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Doctor's orders - The complex relationship between energy retrofits and human health

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Photo by David Gonzales from Pexels

There is no shortage of anecdotal evidence that home energy retrofits, done well, can improve the health of those who receive them — and equally there are horror stories about shoddy upgrades causing damp, mould and illness. But what does the evidence say about how energy upgrades effect occupant health, and what lessons can be learned for the future of how we renovate our homes? Kate de Selincourt reports.

In July, the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee released a report which was highly critical of the current lack of progress in building energy efficiency work, particularly in England. The report urged a seven-fold increase in the installation rate. “A major upgrade of the energy performance of the UK’s entire building stock will be a fundamental pillar of any credible strategy to reach net zero emissions, to address fuel poverty and cut energy bills,” the committee told the government.”


This report followed close on the heels of the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendations for new and existing homes which, unsurprisingly, also urged the government to increase the uptake of energy efficiency measures.


Whether or not the UK government chooses to act on this advice is anyone’s guess. However, if it does, there are expected to be numerous benefits besides emissions reduction. One of the obvious benefits would be improved public health.


A calculation by BRE that poor housing in the UK costs the NHS £2.5bn per year is often cited. The assumption is that fixing the housing will avert this expenditure – a reasonable assumption, given the strong association between poor health, and excess winter deaths, with poor quality housing. However, this is only an assumption.


Anecdotally, there is evidence that home energy improvements can indeed improve health. For example, when social landlord Gentoo began to replace boilers and insulate tenants’ homes, they were struck by how often customers said their health improved. “Families reported being happier and their wellbeing had increased. Not just in one or two homes, but in home after home, street after street. We were being inundated with huge amounts of anecdotal evidence to suggest the biggest difference we had made since retrofitting the home was to the health of our customers.”


This is far from the only study to recorded positive health outcomes from home energy interventions. Researchers asked tenants of Nottingham City Homes about their health and satisfaction before and after the external wall insulation was fitted. They too said their health had improved, with statistically significant improvements in mental well-being, including reduced anxiety, and reduced use of NHS services.


Meanwhile, charity National Energy Action (NEA) co-ordinated a range of heating and insulation measures for several thousand fuel poor households living in inefficient dwellings, and over 700 were asked about their experiences before and after the measures were installed. Over a third said their physical health had improved, with just a few (6%) saying their health had worsened, and the rest reporting no change – in other words, a trend towards better health after energy retrofit.


Read the full article here.