The Green Homes Grant
In summer 2020 the government announced the new Green Homes Grant to fund energy & carbon saving measures in England. The news came quite suddenly, and included a deadline of March 2021 for the funding to be spent. This implied that one key motivation was an injection of cash into the coronavirus-hit economy. In November 2020 an extension of the scheme to March 2022 was announced, although we don’t yet know the full details of this.
More attention on home retrofits is of course welcome, because they’re a vital part of a zero carbon future. In CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain report we called for a mass retrofit of almost all existing buildings. By doing so we can then use renewable energy to meet our reduced heating needs as well as other electricity demands.
To be successful, this initial funding pot must be only the seed for an expanded and ongoing retrofit programme. The quality of supposed improvements could easily be compromised by lots of people rushing for a cut of the support before the deadline.
We need to create jobs in home refurbishment, but the short timescale of this scheme has been a concern. A longer term commitment is necessary to give companies the confidence to invest in proper training and accreditation. After the scheme started we saw news stories about just this issue. In some places people can’t find installers, and some companies are reluctant to commit to the accreditation.
How much is available?
If you’re on a qualifying benefit scheme you can claim a voucher for up to £10,000 of all eligible costs. Otherwise, homeowners or private & social sector landlords can claim two-thirds of eligible costs up to a £5,000 limit. One quarter of the total pot is for local authorities, to bolster existing programmes for low-income households in the worst-performing houses (EPC band E or below).
The government has estimated that the £2 billion total would cover improvements to about 600,000 houses. That’s about 2.5% of the 23 million households in England (with 4.5 million more homes in other regions). It could be a good start but much more is needed to get all our homes on the path to zero carbon.
The Green Homes Grant is only available if you live in England. Other regions manage their own programmes, usually supporting households claiming certain government benefits. In addition, Home Energy Scotland provide interest-free loans to all homeowners for energy efficiency and renewable energy. Sometimes you can claim back a proportion of the loan, like a grant. Within Wales, residents of Powys and Rhondda Cynon Taf can get interest free home improvement loans.
What is eligible?
You must put at least half of the grant towards one of more of these:
- insulation of walls (solid or cavity), floor, loft, or roof (flat or pitched);
- low-carbon heating from a heat pump or pellet boiler, or solar water heating.
Then you can use an equivalent or smaller amount for:
- draught proofing, heating controls, and hot water tank insulation;
- replacing (or improving) single glazed windows or doors (if they predate 2002).
The grant covers the increase, but not replacement, of existing insulation “to the recommended level” – so probably only the minimum under building regulations.
If claiming for low-carbon heating, your home will need “adequate” wall and loft insulation. To get funding, a heat pump or biomass boiler must replace heating from fossil-fuels (which I assume includes mains electricity).
If claiming for low carbon heating you can also apply for the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), to get support payments over seven years. However, any grant you get will then be deducted from your RHI payments – so would only help with upfront costs.
What to consider if applying
Getting a good initial survey is key – one that’s much more detailed than an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC). A whole house retrofit survey should yield a robust ‘fabric first’ plan, and avoid the risk of measures that are inappropriate or applied in the wrong order.
If you can’t implement it all straight away, have the plan broken down into steps. For each step, allow for the dovetailing of later measures. Little details are important – such as deciding where the airtight layer will be.
A decent home retrofit goes beyond minimum insulation levels. Hopefully the administration of the grant will allow you to put in a little more of your own money and add a thicker layer where appropriate.
To be successful, insulation and draught-proofing must accompany suitable ventilation measures. Ideally you set a high standard for airtightness and then provide intentional ventilation. The grant brief mentions draught-proofing, but the building regulations minimum is well below best practice for airtightness.
Swapping a gas boiler for a heat pump could be possible with this grant. However, the first priority should always be to reduce energy use. Moving to widespread use of heat pumps without minimising heat loss will greatly increase electricity demand – making a zero carbon grid more difficult.
Read our page on heat pumps for more advice on the importance of designing a heating system with low flow temperatures. To make a heat pump a good low carbon option, you’ll usually need to upgrade your existing radiators. The grant can cover the cost of new high capacity radiators or underfloor heating pipes.
