Since 2013, Dublin City Council has retrofitted 77 percent of its social houses, excluding flats, decking them out with extras such as draft proofing, or attic and cavity-wall insulation, to help tenants struggling to pay to keep their homes warm, and reduce carbon emissions.
But it will take 12 years to complete the retrofitting programme at the current funding levels, said Shane Hawkshaw, the council engineer in charge of the retrofitting programme, in presentations to the housing committee in December and January.
With rising energy prices and the drive to reduce carbon emissions, councillors are calling on the central government – which funds the work through the Energy Efficiency Retrofitting Programme – to frontload the money to get the job done quicker.
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said that the government has committed to ramping up funding, so it can meet its target of cutting the country’s carbon emissions by 51 percent by 2030. That will make it faster, they said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said: “Funding will be made available year on year to ensure the available budget is adequate to retrofit the target number of units.”
The department’s target is 36,000 social homes retrofitted nationally by 2030, they said.
In Dublin, an estimated 2,690 houses still need to be upgraded, Hawkshaw said.
From Cold to Cosy
For families on low incomes, things are worse than ever, says Louise Bayliss, the founder and spokesperson of Single Parents Acting for the Rights of Kids (SPARK).
Fuel poverty is one of the biggest issues faced by low-income, single-parent households, she says.
“We see families all the time talking about being limited to one room or going to bed early to cut down on fuel costs,” says Bayliss.
A member posted to their social media group recently to say that she can no longer afford to buy coal, says Bayliss.
Instead, the woman takes her children out each evening to collect scraps of wood to light the fire. The kids think it is a game, she says. “It’s terrifying to see those types of stories.”
In December 2021, Hawkshaw, the council engineer told councillors that the council has made considerable progress on retrofitting social houses so it takes less energy (and therefore, money) for tenants to keep them warm.
By the end of 2020, the council had upgraded more than 8,800 homes, leading to savings of more than €55 million for social tenants in the city, he said.
They replaced boilers, insulated attics and pipes, pumped insulation into cavity walls, tackled drafts and provided lagging jackets, said Hawkshaw at the 8 December meeting.
Tenants who got the upgrades will save an estimated €848 each year, he says. The council staff received thank you cards from some tenants.
“It’s such a good news story,” said Fianna Fáil Councillor Deirdre Heney, at a meeting of the council’s housing committee meeting on 19 January. (They ran out of time at the December meeting so they discussed the presentation in January.)
In the first phase of the social housing retrofitting programme, councils worked on those homes that could be retrofitted with simpler measures – like pumping foam into cavity walls and improving the insulation in the attic.
The average improvement achieved transformed the house from an F energy rating, which is almost the lowest, to a much cosier C3 energy rating, says a council spokesperson.
Starting this year the council will begin to tackle the houses that need deeper work, said Hawkshaw, the council engineer, at the council meeting in December.
That means homes with solid or hollow block walls so the insulation has to be wrapped around the house, rather than pumped into the walls. The council will also replace windows and door and boilers if needed and put in heat pumps.
Progress will be slower in this phase of the programme because it is more work, said Hawkshaw.
Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan asked whether the council could speed up the process so it doesn’t take 12 years, if it got more money. This could lift tenants out of energy poverty after all, he said.
“The short answer is yes,” said Hawkshaw, the council engineer. “Should funding increase that would reduce the timeframe.”
Building Energy Ratings (BERs) run from A1 to G. Progress since the scheme started in June 2013 had seen the number of E, F and G ratings shrink, and the number of B and C ratings, grow, says the Dublin City Council’s Climate Action Plan.
But in 2016, there were just seven social homes in the city with a BER of A, it says. Thirty percent of social homes were rated C3 or higher, while the most common rating was F, the plan says, for 21 percent of homes.
Independents 4 Change Councillor Pat Dunne said that many of the oldest council houses in Crumlin, Drimnagh, Ballyfermot and Finglas are in dire need of retrofitting.
Many of those houses are 70 or 80 years old, Dunne says, and have issues with dampness and condensation that can make people sick. “It’s not just fuel poverty, it’s health issues too,” he says.
Many people in Ireland are living in unsafe conditions in winter due to poor housing, says Jason McGuire, a PhD candidate at University College Cork who is researching the best ways to cut carbon emissions from homes.
It is generally those on low incomes who live in poorly insulated homes and rely on fossil fuels. “They just can’t afford to keep warm,” McGuire says.
Research shows that fuel poverty results in hospitalisations and even deaths. “Winter excess mortality has been put down to the poor quality of housing,” says McGuire.
Dunne, the Independents 4 Change councillor, says that council tenants living in the worst properties cannot wait 12 years for a retrofit, and nor can people living in council flat complexes.
The government should stump up the €83 million – the estimated cost of phase two of the programme – now and roll out the retrofitting programme as quickly as possible, he says.
Leaving the Worst for Last
Emissions from social housing make up 3.3 percent of total emissions from the city, according to Codema estimates from 2016.
Dublin City Council doesn’t have a specific target for reducing emissions from its social housing, but overall it’s aiming to meet the public-sector target of a 51 percent reduction of emissions by 2030, says a council spokesperson.
So far, the council has prioritised the quicker wins with its retrofitting programme. The Department of Housing told councils to retrofit the easier social homes first, said a spokesperson for the Department of Housing.
However, McGuire says the government should target the homes with the poorest energy ratings first. “In terms of fairness and climate justice it makes more sense to tackle those lower-rated homes.”
In Ireland, almost half of all heating emission come from homes, he says. While electricity supply is shifting towards renewable sources, heating is lagging behind, he says.
In Dublin, most of the houses that are rated A, B, C or D have gas heating, he says.
At the moment, the emissions from gas are actually similar to those from heat pumps but in time that will change, he says.
Heat pumps will become greener than gas as more of the electricity needed to power them is drawn from renewable sources like wind, says McGuire.
“If you are looking for emissions savings you are not going to tackle gas homes,” he says. “You have to look at the E, F, Gs.”
Those lower-rated homes are not only losing more heat but they are usually also using fuels that release a lot more carbon, he says.
As well as improving insulation, the government needs to support households on low incomes to change their heating systems to gas, he says.
Electricity is more sustainable, but – at around three times the price of gas – it’s too expensive at the moment to power heating, he says.
Trying to get older properties up to A and B rating can be prohibitively costly, and McGuire has heard of retrofits that cost €100,000 to achieve those ratings. “That is nearly the cost of a house,” he says.