How to create a Retrofit Project Brief

You might feel overwhelmed as you start your retrofit journey. Where to begin? There are so many options available and factors to consider.

We always recommend the first step should be writing a short ‘Retrofit Project Brief’. This is simply a list of what you’re trying to achieve and why, your budget and time scales.

Write this plan with other people in your home and bear in mind that it’s a living document and should be updated as your project progresses.

You can use this Retrofit Project Brief to communicate your ambitions and expectations to your retrofit team. It keeps things focused on what you want to achieve. People also tell us the brief is a handy way to build a shared agreement within your household on what you are trying to do and why.

Meet Michael and Rachel

They recently retrofitted their Bolton home. Here’s an example of their Retrofit Project Brief so you can get a feel for the type of information they included.

Retrofit Project Brief - template

Click here to download a template to use when creating your own Retrofit Project Brief.

What should you include in your Retrofit Project Brief?

There are some key factors to consider:

  • Your motivations: why do you want to retrofit your home? What are your priorities?
  • Time scales: Will you do it all in one go or in stages? What’s your deadline?
  • Budgets: How will you fund the project?

Time and effort spent up front on thinking in detail about your project can be frustrating, but it will save you time, money and worry later. The most successful retrofit projects and those that householders are most pleased with, are always the ones that have been carefully thought through before works begin.

Jonathan Atkinson, Programme Manager, Carbon Co-op

Your motivations

Think hard about why you want to want to retrofit your home. Maybe you’re keen for it to be warmer and more comfortable. You might want to modernise the way it looks. Or perhaps a family member has health problems made worse by damp or cold temperatures. One motivation might be to save money on energy bills or tackling climate change could be your driver.

Be clear and honest about your priorities in your Retrofit Project Brief and explain what matters to you most. This will help to prioritise your project as it develops.

What I hoped to do was reduce my carbon footprint…but obviously doing that through using less fuel which uses less energy.

Eddie Sheehy, Eccles

I was working in this room with a hat on and gloves on in the middle of the winter and it was clear that something needed to be done to the house to make it warmer and more comfortable.

Ruth Rosselson, Chorlton

We wanted to create a home that is comfortable to live in but that doesn’t cost the earth.

Lorenza & Paul, South Manchester

Both of us suffered from allergies quite a lot of the time and I had a feeling that a really deep retrofit would sort that out.

Gervase Mangwana, Chorlton

Your priorities

Decide what’s important to you in the retrofit process. This will help the professionals supporting you – from project managers to contractors – to focus their efforts in line with your goals and values.

Cost, quality or time?

All building projects face three main constraints: cost, quality and time. You can never have all three being perfect at the same time. So, think about what’s important to you. Pick the two constraints that matter most to your household (and one of them should be quality). In retrofit, quality is vital to make sure your home performs well at the end. Your project can either be delivered quickly but at a higher cost or more slowly, at a lower cost.

Materials

Some people are only comfortable using certain products and resources in their retrofit. Other householders are happy to be guided by the professionals supporting them. Think carefully about this as you write your Retrofit Project Brief.

For instance, if you are vegan, you may not want sheep’s wool insulation to be installed. Or perhaps you have health concerns and want to avoid retrofit materials that use petrochemicals. Maybe you object to products that have been manufactured via high-carbon industrial processes or you are keen to use low maintenance materials. Or maybe your goal is to use resources that achieve the very highest energy performance.

Be clear and frank about your priorities and the retrofit process will be shaped around these preferences. Every home is different, and every householder is different. Think carefully about the sort of person you are and what really matters to you.

It’s also important to listen to your advisors here. Once you have set out your personal priorities, your retrofit advisor or consultant can put forward an evidence-based approach that will help to clarify - and, at times, to challenge - your thinking.

Someone’s retrofit philosophy or their ethical stance is an important factor. It’s worth thinking hard about the wider impact of the materials you’ll use. For many householders, retrofit is not just about having the end product: a cosier house, reducing bills or cutting carbon emissions, it’s about how you get there.

Marianne Heaslip, Retrofit Architect, URBED

Budget

If you have a fixed pot and you can’t go a penny over, then be clear about this from the start. The nature of building work is that budgets can run over so it’s worth including a contingency as part of your maximum budget.

Be honest with yourself about what you can afford. Setting aside a contingency is also crucial. This can be an emergency pot if costs increase but it can also help to expand the scope of your project. For example, you might definitely want to do external wall insulation, but then you wait and see whether you can also afford solar PV panels. Sometimes it’s possible to extend the scope of works if costs come in under budget and your contingency fund allows.