Learning from past mistakes
Cavity wall insulation is usually beneficial, but in some cases it has exacerbated damp problems. Homes at risk tend to have underlying construction or maintenance issues, and be prone to driving rain. Insulation measures can fail if they’re added without a proper survey to identify existing defects. The same problems can occur with solid wall insulation, especially internally.
The wrong approach to insulating a building can make it worse rather than better. You need someone who will first identify and fix any potential problems with the building fabric. This is more important than getting in by the grant deadline. A bad insulation job can create an unhealthy home and lead to expensive remedial work.
External insulation is a good retrofit option for many homes. However, the weather expected in late winter carries more risk of damp insulation, or adding it to a damp wall. It’s unclear if there will be any leeway to schedule in or begin works, but finish them out after the March deadline. Make sure there’s a plan for managing moisture risks.
Using natural-fibre insulation can support the control of moisture levels within the building fabric, by encouraging breathability. However, the knowledge of accredited local installers could limit your choice of insulation materials.
Some insulation schemes have failed in the past because of unrealistic deadlines and lack of proper installer training. It can take years to start to address the damage to people’s homes.
Under grant guidelines, installers must have Trustmark or MCS accreditation (the latter for heating options). These are government endorsed but not government backed, which means that any problems have to be resolved by the accreditation body.
It is important to be aware of potential pitfalls, and take care to avoid them. There are also many examples of home energy efficiency measures that improved comfort levels and led to long-term financial and environmental savings.
More advice from CAT
For more advice about planning home retrofits and addressing the risks mentioned here see our other pages on eco-renovation measures. See in particular our advice on a whole house eco-retrofit. You can also contact me with any further questions.
Further links and support
To apply for the Green Homes Grant or to identify other financial support, see the government’s Simple Energy Advice site.
The Goverment has published more information on eligibility and measures covered by the Green Homes Grant. See for example a document on what the grant voucher does and does not cover.
The Government’s TrustMark scheme list retrofit co-ordinators & assessors that are accredited under the scheme. For heating systems, installers are listed on the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS).
For local support see the Community Energy Hub directory. Some of the organisations listed there can offer energy surveys, recommend good installers they’ve worked with, or promote local case studies.
The AECB promotes sustainable building and retrofit, and their member listings can be filtered for graduates from their Carbonlite retrofit training. Or see the Passivhaus Trust (with EnerPHit for retrofits). Another listing site for green builders is the Green Register.
This page was written by CAT’s Information Officer Joel Rawson. You can contact me with further questions (choose ‘free information service’ on the form).
Related QuestionsWhat is breathability?
This can be a confusing term for two reasons. Firstly because it refers to moisture not air and secondly because the exact physical processes which go on in a building are complicated (and still being researched). However the metaphor of breathing captures the important idea of continual movement. Moisture in itself might not matter, as long as it doesn’t take up permanent residence in your walls.
Broadly, breathability is the ability to buffer moisture – to soak it up and then release it – thus avoiding a situation where water vapour is retained by the fabric of a building. The technical term for this property is hygroscopic. Natural materials tend to be more hygroscopic than synthetic ones. The term “vapour permeable” also gets used in this context, referring to materials that allow water vapour to pass through at a certain rate.
A breathable construction will be made up of a gradation of vapour permeable materials, with the materials towards the inside being less vapour permeable than the materials towards the outside. A rule of thumb is that the material on the inside (warm side) should have five times the vapour resistance of the material on the outside (cold side). Without using a very high resistance material such as polyethylene or foil-backed board, this can be achieved with a suitable vapour-check layer on the warm side of the insulation. This layer slows down the passage of moisture to a safe level.
The construction also needs to be airtight on the inside to ensure the vapour-check layer works as intended. So it’s important to not put gaps in the vapour check layer for services (wires, etc), and instead have a thin space for these services between the vapour check and the internal finish (e.g. plasterboard). The final layer of external cladding might be waterproof (such as tiles) but there must be a ventilated gap between this and the sheathing board that actually completes the breathable construction.
