Covid-19 and the ensuing lockdowns, Housing Providers have been forced to find new ways to ensure their properties are safe and well maintained. The difficulty in scheduling in-person visits, due to the potential health risks and changing regulations means many providers have embraced technology with open arms. This move toward digitisation has allowed Housing Providers to gather data on their properties and to identify any potential problem areas within their homes and has exposed Landlords to the multitude of benefits digitisation holds.

Through the installation of technology and an overall shift toward digitisation, Housing Providers have been able to secure their properties while following Government Health advice. The usage of IoT gives Landlords the ability to communicate directly with residents to gather valuable feedback on the repairs process and how it has impacted tenants’ daily routines. This information paints a digital picture. Technology can be used to influence maintenance procedures and can identify any potential problem areas within the home before the issue spirals out of control, saving the Housing Provider money in the long-term. This limits the risk of additional damage and helps bring down the overall costs, it also ensures that all residents have access to a safe and comfortable home which is the central aim of the Social Housing sector. If maintained, this new method could continue to benefit Landlords in a Post-Covid society by increasing resident engagement and encouraging a proactive repair system.

But technology isn’t a picture-perfect solution – there are three important things that Housing Providers need to consider before retrofitting a property.

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Is it right for this property at this time?

To understand the consequences of the new law it is important for landlords to know what aspects of the 1985 Act have been amended.

The Homes act has made a significant change to the existing 1985 Landlord and Tenant Act in order to introduce a more modern health and safety based approach to defining whether a property is habitable.

Government guidance for the new Act state “there is an implied agreement between the tenant and landlord at the beginning of the tenancy that the property will be fit for human habitation”.

Another core part of what the Act has changed is the ability for tenants to bring cases against landlords more easily if a property is deemed in a state of disrepair.

Previously, the two routes available to tenants when complaining about poor housing conditions relied upon them to either contact their local authority to help enforce property standards or for them to bring a private prosecution in a magistrates’ court under section 82 of the Environmental Health Act 1990.

However, these routes have long been deemed as inadequate in resolving issues regarding poorly maintained properties either due to a lack of resources by Local Authorities to enforce checks on landlords and thus take action or because litigation via the magistrates’ courts was extremely costly and often needed a criminal, thus higher, burden of proof against a landlord to prove a case.

In a briefing paper on the Act, the Chartered Institute for Housing (CIH) noted that local authorities also couldn’t in many cases act as independent arbitrators for cases taken up by their own tenants. The CIH noted that “many local authorities are also social landlords and cannot take legal action against themselves.”

Their relationships with other housing providers can also disincentivise action – as they are unlikely to want to jeopardise an otherwise very valuable relationship. As a result, the Homes Act can be viewed as a means for social tenants living in unfit properties to challenge their landlord without risking a conflict of interest. As the CIH also notes “This has taken on greater significance following the Grenfell Tower fire, where residents had previously unsuccessfully attempted to raise concerns about the safety of their building.”

Is the technology tested?

Once updates have been made to a property it is important to follow up with the resident to ensure that everything is running smoothly. In some cases, this may require repeat access to the property to ensure the original problem hasn’t returned, and that the technology is functioning as it should. However, for connected devices, it is as simple as logging in and checking the data remotely. Landlords also need to ensure that tenants are making use of the installations. It is also necessary to monitor the long-term effectiveness of the technology – ensuring that it doesn’t become defective as it ages. This will require prolonged assessment over two to five years to ensure the technology continues to work as intended and that the original issue doesn’t return in the meantime. Installing a new device only to have it break down a year later proves a poor investment and may also cause unnecessary upset to the tenants.

When installing new technologies, Housing Providers will also need to consider the learning curve that will occur as residents interact with the devices. This requires a strong line of communication between the Housing Provider and their tenants to make sure that the devices remain connected at all times. For example, if you have installed a new heat recovery ventilation system you will need to check that residents have not unplugged it or blocked any of the inlets and outlets ensures that the readings you’ve just gathered are not inaccurate due to misuse. The important thing with retrofits is to communicate the benefits to your tenants and ensure that the devices are deployed with care. Housing Providers aim to guarantee a safe and comfortable home for residents and by installing successful retrofits Housing Providers can significantly improve the lives of their residents and guarantee the quality of their stock simultaneously.

Is it cost-effective?

