Residents in North East London who are part of the POWER — a ‘show & do’ project to kick start a “grassroots Green New Deal”. Photo credit — Hilary Powell and Dan Edelstyn

Can we start a Community-Powered Retrofit Revolution?

Dark Matter
7 min readDec 7, 2023

We need to rethink our approach to retrofit.

If you know anything about retrofit, you’ve probably heard this line plenty of times. The UK has one of the oldest and leakiest housing stocks in western Europe, and we need to retrofit 27 million homes by 2050 — approximately 1.5 homes per minute for the next 27 years.

This is necessary not only to reach our legally binding Net Zero targets but to ensure healthy, comfortable and affordable homes in a rapidly changing climate.

You may also know that progress on retrofit is stalling. Each winter millions of UK residents experience the physical and mental health effects of living in damp, mouldy and expensive homes. Overheating is increasingly becoming an issue.

There’s a lot of discussion about the multiple barriers to retrofit and why it’s often left in the ‘too hard to do’ pile: it’s expensive, disruptive and even if we can afford it, many of us simply don’t have enough trust in a good outcome to start the journey. It’s also clear that existing government-funded retrofit programmes have under-delivered and under-spent.

Yet our research with HEAL and London Councils found that people up and down the country aren’t waiting for government action. Building on the existing fabric of community groups, cooperatives, community land trusts, neighbourhood regeneration initiatives and other social infrastructures, people are organising themselves to make their and their neighbours’ homes healthier and more climate resilient.

Communities are sharing information, organising entire streets and neighbourhoods to retrofit together, offering simple DIY retrofit measures for free, turning their homes into power stations and forming local cooperatives that bring together householders, building professionals and tradespeople to generate retrofit demand and deliver high quality home improvements.

Putting residents and communities at the heart of retrofit

We believe that neighbourhoods can drive forward a nationwide movement to accelerate the uptake and delivery of retrofit and make our homes, communities and social infrastructure more fit for the future. Empowering people to retrofit together and transform their neighbourhood will provide significant other benefits, including good quality local jobs, better health and wellbeing, stronger local economies and community wealth and resilience.

A community-powered retrofit approach proposes four fundamental shifts in the way retrofit programmes are designed and delivered:

Individual customers → collective mobilisation

Design approaches that bring people together

Extractive finance and grants → local economic value

Invest in our local economies and communities

Standardised process → user centred journey

Design the retrofit offer around the resident experience, not around a Net Zero policy objective

Focus on ‘measures’ delivered → focus on outcomes

Contract for actual objectives — healthier and more comfortable homes and reduced carbon emissions

The focus of community powered retrofit is to mobilise local residents, communities, and stakeholders to be an integral part of designing and delivering retrofit programmes. At present most retrofit programmes view so called ‘community engagement’ as a cost line to be minimised. However there are significant benefits to investing in a place-based, community-powered approach:

  • Significantly increased participation and power of collective action
  • Unlocking latent capacity, developing local skills and supply chains
  • Achieving replicability and economies of scale through co-location, bulk purchasing or typological approaches and potentially reduced disruption
  • Developing locally relevant responses that maximise co-benefits
  • Greater continuity and less dependence on (often inconsistent or shifting) policy

Retrofit Balsall Heath is a partnership of local groups in the inner city neighbourhood in Birmingham. It has been incredibly successful in signing up households to participate in the City Council-led programme of ‘Local Area Development Scheme’ grant-funded retrofit works. The approach has involved mobilising a coalition of local community and faith organisations to galvanise support on a street-by-street basis and seeking to support the process throughout where feasible. Although the constraints of the programme design and funding has created issues, the approach has demonstrated that there is demand from residents for improvements to their homes. Traditional approaches using letter/leaflet drops typically achieve very low response rates and don’t build the trust that is needed for residents to stay the course.

A ‘street cake’ made by a resident of Link Rd. in Birmingham as part of a co-creation week around neighbourhood climate transitions hosted by CIVIC SQUARE

We propose five key building blocks to growing a community-powered retrofit movement. Each of these can — and should — be adapted to the unique context of each community and neighbourhood and its housing characteristics, history, ownership and local wishes.