In a UK-type climate the interior of a house usually has a higher relative humidity (RH) than the outside because it contains people exhaling, cooking, and washing. It’s a very general rule that, left to themselves, things will always migrate from an area of higher concentration to one of lower concentration, so there will be movement of water vapour towards the outside (or, to be more technical, the interior has a higher vapour pressure).
At times of high interior RH, water vapour will enter the walls, lowering the RH (both high and low RH cause problems and the ideal range is 40-60%). At times of lower interior RH, almost all of the water vapour will migrate back into the interior to be taken away by air currents. Any water vapour that might have managed to penetrate the wall deeply will be drawn out towards the exterior because of the lower permeability of the outer layers, so no harm done. Any water coming in from the outside will be unable to get very far as it is pushing through layers of decreasing permeability. The breathability of materials interacts with both temperature (which affects RH) and ventilation (one of whose functions is to carry away water vapour).
There are basically three different types of insulation material:
- Organic – those derived from natural vegetation or similar renewable sources, which tend to require a low energy use in manufacture (a low ‘embodied energy’). Examples are sheep’s wool, cellulose, cork, wood fibre, and hemp.
- Inorganic – derived from naturally occurring minerals which are non-renewable but plentiful at source. Likely to have a higher embodied energy than organic materials. Examples are mineral/glass fibre, perlite and vermiculite (from volcanic rock) and rigid foamed glass.
- Fossil organic – derived by chemical processes from fossilised vegetation (oil) – a finite resource. Fossil organic insulation materials such as expanded polystyrene and polyisocyanurate or phenolic foam are highly processed, resulting in a high embodied energy.
Which is best?
If possible it is better to choose insulation materials that have not been heavily processed as this will reduce the carbon footprint and environmental impact of your home. But it is far better to install cheaper inorganic or fossil organic materials with the right physical properties and a low thermal conductivity than to install nothing at all.
In many cases, organic insulation material can be applied instead of inorganic or fossil organic, but there are exceptions. For example, there is not an organic insulation material suitable for cavity wall insulation.
Think also about the ease of installation. Loose fill insulation is quick to put in in lofts, but cannot be DIY installed in anything other than a flat place. Rigid boards and batts will come in certain sizes, but need to be cut to shape if you have some unusual spaces. Some materials can be cut with a knife, but a few will need a saw. Some mineral wool now comes in a thin foil or plastic wrap, to protect from the fibres. You should still wear a face mask when installing any type of installation, as small fibres of any kind are best not inhaled.
The first two of the following four methods involve adding insulation to the outside of the roof, so will be suitable if there is little headroom underneath, or if access is difficult. The second two involve adding insulation underneath the roof. If insulating on top of a flat roof, make sure that it still drains well so that water does not pool on top.
Upside Down or Inverted Roof
An ‘upside down’ roof uses waterproof insulation on the outside of the building structure. The insulation is laid over the existing waterproof membrane and held down with something – which could be pebbles, turf (for a green roof), paving slabs, etc. Suitable insulation materials will tend to be a bit more expensive, and include cork, foamed glass and closed-cell plastic foam. You’ll need to check that the structure can bear the weight of the insulation and finish. This option keeps the existing membrane, but there is a risk that water will percolate through the insulation and so cool down the roof deck – causing condensation.
A warm roof will have the insulation laid over a vapour control layer (itself over the roof deck), with a membrane laid over the insulation and suitable finish on top. You’ll need to check that the structure can bear the weight of the insulation and finish. If you are replacing the roof membrane anyway, then this will be a better solution than the ‘upside down’ roof (above), as it will keep water above the insulation and so keep the roof decking warm. You could still keep the existing membrane underneath the insulation if it would be difficult to remove.
The insulation is put between the roof joists. A ventilated gap needs to be retained between the top of the insulation and the roof decking, to avoid condensation build-up. It can be difficult to get adequate ventilation, so this method is often not recommended.
A method similar to dry-lining of walls can be used, with a plasterboard/insulation board added to the underside of the internal roof, below the joists.
A ‘cold loft’ roof, with the insulation at ceiling level (laid flat in the floor of the loft) is generally the most economical, and easy to install. However, if you want to insulate in the slope of a roof in order to make use of the space, then here are some tips.
