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People’s experiences of solid wall insulation

Semi-detached houses. The exterior of house to the left is noticeably cleaner than that of the house to the right, which is very discolored.

How can insulation transform lives? Why don’t more homes install it?

Project duration: March 2010 to October 2012

Only a tiny fraction of the 7.9m homes in Britain with solid walls have had them insulated. What stops people from taking up the offer of this highly effective measure and how can it transform the lives of those struggling to keep warm?

With Government and Energy Company grants and subsidies aiming to make solid wall insulation more affordable for households, it is important to understand the factors that dissuade people from investing or taking up offers. For example, it is widely thought that the perception of the disruption caused by having this work done might be a major factor in putting people off.

This research study, funded by the eaga Charitable Trust, provided an early qualitative evaluation of householder experience, before, during and after the installation of solid wall insulation. The 11 households studied took part in a pilot solid wall insulation scheme called ‘Freedom From Fuel Poverty’ (FFFP) which was funded by Bath & North East Somerset Council and ran from August 2009 to December 2010. This project built on the pilot study aiming to find out:

The report can be downloaded here. Eaga Charitable Trust has produced a shorter research summary of the report which you can download here.

Semi-detached houses. The exterior of house to the left is noticeably cleaner than that of the house to the right, which is very discolored.
External solid wall insulation has the added benefit of improving the house’s appearance, as shown on the left-hand property.

Coping with the cold

The project began by exploring the ways in which people try to stay warm in cold and difficult to heat solid walled property. We found numerous strategies including not using several rooms of their houses, warming the body rather than the space, going to bed early, and in one extreme case, staying out of the house altogether as much as possible, having found it so difficult or expensive to keep the house warm.

The impact of insulation

The impacts of the measure were profound, immediately affecting all aspects of comfort and lifestyle. After solid wall insulation, all households noticed changes to their comfort and lifestyle. They described their home as ‘warming up more quickly’, and ‘holding the heat’ for longer. Behaviours also changed significantly, with people reporting using the whole house, including rooms they used to avoid, and spending more time at home.

Some of the people in the study had heated their homes to comfortable levels before solid wall insulation. Amongst this group, those with thermostatically controlled heating systems reported turning down the heating after installation. This is a puzzling finding at first: why should the same thermostatically controlled air temperature become experienced as uncomfortably warm following the installation of the solid wall measure? On reflection, it shows that comfort is determined by more than just air temperature – the solid wall insulation had an influence on other determinants of comfort by removing cold spots, reducing convection currents and drafts, and increasing the temperature of walls thereby reducing radiant heat loss.

All of this should result in energy savings as well as making the house much more comfortable. Other households had been deliberately under-heated to save money. The impact of solid wall insulation on these householders was more likely to be an increased level of comfort rather than a saving on energy bills.

Other benefits reported included:

Therefore, unlike many invisible efficiency measures, solid wall insulation lends itself to being marketed as a ‘home improvement’. All of these benefits should be communicated to householders and considered when designing solid wall insulation schemes.

Was solid wall insulation as disruptive as people feared?

The 11 participants reported that they were all prepared for some level of disruption during installation, and the actual disruption caused fell within their expectations. In short, apart from some ‘mess’ left by contractors and a desire for better onsite management in some cases, having SWI installed was not as disruptive as people had feared. Any disruption caused was considered to be worth it for the benefits their new insulation delivered. If this is properly communicated, more households may be willing to invest in solid wall insulation.

Offering high levels of grants for solid wall insulation seemed to lead to many people growing suspicious and thinking the offer must be ‘too good to be true’. The most successful marketing technique proved to be a doorstep flyer drop by a B&NES council officer, which added credibility and directness. People seeing the work being carried out on neighbouring properties was also key to uptake.

A positive experience

In the main, this qualitative study found uniformly positive attitudes to both the experience of installing solid wall insulation and its subsequent impacts on comfort and lifestyle. All but one of the participants in this pilot study said they would recommend solid wall insulation to others. If marketed appropriately, this type of home improvement has the potential to benefit many people living in fuel poverty.

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