Data allows Housing Providers to more accurately invest in property repairs and maintenance, increasing the value of their stock. For example, some technologies allow providers to receive remote notifications of faults within the heating system and provides a full breakdown of the cause(s). Over time and with continued data collection, Housing Providers will be able to identify patterns between the different makes and models of boilers and assess whether some models are more likely to break down over time. This allows Housing Providers to make cost-effective maintenance decisions and gives them more control over their stock. Technology and the usage of data gives Housing Providers the ability to see things on both a micro and a macro scale, saving them money in the long run as this data will help inform their investment models leading to more accurate repair strategies.

This can work on a broader scale too. Increased reliance on technological advancements allows Housing Providers to identify properties that are costing more than is expected, and providers can look into ways of managing these costs. Rather than continuing to bleed money, technology gives Housing Providers more control over their stock and can help highlight factors that could be skewing overall maintenance costs. This could include floods, fire damage, or other outlying issues which can then be taken into account and factored into the budget. Data paints a digital picture of a property, giving Housing Providers the autonomy to detect rogue properties or financial outliers that may be skewing the average spend.

Data isn’t just about identifying trends. It can reduce Fuel Poverty levels, ensuring that vulnerable residents aren’t forced to live in damaging conditions due to economic disparities. With an additional 600,000 people living in Fuel Poverty because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever to ensure that retrofits are going to benefit vulnerable residents rather than harming them. When looking at rolling out green retrofits, such as heat pumps, on a wide scale, Housing Providers must first consider the circumstances of their residents to mitigate the risk new installations can have on fuel poverty. It is estimated that electric heating systems can cost four times more than their gas equivalents which, for residents living on the poverty line, may prove untenable.

Providers need to treat their portfolio as a series of individual problems that will increase and decrease over time. Different residents will find heating a property more or less difficult. For example, smaller homes tend to rely upon electricity for heating and often have less cavity insulation making them particularly vulnerable to high electricity prices. In this case, by focussing on updating insulation levels, Housing Providers can help vulnerable residents conserve heat and lower their overall energy bills. This is an area that technology can assist with. Smart Thermostats are shown to reduce energy bills by up to 17% by decreasing the amount of energy wasted. Technology installations like these allow the Housing Provider to improve the efficiency of their homes, optimising energy usage while protecting vulnerable tenants in the process.

How Retrofits can help Housing Providers become Carbon Neutral

With the Paris Climate Agreement and the Government’s commitment to becoming Carbon Neutral by 2050, Housing Providers are looking for ways to reduce their carbon output. It’s why any planned retrofits should factor in the green element. The Housing Sector is vital when it comes to achieving Net Zero, with the industry accountable for 40% of all emissions and 44% of social homes failing to meet adequate EPC standards. Without rapid upgrades, the UK will be hard-pressed to meet the government’s outlined decarbonisation targets. This has Housing Providers searching for ways to make their homes more energy-efficient.

These improvements may range from minor changes such as updating fans to the complete removal of outdated Heating Systems on properties that hold an insufficient EPC rating. But with an estimated 85% of social homes reliant on Gas Heating, a complete overhaul of these systems will prove to be a costly job. These Green Initiatives are a huge investment for Housing Providers but in the long-term, these advances will yield many positive outcomes for Landlords and their tenants.

There is a growing concern with such a massive focus on the specific ‘net-zero’ target – that technologies or building materials that are ultimately unfit for use might sneak in. Installing a new, more energy-efficient, form of insulation is great – but only if that insulation is easy to install and doesn’t break down within a few years. There have been plenty of examples in the last few decades of technologies being installed in properties without fully understanding the long-term implications that might have. These new energy efficiency pushes are no different – and taking a data-based approach to retrofit analysis ensures that inappropriate or badly produced products are not installed into thousands of homes with the cost of fixing it landing solely on the housing providers shoulders.

From the perspective of the Housing Provider, the development of energy-efficient homes will lower overall costs in the long term. By introducing much-needed retrofits Housing Providers are lowering the risk of disrepair claims whilst also contributing to the wellbeing of their residents. The more energy-efficient a home is, the less it is going to cost to heat. This helps reduce the resident’s reliance on fossil fuels and in supporting them through the process housing providers can help overcome rising fuel poverty levels.

While the upfront costs may seem alarming, the long-term benefits they provide will greatly make up for the short-term financial costs.

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