  1. Movement building
    Community members and leaders come together to set the vision and communicate the foundation for neighbourhood transformation and a shared mission for better homes and futures. This builds knowledge and trust, develops neighbourhood-level infrastructure for communication, engagement and action and encourages collective action. In Oldham, Carbon Coop worked with local people to establish a citizen-led approach to transform their neighbourhood and energy system. Groups also need to learn from each other. We’ve been working with many others in establishing the Retrofit Reimagined Festival as a vehicle to build this movement.
  2. Training and upskilling
    Every community initiative integrates a plan for professional development of community members and upskilling of existing tradespeople to contribute to delivery of neighbourhood retrofit. This demonstrates that retrofit can support the local economy and provide good jobs, helps people to start on the journey to becoming skilled professionals and amplifies existing and latent talent among community members. Civic Square has initiated a local trade school in Birmingham to develop both the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills needed to support neighbourhood transitions. We Can Make has established a local factory to construct building components and a parallel skills programme. B4Box is an integrated training provider retrofitting homes in areas affected by fuel poverty, training local people particularly those who face challenges in finding work.
  3. Whole life design and journey planning
    Residents, builders, planners, architects, building surveyors, placemaking and energy system professionals work together to design individual and collective neighbourhood transformations toward holistic long-term goals rather than quick fixes. There are many technology platforms to support this such as Furbnow. For centralised grant-based programmes, successful delivery should be based on outcomes rather than on inputs.
  4. Making finance work for places
    Community groups can advocate for community wealth building approaches and explore options for local finance, including community energy, solar and other forms of cooperatives, collaborations with credit unions and fair and low-cost financing such as municipal bonds. There are successful crowdfunding and share offers.
  5. Local transition entities or coalitions
    Retrofit programmes will take many years to deliver, and existing or new community-based entities should be established to support the area-based approach. These should be governed inclusively to provide access to all parts of the community and help to retain local control and economic benefits. Carbon Coop, Energy Communities Tipperary Coop and Cosy Homes Oxfordshire are demonstrating approaches in this space. Many community-owned energy cooperatives provide retrofit support to their areas, for example SELCE, West Oxford Community Renewables and Low Carbon West Oxford amongst others.

There is no one-size-fits all approach to community-powered retrofit. However there are some concrete actions that can be taken now.

  1. Residents and existing community groups can establish forums to share knowledge and skills, approach their local authority and explore existing funding such as the Energy Redress Scheme. There are already over 400 community energy groups in the UK, many of which are involved in retrofit activities.
  2. Local government and philanthropic funders should look to initiate or strengthen street or neighbourhood-scale projects by:
  • Identifying current community activity in retrofit or parallel domains (e.g. greening and gardening projects)
  • Working with local organisations and areas with known strong social networks to design, trial or build up existing street-scale schemes
  • Committing additional resource to support existing communities to build capacity and develop resilience for sustained action
  • Partnering with a broad range of cross-LA departments and agencies to develop skills, organisational and technical capacity

3. All layers of government can enhance existing programmes by:

  • Building trust and capacity in community partners and supporting new initiatives so that they are ready for future investment
  • Developing a spatial focus aligned to community partners
  • Including community partners in the bidding process from the outset
  • Understanding where CPR principles could integrate with grant programmes and in-house borough retrofit programmes
  • Partnering with trusted community-based intermediaries to expand the reach of existing programmes increasing uptake
  • Encouraging collaboration and co-design to ensure longevity of scheme measures and interventions available
Retrofit Balsall Heat — Neighbours attending a Housing protest march campaigning for retrofitting and better housing standards

Working collectively is the only way to work

Retrofit is challenging. Acceptance of change accelerates when people see and experience change together, learn from each other and see the benefits that the change is bringing. By building momentum from the ground up across our cities, towns, villages and communities, we are planting the seeds for demand, building trust and shaping an approach to retrofit that will not only improve our homes and reduce carbon emissions but build social resilience and reframe the narrative around the climate transition as a pathway to a better future.

We are hoping that the next phase of Community Powered Retrofit will work with existing community groups to develop a replicable model and resource to enable and empower community retrofit groups around the country. We are looking for funders and existing groups to help bring this to life. Will you join us?

For further information on our work on retrofit see our Medium channel. Here is a link to this report. See also links to related podcasts:

Accelerate to Zero: Retrofit Balsall Heath with John Christophers;

Accelerate to Zero: Neighbourhood Transitions with Civic Square;

Accelerate to Zero: Homebaked CLT

This work was commissioned by London Councils and authored by Dan Hill, Cat Magill and Jack Minchella from Dark Matter Labs and Sara Edmonds and Dave Powis at Home Energy Action Lab.



Dark Matter

Designing 21st Century Dark Matter for a Decentralised, Distributed & Democratic tomorrow; part of @infostructure00