How Can We Engage Small Builders in the Retrofit Mission?

How Can We Engage Small Builders in the Retrofit Mission?

Niamh Murtagh, Kate Simpson and Alice M Owen*

The UK Government’s new ECO+ scheme is due to launch in Spring 2023. Extending the existing Energy Company Obligation (ECO) scheme in place since 2014, ECO+ will target low energy efficient homes and offer grants for insulation improvements to households within the eligibility criteria.

Although the scheme falls short of the ‘whole house’ retrofit recommended by the Government’s Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK), it offers potential to regain momentum in reducing heat demand in homes.

The Climate Change Committee estimates that heat demand in buildings needs to fall by over 25% from 2019 to 2035 to meet Government targets. But for ECO+ and the wider retrofit mission to be successful, it must engage the tradespeople and small builders who already carry out work on the existing building stock.

To understand if the latest, or future, policy initiatives can involve this sector successfully, we need to understand the motivations and constraints of the people who will deliver the practical work essential to achieving the desired policy outcomes. These people overwhelmingly work in micro-organisations. Of the two million people employed in construction in the UK, 77% work in businesses with fewer than 50 employees. In fact, 35% work as sole traders. Our recent research conducted in-depth qualitative investigation with such ‘small builders’ – known as repair-maintain-improve (RMI) practitioners – in England.

First, we wanted to understand their motivations – what gets them out of bed and into work in the morning (Murtagh, Owen, & Simpson, 2021b)?

For many of the practitioners we interviewed, pride in their work was evident – “I like seeing things done properly”, as one said. They enjoyed producing tangible outcomes and these had to be of high quality. Many enjoyed a challenge in their work and working independently – being their own boss – was important. Interestingly, a big profit margin or growing their business was not something they talked about: what the practitioners valued was making a living and maintaining a viable business. This often related to loyalty to subcontractors they worked with and continuity of their order book. Positive working relationships were vital to their enjoyment of work, and another key value was customer satisfaction: they readily described how they were motivated by seeing a customer delighted with the end product. As a result, building their reputation and establishing trust with the customer was crucial. For some – but not for all – there was a personal commitment to improving energy efficiency.

Next, we explored what capabilities they brought to what they did – what knowledge and skills enabled their ongoing work? There was a range and depth of know-how, developed over years of practical experience, and an ability of many to work across trade boundaries, turning their hand to do what was necessary or appreciating what other trades needed during the project. There was frequent reference to the need for continuous learning – learning that could come from co-workers, builders’ merchants and manufacturers’ resources, as well as specialist websites. Formal training was rarely mentioned, and even changes with legal implications, such as changes in regulatory requirements or standards, were likely to be identified informally. To be successful in their day-to-day job, skills were needed to co-ordinate both people and resources.

The most important set of skills, however, were those of managing positive relationships with clients and co-workers: “You’re not gonna get anywhere if you don’t get on with people.” Trust and reputation were paramount, for both business and customer relationships.

Finally, we wanted to understand what opportunities and constraints applied to their energy efficiency work – what external contextual factors encouraged their involvement and what barriers got in their way? Opinion was mixed on regulation.

Some were frustrated by what they saw as unambitious targets in building regulations while others felt building regulations were difficult to comply with. Some practitioners did not trust the effectiveness or consistency of standards required by building regulation. This posed a barrier to compliance since new products and approaches carried risk with an implication for precious reputation. There was mixed experience of previous national policies, with a feeling that policies have favoured large businesses despite the necessity of involving micro-organisations. The absence of support for training meant that practitioners were reliant on training offered by individual product manufacturers, leading to a piecemeal rather than holistic approach to retrofit for energy reduction. In general, the practitioners did not feel that either policy or market demand were – as yet – prioritising energy efficiency.

In-depth investigation of what matters to RMI practitioners points to some key factors which need to be addressed if policy initiatives to deliver retrofit at scale are to be successful. The case needs to be demonstrated that delivering energy efficiency means a high-quality, improved offering to the customer, which will enhance customer satisfaction. Integrated training is needed, above and beyond that of individual product suppliers, which addresses the additional complexity and risk of newer products, and with incentives appropriate to micro-businesses. Training needs to empower practitioners to deliver outcomes that enhance their reputations with customers and colleagues. The strength and value of practitioners’ trusted networks is a vital component of upskilling and continuous learning. Policy approaches to drive market demand are key, and the recent shock rises in energy prices present a useful context for this. But of greatest importance is the need for policymakers to engage the RMI sector on future policy design and delivery. Without practitioner involvement and detailed consideration of their motivations, capabilities, opportunities and barriers, policies will continue to fall short of the massive potential to transform the UK’s energy-leaking housing stock.


Murtagh, N., Owen, A. M., & Simpson, K. (2021b). What motivates building repair-maintenance practitioners to include or avoid energy efficiency measures? Evidence from three studies in the United Kingdom. Energy Research and Social Science, 73, 101943.

*Dr Niamh Murtagh is a Principal Research Fellow at the Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction, University College London (UCL). As an environmental psychologist, her research investigates experiences and behaviours relating to climate change mitigation and adaptation to the heating climate. Dr Kate Simpson is a Research Associate at Imperial College London and Lecturer in Climate Change at Manchester School of Architecture. Her work focuses on housing transitions, particularly people’s experiences of energy and digital retrofits, and design tools toward net zero. Professor Alice Owen brings her background in environmental policy and practice to her work on business and sustainability in the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds.