Interview: Arno Schmickler, project manager of Energiesprong UK

30 January 2017

Energiesprong UK all started in 2016 with a meeting in Copenhagen between Arno Schmickler, project manager of Energiesprong UK, and Ron van Erck and Jasper van den Munckhof of the Dutch Energiesprong. Arno, who was working for the National Housing Federation in the UK at the time, became convinced of Energiesprong’s approach to performance-assured whole-house retrofits at scale. As soon as he returned to the UK, he started to convince others.

A pivotal trip to the Netherlands

At the housing conference in Copenhagen, the three men talked about Energiesprong in the Netherlands. “Ron, Jasper and I discussed if this approach could work in the UK as well”, Arno explains. “Of course our country is different, but I saw the opportunity to bring Energiesprong to the UK – although it’s a challenging one.”

Sounding out housing providers, industry representatives and expert organisations, these parties were initially just curious but became increasingly excited. To transform this excitement into a commitment, Energiesprong UK organised a field trip to the Netherlands with a group of 30 representatives. Seeing the Net Zero Energy (NZE) houses that had already been built made a huge difference for them: “Now the group got really excited. During their two-day visit, they talked to housing associations, solution providers, the Dutch Energiesprong team and even tenants. During this trip the overall mood changed from ‘Can we do it?’ to ‘How can we do it?’” When the group returned to the UK, their only question was: ‘Who wants to come on board?’

First project: Finding funds

To get Energiesprong UK off the ground, the next step was to secure funding. Arno and his team managed to obtain funds from both Horizon2020 and Interreg. Arno notes: “Horizon2020 focuses on creating the right conditions for refurbishments to NZE with a project called Transition Zero, while Interreg focuses on getting the first refurbishments done – using the project name E=0. With funding from Horizon2020 preparing the initial market, the funding from Interreg will support early market demonstrator houses for Affinity Sutton [now Clarion Housing Group] and Moat Housing.” Nottingham City Homes, an arms’ length management organisation (ALMO) of Nottingham City Council, will be the first to market: “They already had secured some other European funds, which will make an Energiesprong makeover a reality in the UK.”

Read more about this first UK project in the interview with Emily Braham, head of sustainable energy at Nottingham City Homes.

Great challenges, but great commitment

Arno explains the challenges being faced in the UK, which are different from those in the Netherlands and France: “First of all, in the UK we lack investment in the housing stock. The housing sector is under financial pressure, more so than in the Netherlands and France. Secondly, tenants have very low energy bills, because they are underheating their homes. The average bill is often below £50 a month, which is by far not sufficient to recover the investment over 30 years!”

These are not the only challenges that Energiesprong UK is facing. “The political environment is very much focused on Brexit – and with the housing crisis the development of new homes at large quantities is at the forefront, thus pushing sustainability and energy saving projects very much into the background”, Arno continues. “Even so, our partners are still very committed as they see the opportunity to be the makers of their own destiny by focusing on a commercial model to improve their stock conditions significantly. They are determined to make performance-assured whole-house retrofits a reality in the UK and combine the ambition for warm and affordable homes with an investment strategy that will make their housing fit for 2050. Industry comes to the table as they see the opportunity to tap into a new market that they are co-creating with housing providers.”

Next step: Volume

The next major step towards NZE homes is to increase production volume, which Energiesprong UK will try by negotiating a collaborative commitment between housing providers and the industry. “We need to secure the timeline in which we can learn from the demonstrator houses and replicate them on a large scale. This learning curve will enable industry to reduce cost, which in turn enables housing providers to come to larger volumes. In parallel, we will work to improve the market conditions in the UK so that the financial business case is consolidated”, explains Arno. “The principle follows the Dutch volume deal [in 2013, Energiesprong in the Netherlands brokered a deal between Dutch building contractors and housing associations to refurbish 111,000 homes to NZE levels]. The early market demonstrator houses in the UK will be pivotal to raise confidence for a larger volume commitment.”

The Energiesprong game

To lead housing providers and industry towards securing a volume deal, it is important to understand the business pressures and opportunities. Arno is positive that this can be done: “You have to be creative and think outside the box. For example, Energiesprong UK recently organised a workshop in the form of an Energiesprong game. Representatives of the housing providers as well as the industry partners played a game that was set up around collaborative commitment. Because of the game element, people were encouraged to actually talk about numbers, price points and commitment on the number of properties. They were just one step outside of reality, which made them play and discuss more openly. The game involved ‘condition cards’ and ‘event cards’ which replicated the current and future envisaged market conditions. This helped to clarify where the focus needs to be and in what way we need to put more effort into changing the market to realise commitment for bigger volume.”

“In the end I think the demonstrator houses will be very helpful,” Arno concludes, “since people can actually come and visit them and see with their own eyes that it works!”

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