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Ecobuild 2014 – Signs of Life After the Bubble?

The Friday after Ecobuild is always something of a time for rest and reflection. Thinking back over the last few days, I have to say it was one of the more interesting Ecobuild exhibitions I have been to for a number of unexpected reasons. There were some great sessions of course, some interesting stands, and no shortage of innovative products on show. But it was the general tone and atmosphere that most grabbed my attention.

Last year was all about the Green Deal bubble. Very few stands failed to have some literature or branding on them related to the scheme, and few talks failed to mention those two words at some point. Many exhibitors and speakers also focussed significant effort on promoting their offers around the Energy Company Obligation. This year, for fairly well rehearsed reasons, those two schemes were much less prominent on the stands at Ecobuild. But in spite of all the problems that we’ve all experienced over the last year as the Green Deal and ECO have faltered, my over-whelming sense was of an industry that has really grown up, and that there may well be some strong foundations being built for the future of retrofit.

Firstly, there was a lot of discussion and debate around how we make retrofit work beyond the narrow confines of Government schemes. I think one thing the last year has taught us all is that we cannot rely, long term, on an unpredictable policy landscape to build our business. For example, from a Parity perspective, we had some very interesting conversations around the theme that, in the absence of ECO, there is now all the more reason for social housing providers to ensure that the money they still have to invest is spent as cost-effectively as possible. Gone, perhaps forever, are the days when works can be 100% grant-funded. Now, it will be those that can effectively integrate retrofit into their wider asset management, and repairs and maintenance programmes that will be able to continue delivering warmer, better homes to their tenants.

Secondly, there was a real theme emerging on the stands and on speaking platforms around the need to focus on standards. In many ways, the grant-driven structure of the industry over recent years has led to a “fast and cheap” culture. Now, in the face of smaller volumes – at least in the short term – there is a welcome return to the quality retrofit. There is plenty of evidence out there now that retrofit done quickly and at low cost rarely delivers the expected benefits and, more worryingly, brings with it long-term risks to the very integrity of the buildings we’re trying to improve. That realisation is spreading, evidenced by the huge footfall we saw at the Better Retrofit Partnership stand.

Sure, perhaps I’m searching for the silver lining to what has been an incessant stream of dark clouds. But I think, and hope, that these observations hold true. The Green Deal bubble has well and truly burst. But if there’s one thing that the financial crisis has taught us, economic bubbles can be very dangerous things. If the result of the last year’s turmoil is an industry that is more self-reliant, determined, and committed to doing things properly, then that’s all good with me. The scale will come in time, I have no doubt (especially if the Big Energy Idea comes to fruition), and we’ll be much better prepared for it.

Image courtesy of SuButcher via Flickr