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  • Sara Edmonds

Report from Retrofit Reimagined

Photography: Angela Grabowska

ACAN were honoured to be co-planners of Retrofit Reimagined (13-16 July) in Birmingham, together with Civic Square, Zero Carbon House and Dark Matter Labs. The festival brought together neighbours, practitioners, and organisers from across the country who are focused on retrofit, its role in the future of decarbonising our built environment and a just transition.

Retrofit is ever more important, particularly demonstrated by the recent extreme heat events suffered by people here in the UK in recent weeks, with temperatures exceeding 40 degrees in places. The improvement of the fabric of our buildings to provide resilient environments that keep us warm in winter and cool in summer is imperative, especially now in the light of both the energy price and cost of living crises. But this is only part of the picture.

Here we bring you a report from Retrofit Reimagined from Sara Edmonds, ACAN co-ordinator, who co-hosted the event...

Left: John Christophers introduces his Zero Carbon House. Right: Jack Richards, Editional Studio


What if the climate transition and retrofit of our homes and streets were designed, owned and governed by the people who live there?

This was the question posed forming the basis for Retrofit Reimagined.

A huge number of organisations from across a broad range of disciplines and sectors, neighbours and passers-by graced the field by the beautiful Edgbaston Reservoir and there, it's fair to say, some sort of magic happened. More like a scene from Glastonbury than the London ExCel centre, the main tent structure was festooned with lights and surrounded outside by straw bale seating spots set with brightly coloured cushions.

The teams worked hard to curate days worth of talks, workshops, tours, shared meals, creative pursuits that picked apart what it means to consider retrofit as a tool to reimagine our neighbourhoods. Talk of trust, values, justice and the interconnectedness of its forms resonated throughout the days of the festival, and folk were listening to each other. Really listening.

From the beginning we were asked to consider, with an open and honest mind, the provocation that if the problem of net zero goals and retrofitting all the homes that need it is so huge, and arguably not ambitious enough, how are we going to do it? How are we actually going to get there? How can we heed the advice of the IPCC report statement that there is a role for everyone? That we need everyone? Clearly both the systemic issues need to be addressed, as well as highlighting existing and emerging practice. And that's exactly what happened.

Immy Kaur, director at Civic Square

Indy Johar, Dark Matter Labs

"Climate Change CO2 is a symptom of a failure... of how we relate to the world" – Indy Johar

Impassioned speeches from Dr. Emma Morton, Insulate Britain, Centric Lab and Indy Johar ranging from giving examples of what you can do right now in your homes and working lives to take action in the face of the climate emergency, to how we might better understand our relationship to the natural world and the devastating impact humanity has had on it to date.

Sticky topics such as finance and models for delivering retrofit were investigated with deft insight by West Midlands Combined Authority, Bankers without Boundaries, and We Can Make. Observing and drawing out crossovers into other sectors such as health, social care and housing justice we heard from Kwajo Tweneboa, MedAct and Isobel Braithwaite of UCL.

Rosie Murphy, ACAN

Left: Retrofit Reimagined at Birmingham Settlement. Right: Calvin Po, Dark Matter Labs

Colonialism, white domination and racial justice were explored by ACAN and Sasha Josette of Breathe, in the same space that technical solutions for delivering retrofit using natural materials and community organising were discussed. The ACAN natural materials group brought together a range of speakers and demonstrators including Lime Green, UK Hempcrete and author Tom Woolley.

It’s difficult for this report to sound less like a roll call of all the speakers, but it seems highly unbalanced to name drop just a few. So bear with me while I continue.

The need for including and amplifying the voices of social and private tenants and trade unions was amplified by the powerful contributions given by Alexa Waud and Scott MacAulay and CACCTU.

Plenty of voices from the field of existing and emerging practice were heard also, architectural practices Editional Studio and Poulsom Middlehurst with their HomeNotes organisation both spoke to Hattie Hartman about how they’re trying to educate their clients on the need for and benefits of retrofit.

ACAN's Sara Edmonds

Day one of Retrofit Reimagined at Zero Carbon House

Community organisations including People Powered Retrofit, Loco Home Retrofit and HEAL spoke about their journeys into delivery models for community based retrofit. More technical and skills based issues were also dealt with by URBED, Canopy Housing, The Heating Hub and Built Environment Smarter Transformation.

Delivering education and practical projects in schools was excellently illustrated by Nidhi Shah of RAFT and the AECB.

There was an unexpectedly beautiful moment, when after explaining the need to reach all our communities, including our faith groups, Muslim faith leader Kamran Shezad invited conversation from the floor and what followed from Christian faith leaders and agnostics alike was a recognition of the need to centre and protected the common ground that connects us, quite literally, the earth.

And it’s this constant reflection and working through of the broad ranging issues that we learned we need to continually make space for. In all our discussion around retrofit, ask yourself, are you thinking big enough?

Film screening and community dinner at Zero Carbon House

Aside from what was playing out on the tent stage and the straw bale amphitheatre under the tree canopy, Civic Square was hosting with care and attention. Coffees, water, ice lollies for all on trays, long tables to share home cooked meals to give our bodies refreshment and allow a breather for our minds. This hosting with generosity was also visible when John Christophers and his family threw open the doors of their home, the Zero Carbon House, and facilitated tours of the house and made his garden available to host a shared dinner for participants, neighbours and community leaders. We even experienced a preview screening of POWER: Two Artists Set Up A Power Station, from Dan Edelstein and Hilary Powell.

Connections were forged, collaborations explored, and new and existing project ideas progressed. Our call to action is to seek these contributors out. Follow, support and amplify their work. Help us continue to weave this wonderful web of humans together to keep building the movement. Like the IPCC report said, there’s a role for everyone. We need you.

Tour of Zero Carbon House

Glo Lo, ACAN

Danni Ebanks-Ingram, Civic Square

Charlie Edmonds, ACAN

Bobby Jewell, ACAN

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