Let’s talk about retrofit: communicating home decarbonisation

Entering its third year of funding, the Welsh Government’s Optimised Retrofit programme really has been leading the way in tackling the challenge of home retrofit.

Grasshopper has been the communications partner for the Optimised Retrofit pathfinder project collaboration, headed up by Sero, that set out in year one to work with 28 social landlords to decarbonise more than 1,800 homes across Wales.

Beyond the more obvious delivery challenges, such as technology and skills, one of the issues that was perhaps initially underestimated, was how important communications would be in ensuring success.

On the face of it, the upgrade of homes to make them more pleasant to live in while also helping combat the rising cost of energy, should be an easy choice for any tenant.

However, the reality is that we are talking about unfamiliar terminology and technology that can be off putting. Combined with concerns about data privacy and the potential for a period of significant disruption within the home, the result was that a significant number of residents were choosing to opt out. Or at least not opt in.

The challenge

The first task was to understand more about why residents were opting out.

It became clear that the existing approach and information was not making sense and having the impact intended. There was a lack of understanding amongst social housing staff about the optimised retrofit process and what this meant in reality for tenants.

The problems at a project level were also being compounded by the lack of public information and understanding around retrofit and how this relates to the climate emergency at a wider level.

Changing behaviours

In order to provide a deeper understanding of the issue and how we could be communicating to encourage different outcomes and take a COM-B led approach (Capability, Opportunity, Motivation Behaviour), we worked alongside the University College London (UCL) behavioural science team.

A key element of this work was undertaking an analysis of the resident’s journey, and key influencers and drivers that may impact this process and outcome.

Key observations included:

– Much of the resident’s journey is driven by the tenant liaison officer / community engagement officer. We therefore need to equip team members to be able to explain the information clearly and be able to give residents the confidence to get onboard.

– The resident will have an existing relationship with the social landlord which will influence their take on the retrofit offer and process. Therefore it is worth considering what insights the landlord can use or collect to inform how they approach the resident.

– If the resident has a poor existing relationship with the landlord, a third party messenger could be helpful.

– Different engagement strategies may be needed for different residents. What background information is available?

A number of behaviour principles were considered based on the MINDSPACE model, with key points including:

Messenger: Having a ‘real conversation’ is important; decarbonisation communications traditionally not pitched at the right level.

Incentives: It should be relatively easy to get buy-in to free retrofit upgrades that could save the resident money or protect from energy price hikes in the long term.

Defaults: There is a challenge for ‘going with the flow’ because staff are not always completely aware of what to expect or what the default process and outcomes will be.

Affect: Tenants who have completed the process sometimes experienced major unexpected disruptions. Therefore managing expectations is really important.

Getting the message right

It was clear the messaging being used was not resonating in the way we had hoped, or being targeted effectively to different audiences. We therefore worked with social landlord partners and a number of tenant focus groups to develop and refine the messaging.

Key findings included:

– The phrase ‘energy efficient’ doesn’t work. Our testing showed that the phrase doesn’t connect with residents, nor is it self-explanatory. ‘Greener’ was identified as a much stronger term now being used instead as residents broadly understand what this means – more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

– The stat ‘20% of carbon emissions’, being used in relation to the percentage of carbon impact that homes are responsible for, had no cut through with residents. They did not necessarily know what ‘carbon emissions’ were, therefore the idea of homes producing 20% of them had little meaning.

– Talking about the climate emergency at a high level had little cut through with residents. Whilst there is growing awareness of the climate emergency, many struggled to relate to how it affected them. In order to make this relevant, it is important to weave locally relevant examples through the environmental message.

– There were many concerns from social landlords about any messaging around ‘saving money’ and the potential for over promising. Messaging around money, particularly in the face of rising energy bills needs to be carefully worded and focus more on protecting residents from future price hikes.

Top tips

Train the messenger: it is critical to maximise one-to-one engagement and encourage conversation. We need to inspire confidence throughout the process.

Strategic approach: it is important to be on the front foot and map out a proactive plan for engagement, whilst also ensuring the proactive management of issues as they arise.

Managing effect: manage expectations and be prepared for reaction to major disruption.

Plug and play toolkit: have in place an easy to use toolkit for engagement, to be tailored for a range of audiences.

Making retrofit relevant: ensure you broaden the toolkit to enable teams to put retrofit in the bigger picture in terms of the climate emergency and wellbeing etc.

Tackling the climate emergency is going to remain a high priority challenge. Getting the message right around home decarbonisation, and raising awareness and understanding of the role retrofit can play, is going to be key to achieving our net zero ambitions.

Author: Clare Jones