The most economical way of achieving a good thickness of insulation in the roof slope is to have two layers of timber, one supporting the roof finish and another supporting the insulation and ceiling finish. To reduce cold-bridging, timber I-Beams can be used in new constructions. In an existing roof (with rafters supported on roof beams), the second layer of timbers (ceiling joists) can be hung off the rafters using hardboard, ply or timber ‘hangers’, or nailed crosswise to them, or they can span between the roof beams. This technique can also be used with flat roofs.
An air space of 50mm must be left between the insulation and the tiling felt, unless the felt is of a low-vapour resistance type. If using a breathable membrane, with insulation up against it, then above the membrane you would put counter battens (top to bottom) as well as the standard battens (side to side), for adequate ventilation beneath the tiles. Sometimes, a breathable membrane is used with only standard battens, with the membrane slightly draped between rafters to allow ventilation – in this case an air gap of about 25 mm would be needed between membrane and insulation.
Thin wood-fibre boards (22 or 35mm thick) can be used as an alternative to a membrane under tiles. When re-roofing, the fibre-board is laid over the rafters, and then counter battens (in line with rafters), and then standard battens to fix the tiles/slates to. Thicker wood fibre boards can also be used, to give more insulation and achieve a lower U-value (to minimise heat loss).
A ‘warm roof’ will have waterproof insulation on the outside of the structure (so the main timbers are on the warm side of the insulation). It’s a useful way of upgrading an existing roof when internal room height is at a premium. On a sloping roof, the tiling battens are supported by rigid insulation and fixed through to the rafters by special screwnail fixings. The insulation must be waterproof, such as cork, foamed glass or closed-cell plastic foam board – these will tend to be more expensive than the standard insulation materials for internal use.
There are many different types of insulation material to choose from. Please do contact us if you need to find suppliers of natural & renewable insulation.
Traditionally, solid floors were laid directly onto soil. This relies on the ground underneath being kept dry, usually by it being higher than the ground outside the building, and by having adequate drainage.
The most common method now used is to have a thick concrete slab laid on a damp-proof course (e.g. a polythene membrane). A layer of polystyrene insulation is then finished with sand/cement screed and tiles or board.
For a low-impact alternative to the above you could look into using recycled aggregate in the concrete (rather then newly quarried material), and perhaps using stabilised earth as the screed. You could also consider using recycled polythene or bitumen for the damp-proof course.
A solid floor of stabilised earth or limecrete should have a solid insulation material below it, such as cork, perlite or foamed glass, with recycled polythene vapour check and damp-proof membrane (DPM) below this.
Try to achieve at least 150mm of insulation for a solid floor. Insulation should be placed around the edge of the floor, and the floor finish supported on some sort of rigid insulation. Possible materials include cork, perlite (volcanic glass), lightweight expanded clay aggregate (‘Leca’), foamed glass (slabs or granules), fibreboard, mineral wool boards, or plastic foam of some sort. A vapour check layer will normally be required to prevent condensation occurring within the insulation layer.
Another possibility is a hemp & lime (or ‘hempcrete’) floor. Lime has a much lower environmental impact than cement, so if you can use it place of cement in mortars or concrete you will be reducing the ’embodied energy’ of the floor and the carbon emissions from construction. The hemp provides the insulation. See for example the details of how we insulated the WISE building at CAT.
If you are redoing a floor, then you may have the chance to consider underfloor heating. Because it runs at a much lower temperature than standard radiators, wet underfloor heating is more efficient and provides a more comfortable type of heat. It’s particularly appropriate for use with heat pumps, as these need to supply low-temperature water to run efficiently.
If you can access the floor from below via an unheated cellar or basement it will be easier, otherwise you’ll have to lift the floorboards (which requires care to avoid damaging them).
225mm of a renewable or mineral fibre type of insulation is a decent amount. Make sure you keep good ventilation to the underfloor space beneath the insulation – with vents at either side for air flow.
Renewable insulation will need to be protected by a breathable membrane to protect it – if the floorboards are not well sealed. See the website of the supplier of insulation you’re using (or call their advice line) for advice on the type of membrane that would be needed.
