On Ballybough Road construction workers are renovating two red-brick houses next door to each other.
They appear to be getting a full makeover and have recently had new windows installed.
Of course, everyone around here would love to retrofit their home, says Laura Williams, one of the organisers of Ballybough Pride of Place.
“I’d love to retrofit my house but where am I going to get the money?” she says. “And if I was lucky enough to get the money, where would I get a builder?”
According to a recent report by Codema, Dublin’s energy agency, Ballybough is one of the areas of the city that should get targeted with support to get more homes retrofitted.
“To alleviate energy poverty, the county should consider prioritising energy efficiency upgrades in areas that have been identified in this masterplan as being energy poor,” says the Dublin Region Energy Masterplan by the not-for-profit, which acts as an energy adviser to Dublin’s four local authorities.
The report identifies loads of areas as energy poor, 17 in fact.
Among them are Ballybough, Cabra, Clondalkin, Clonskeagh, Finglas, Inns Quay, Kilmore, Priorswood, Decies, Drumfinn, Inchicore, Kilmainham, Kimmage, Kylemore, Merchants Quay, Tallaght, and Wood Quay.
“If there is some way we could target a whole area and get the economies of scale and make it cheaper for people, I think that would be a great idea,” says Green Party Councillor Michael Pidgeon, who chairs the council’s environment committee.
But there are challenges to upgrading and retrofitting homes in areas where people don’t have lots of money, and where there are lots of rentals.
Choosing Areas to Target
Energy upgrades could include things like adding insulation to roofs and walls, installing heat pumps and putting in windows with double glazing.
To select the areas of the city that should be targeted for energy upgrades, the team at Codema used two maps, says John O’Shea, energy systems analyst and lead on electricity and heat with Codema.
They took a map of the energy ratings (BERs) for homes in each area of the city and they overlaid that with another map called the deprivation index, he says.
The deprivation index rates electoral districts by levels of social and economic disadvantage.
“When you overlay the two of them you get the areas that are most at risk of fuel and energy poverty,” said O’Shea.
It makes sense to target those areas that have a lot of poorly performing buildings and a lot of low-income households at risk of fuel poverty.
“You get the biggest bang for your buck in terms of retrofitting because they are the worst-performing buildings,” he says. “But also the social side, these are the most at-risk people and we should try and prioritise them.”
Pidgeon, the Green Party councillor, says that doing work to a whole street of houses at once should also lead to economies of scale.
When Pidgeon got solar panels on his house, the majority of the cost was labour, he says. It would likely be the same with insulation of walls and attics.
“What would be cheaper and more effective is if the whole terrace got it done at one time,” he says.
Many of the areas that Codema identified have high numbers of renters and some also have lots of apartments. Those both add complications.
With some older apartment complexes, it makes more sense to do the whole building at once.
Dublin City Council has retrofitted 70 percent of its social houses, but most of its flat complexes have not yet got the upgrades, says Pidgeon.
To retrofit the flats, the council will need to move everyone out and gut them, he says, so that makes it more complicated and time-consuming than for houses.
Private-rental landlords don’t have an incentive to invest in retrofitting, says O’Shea, of Codema, because they won’t benefit from the energy savings, and this is a major challenge. “The landlord doesn’t see the benefit. It’s a complicated one.”
There are some ideas emerging in Europe about how to tackle that, says O’Shea. One is that each rented home would have a passport to show how energy efficient it is, and in theory that makes it more valuable as a rental.
Although he acknowledges that in the current housing shortage in Dublin that isn’t going to have much of an impact. “There is probably some more thinking to do on that,” says O’Shea.
Says Pidgeon: “This is a major problem everywhere.” He has looked at what other European governments are doing and no one has managed to crack what to do about retrofitting private rentals, he says.
The Codema report recommends that minimum energy efficiency standards be introduced for rented homes and that structures be put in place to assist landlords to achieve those standards.
“Funding mechanisms for energy efficiency upgrades, particularly addressing long payback periods and high upfront costs … need to be addressed,” says the report. “Incentives and financing solutions for building retrofits should be prioritised in the county.”
In the UK, the authorities are introducing minimum standards stipulating that private rented homes need to be retrofitted, says Pidgeon.
Here, the government’s housing strategy Housing for Allcontains a commitment to implement minimum BER standards for rental homes by 2025.
But Pidgeon considers the approach to be too risky, he says. “If you do major retrofitting that is an excuse to kick people out and raise the rents.”
This could affect vulnerable households the most, he says. “That is an absolute minefield.”
Non-corporate landlords can already avail of grants for retrofitting, he says. “Ireland is one of the few countries that allows landlords to use the same grant system as homeowners.”
The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland provides grants and a list of one-stop shops for property owners.
There are challenges too for homeowners who own historic properties, says Williams, the Ballybough Pride of Place organiser. They can be really expensive to retrofit.
“There are people on the Ballybough Road who have beautiful old houses that were built in the 1850s,” she says. “They would love to restore them.”
In some neighbouring areas in Dublin 1, people have been able to avail of the Living City Initiative to renovate their historic homes, says Williams.
That scheme allows owners and investors to claim tax relief on the money they spend on refurbishing homes built before 1915 in the city centre.
Between 2018 and 2021, there were 118 applications to the Living City Initiative, according to council figures. Of those, 56 were from owner-occupiers and 62 were for rentals.
Extending that scheme to include Ballybough and North Strand would help some homeowners with the lowest BERs to retrofit their homes, says Williams.
Since landlords can also avail of the scheme, it could help improve energy efficiency in rented homes too, she says.