Superhomes in Ireland!

by Blog

In June 2019 as part of the development of People Powered Retrofit, Jonathan Atkinson (Carbon Co-op) and Marianne Heaslip (URBED) took the boat and then train to Nenagh, Tipperary to learn more about the Superhomes Ireland programme and the work Tipperary Energy Agency are doing to deliver whole house retrofit works at scale. In the process we learnt a lot about the organisational requirements for a successful retrofit delivery service to work at scale as well as picking up a lot of information on the large scale roll out of air source heat pumps. 

Cloughjordan eco village – all new build homes

We were warmly welcomed by staff from Tipp Energy Agency and our visit began with a series of presentations at the Cloughjordan Eco Village just outside of Nenagh, Tipperary. Also present was a representative from the heat de-carobonsiation team at ESB Ireland’s main energy utility. 

The Energy Agency model, common around Europe, involves an arms length, not-for-profit social enterprise, commonly linked to local authorities and operating across a geographical area such as a city region, a county or a region. Tipp Energy Agency have been in existence since 2000 and have 30 members of staff having grown markedly in the past few years. They carry out a range of activities including community building energy upgrades, small scale renewables development and offering support to the agricultural sector. 

Meeting the team

The Superhomes programme is Tipp Energy Agency’s whole house delivery brand (not to be confused with the Superhomes network in the UK!), incorporating independent expert advice, grants, trained contractors and quality control it has been influenced by the ‘one stop shop’ approach pioneered by Picardie Pass Renovation in France.  

The scale of the programme has grown hugely over the past four year, with the number of homes completed roughly double each year since 2015: 10 in 2015, 22 in 2016, 42 in 2017, 81 in 2018 and a projected 160 in 2019. The scope has grown to include most of Ireland with a large number of homes delivered in the Dublin area. The growth of each year has been based on learning from past programmes with an evolving offer and service delivery structure – responding to experience and emerging needs rather than spending a long time designing a ‘perfect’ system and then launching, an approach in keeping with our Service Design philosophy. 

The scheme has been assisted by the Irish Government SEA (Sustainable Energy Agency) whole house retrofit pilot funding programme. The scheme offers 50% grants on whole house retrofit projects and 95% for homes in fuel poverty (though fuel poor homes are limited to 20% of the total funded). There are a number of limitations involved in the scheme, for example only certain measures identified by an up front assessment are qualifiable, the retrofit plan has to be approved by the agency which can hold up a project for weeks and householders pay for work themselves upfront with the grant paid on completion and independent inspection. 

Notwithstanding these conditions, the funding programme has had a transformative effect on the retrofit supply chain market in Ireland with over 1,000 homes completed over the course of the three year pilot and the fully established programme starting in 2020. 

Measures delivered

Ireland’s housing stock differs markedly from the UK’s. In Ireland there are a total of 2.1m homes, in contrast there are 1.2m homes in Greater Manchester alone. Much of the housing is rural and relatively newer than the ageing stock here in the UK. In many rural areas heating systems are off gas grid, burning peat briquettes or turf cut from the land is common – with consequent impacts on both carbon emissions and the health of occupants.

Householders applying for the scheme are carefully vetted by Superhomes staff to ensure they have appropriate expectations and inappropriate properties are filtered out, for example heritage properties where the risks of insulating stone walls are less well understood. If all looks good homes progress on to an assessment carried out by a Superhomes engineer and householders are then presented with a menu of options of measures and improvements to choose from. 

Works are put out to tender to find a single lead contractor per home using builders Tipp Energy Agency has already engaged with and are on their framework. On occasion to contractors the householder has been working with.

Building a competent supply chain

As in the UK, there are supply chain challenges including insufficient contractors to meet demand within the construction industry as a whole (affected by Irish economic context of a pick up in the industry over the last 18 months), a lack of specialist energy efficiency skills and the fact that energy efficiency techniques sometimes go against the grain of what established contractors think is the ‘right way’ to do things. 

Tipp Energy Agency supports contractors to acquire relevant manufacturer approvals and certifications and carries out bespoke training and on site inspections to improve quality. In general, a small number of their contractors deliver multiple homes over the programme whilst a larger number just deliver a single home during an annual cycle. Competent contractors are then supported to slowly increase their workload and to take on additional homes the following year.  

Slowly, overtime a competent, skilled supply chain is being built facilitated by the Superhomes programme and the SEA funding scheme. 

Bill savings

Superhomes aims to reduce energy bills for householders by between 50-80%. Typical works include external wall insulation, new windows, air tightness measures, ventilation and new heating systems. 

Tipp Energy Agency have a strong commitment to taking action on climate change and have a moratorium on installing new fossil fuel derived heating systems such as gas boilers, focussing instead on heat pumps (see below).  