Loose fill insulation can be carried between the joists on a membrane or netting nailed to floor joists or on a low-vapour resistance board (for example softboard, a fibreboard bonded by heat rather than glues – this is good for Warmcel insulation made from recycled newspaper).
For other insulation materials (e.g. standard mineral fibre types) it will also be worth looking up the website of the manufacturer (e.g. Rockwool or Knauf) as they’ll usually have guidance sheets on how the material should be installed and what limitations there may be.
Condensation is due to excessive moisture, cold conditions, cold surfaces or inadequate ventilation. It can cause mould, heat loss and building damage. To address these issues, the room should be properly insulated and adequately heated (to keep the surfaces warm).
So do take all feasible insulation and draught-proofing options, and look into improving single glazing with either replacement glazing or with secondary glazing (a cheaper option).
Condensation may still occur on replacement windows, as they’ll still be the coolest surface. New windows will be more airtight than old ones, so warm moist air will be no longer be escaping through cracks in the frame and around the seals. This means that existing damp issues may become more pronounced. Many windows will include trickle vents in the frame, to allow a small amount of ventilation, but to keep the house warm and dry you may need to take a few other measures to avoid producing lots of moist air.
Drying clothes indoors can easily cause problems of damp and condensation, leading perhaps to mould, etc. So if you need to dry indoors, it should be in a room that can be shut off and ventilated (perhaps with heat recovery, as mentioned below).
The bathroom and kitchen in particular should be able to be ventilated in a controllable way, to stop moist air circulating into the rest of the house. For example, after a shower or bath, leave the bathroom door shut and the window open for a while until moist air & condensation on the window/mirror has cleared. Do the same when cooking if you can; if your home has an open plan layout at least stop the moist air circulation where possible (e.g. to the upstairs rooms).
To avoid heat loss from a room like a kitchen or bathroom, where lots of moist air is regularly produced, you could consider a heat recovery extractor fan. It may be worth getting a slightly bigger heat-recovery fan unit than you need, as they can be a bit noisy if they are operating on full power. This may be fine if are just switching it on for a short while to clear the bathroom, but it could be obtrusive in the kitchen. If a fan unit is not supplied with more solid covers over the plastic slatting, it could be worth fitting something if you live in a house that is a bit exposed to the wind (as they could let in draughts when not in use). An openable wooden casing could be fitted quite easily.
If drying clothes indoors is not an issue, and you’re already careful about venting away moisture from bathroom & kitchen, then excessive condensation may be from some other cause, such as a water leak somewhere (e.g. from a pipe under the floor or in the loft), or water penetrating the structure from outside (such as rainwater coming in cracks in masonry, or if gutters are broken). If problems persist, it would be worth investigating these issues, as over time they’ll cause damage to the building.
The U-value is a measure of how many watts (representing the rate of flow of energy) pass through one square metre (m²) of a construction detail (such as a wall) for every degree difference in temperature between the inside and the outside. Temperature is measured in kelvin, and 1K = 1°C (degree centigrade).
As an example, a U-value of 6.0W/m²K for a single glazed window means that six watts will be escaping through each square metre of glass when the temperature difference is one degree. If it is 20°C in the house and 0°C outside, then the heat loss is 20 x 6 = 120 watts per square metre.
U-values are generally used to describe the thermal performance (heat loss) for a section of construction that involves several materials – such as a wall made up of timber, insulation, board & render.
For individual materials, such as a type of insulation, you’ll come across the term ‘thermal conductivity’, also known as a k-value or λ-value (lambda). This is the rate at which heat flows through a particular material, and good insulation will have a low thermal conductivity. It is measured in watts (heat flow) per metre (depth of material) per degree difference (inside to outside), so the unit is W/mK.
Most natural insulation materials (hemp, wool, recycled paper or textile) will have a thermal conductivity of about 0.035 to 0.040 W/mK, which is similar to the performance of conventional mineral wool insulation. Foil-backed plastic foam insulation boards are slightly better, with thermal conductivity about 0.023 W/mK. So about 100mm of the plastic foam board will give equivalent insulation value to about 150mm of the various woolly types.