Marion Lloyd-Jones, People Powered Retrofit

Points to consider:

  • What does a whole house retrofit cost? Be realistic, now is not the time for wishful thinking!
  • DIY route: if you have more time and don’t mind getting dirty you might want to take on some of the work yourself
  • Grant funding: there are occasionally grant funds available but they may come with strings and timescale attached
  • Contingencies in budget: it’s worth putting money aside for the unexpected, at least 10% of your budget, but on a more complicated house or where there is greater uncertainty due to areas you can’t see before you start, perhaps as much as 25%.
  • Contingencies in scope of works: it may be worth segmenting and prioritising the work into packages, the things that are essential and the things to go for should you still have funds available.

We did get some grants towards it and because it was done as part of the Carbon Co-op retrofit programme, I know that some things were slightly cheaper than the reality of what they would have cost. Our loan amounted to about £27,000 and there were some contingencies on top of that.

Ruth Rosselson, Chorlton

I got an interest-free loan for just over £20,000 which paid for the vast majority of the work on the house.

Eddie Sheehy, Eccles

Timescales

Some people do all their retrofit works in one go. Others break it up by doing something every year or whenever they can afford to make improvements. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each way?

The case for a multi-phase retrofit

We’re doing a little bit every year

Lorenza & Paul, South Manchester
  • Breaking your retrofit up into chunks can be more manageable in terms of cost but also risk. If things go wrong when you’re doing one element of the process it won’t have such an impact compared to a problem with a single-phase retrofit where the entire home could be affected.
  • Disruption is another factor. If you are retrofitting your home in one go then it might prove too disruptive. Phasing it helps to manage the disruption.
  • The headspace issue is also worth considering. Do you have the time to think about everything that’s involved in a single-phase retrofit? Some people like to stage the process so they can consider different issues at different points and don’t feel too overwhelmed.
  • Architect Harry Paticas has done a deep retrofit of his home in different stages. Read more about how he used a step-by-step approach here.

The case for a single-phase retrofit

This was an opportunity to get it all done together which I thought was really the best way of doing it.

Ed Sheehy, Eccles
  • Doing you works in one go might prove to be cheaper. For instance, you aren’t paying to scaffold your house several times over a number of years as with a multi-phase approach.
  • It’s harder to achieve a very deep retrofit if you do it in stages. A lot of careful forward planning is needed to ensure everything is joined up and you don’t do anything that needs undoing in years to come. Those junctions between different phases in a staged retrofit need extra thought.
  • Although the disruption of a single-phase retrofit is acute at the time, once it’s done, it’s done. A staged retrofit will disturb the home year after year – or however often you plan to do the works.

My parents live in a mid-terrace in Cumbria - they’ve insulated different parts of the house at different times over the last 5 years, so they’re not always living in a building site. This phased approach has worked well for them, meaning they’ve been able to manage the budgets and the disruption, and also use local small building companies that they trust for the work by packaging it up into manageable chunks.

Marianne Heaslip, Retrofit Architect, URBED

Disruption

Retrofit can be disruptive and it’s important to be honest with yourself. What can your household cope with? How will you live when the work is being carried out? Will you move out or will you de-camp to certain rooms? Planning is crucial to make the process as smooth as possible.

It was very disruptive initially because of the noise of the drills going into the house and I was working from home at the time. There wasn’t as much disruption inside the house although some of the wood fibres did get around and it was quite messy in the garden.

Ruth Rosselson, Chorlton

We had to move house for a length of time and that put a strain on the household.

Gervase Mangwana, Chorlton

I knew it would be disruptive and it really was disruptive for a period of time.

Ed Sheehy, Eccles

What to expect

  • Making arrangements for contractors to get access to your home, including power and washing and toilet facilities
  • Lots of dust associated with certain jobs such as internal wall insulation
  • Builders coming in and out of your house, doors and windows needing to be open
  • The need to store materials in gardens, garages and sheds

How to handle it

  • Discuss arrangements with contractors, share your concerns but be aware of their needs in getting the work done
  • Think carefully about what will happen when and be prepared for disruption
  • Consider moving out for a week or two at the most disruptive times
  • Plan for a clean-up phase and think about bringing in contract cleaners

Linking with other home improvements


Often, people consider energy efficiency works at the same time as they are planning an extension, converting a loft or re-doing a kitchen or bathroom. It’s important to view retrofit as part of this process and not a piece of work that’s isolated from other home improvements. For the best result, retrofit should be integrated into the overall plan – to minimise disruption and cost and to increase energy performance and the aesthetic look. This involves organising ahead and thinking about retrofit as you begin planning any other home building or maintenance.

Before and after shots of a kitchen remodelling, carried out as part of a retrofit project.

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