After our classroom-based introduction to the programme at Cloughjordan we got to see things on the ground the following day with a tour of a retrofit in the village. The work was of excellent quality and the Aereco ventilation system and Mitsubishi Ecodan heat pump were working well. We were joined by a Limerick-based workplace training social enterprise interested in replicating the Superhomes model. 

The following day we travelled to Dublin and met with Aereco, designers and manufacturers of ventilation systems. There we were shown round a fantastic whole house retrofit delivered under the same SEA scheme (but by a different intermediary to Superhomes) and featuring a whole house Aereco ventilation system that the householder was very pleased with. 

Heat Pumps 

Air source heat pumps extract latent heat from the air and use it to heat water that can be piped around a home – they operate a bit like a refrigerator in reverse. They use electricity to power a fan and so extract the heat and the ratio between the electricity used and the heat delivered is called the Coefficient of Performance (COP), a ‘good’ COP is anything like 3 upwards ie for every 1 watt of electricity used to extract heat 3 watts of heat is delivered. Heat pumps are generally used in a different manner to gas heating, they provide good base load but lower water temperatures and should be used in combination with a water store. 

To date, heat pumps have had a bad rap in the UK with an Energy Savings Trust report indicating low COP performance. Until recently, in carbon terms alone it has been more efficient to install a gas boiler than a heat pump but the rapid decarbonisation of the electricity grid has begun to change that equation. 

The growing number of Superhomes with air source heat pumps provide an ideal test bed to better understand the technology and the conclusion from the evaluation data available is that they’ve done very well in performance terms with an average COP across the programme of 3.4. The key learning is that heat pumps perform badly when oversized and inappropriately installed. Successful installations start at the assessment stage when engineers collect detailed heat data relating to every room in the house. 

As a result, a very accurate heat loss model based on whole system design informs the sizing and specification of the system, setting aside the tendency of some to oversize systems in an effort to mitigate risk. 

Heat emitters ie radiators, are appropriately sized. Due to the lower heated water temperature they are larger than standard radiators, but experimentation and testing has found that standard, widely available steel radiators work best with no need to go for aluminium or expensive underfloor options. 
Secondly, the close relationship between Tipp Energy Agency and the installers they work with with a high level of oversight and quality control means the installations are of a high quality. 

The learning from this heat pump installation programme is contained within a forthcoming report, Superhomes 2.0 co-authored with Limerick Institute of Technology. The report includes a startling evaluation of the ‘Beast from the East’ cold snap that took place in 2018 and in which the Superhomes heat pumps outperformed conventional heating systems. 

This is a fascinating area of investigation and it has influenced our thinking on the kinds of heating systems we will specify going forward.

Learning from the visit

Our visit to Ireland was absolutely fascinating and has greatly informed the design of People Powered Retrofit.  

Tipp Energy Agency’s work, with its clear focus on service delivery and meeting the needs of householders, has shown how a viable retrofit market can be created and with People Powered Retrofit in mind it was useful to see the roles necessary to build an effective retrofit service team. 

It was interesting to contrast the approach of Carbon Co-op and URBED to Tipp Energy Agency. Many of the staff at Superhomes come from an engineering background, taking a pragmatic approach to detailing and air-tightness – questioning what is ‘good enough’ to reduce building physics risks and to meet the needs of decarbonising the energy system, we come instead from an architectural background with a greater emphasis on fabric upgrades whilst in Ireland they have the luxury of being able to focus on more modern buildings than we generally have in the UK and their focus on services and in particular heat pumps makes a lot of sense in context of oil and turf burning. 

With this in mind we’re planning to extend our collaboration with further knowledge sharing and hopefully a few more visits. 

We’d like to thank all the staff at Tipperary Energy Agency for making us feel so welcome over the course of the visit, in particular Paul, Orla, Declan and Dave; and also Aereco showing us around Dublin. 

15.08.2019 UPDATE

The point has been made many times that for an emerging service such as retrofit to grow, policy stability and certainty is essential and the Irish market has grown strongly on the back of government support. But that stability has abruptly come to a halt, the SEA overspent the 2019 grant yet kept advertising it for new applications. As a result Superhomes, their contractors and a raft of householders are now marooned, with works committed but no grant to subsidise them. Needless to say there has been an uproar in Ireland. Our firm hope is that the SEA will see sense and reverse this decision immediately. The better news is whilst the scheme was always designed as a three year pilot, a full programme will commence, though not for another 18 months. As Tipp Energy Agency make clear in their statement, this creates uncertainty for householders and a growing supply chain and in climate change terms we simply don’t have the time to mess about. Read their statement in full here: 

19.08.2019 UPDATE

Looks like the SEA and the Irish government have had that re-think and all the existing applications will (hopefully) be honoured with a new scheme coming in 2020: