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A “fabric first” approach to building design means prioritising the performance of the building’s materials and components before considering mechanical or electrical systems. This approach can help save money and energy, improve energy efficiency, reduce carbon emissions, and lower ongoing maintenance costs.


When buildings are designed, constructed, or retrofitted using the fabric-first approach, the goal is to minimize the need for energy consumption by:


  • Making the building airtight
  • Increasing insulation levels
  • Optimizing natural light and shade to maximize solar energy
  • Using the building’s materials to regulate temperature


By integrating energy efficiency into the building’s structure, it becomes easier for occupants to achieve the desired energy performance without complex controls or unfamiliar technologies.


Fabric first has a logic to it that frames basic principles nicely. And helps us to remember the goals of reducing energy use in a way that is genuinely sustainable.


But when does fabric first not apply? 


When would it make sense to focus on systems before fabric?


Well for one, some may have noticed how heat pumps are racing on, not hanging around for buildings to be upgraded before being considered. One reason for this is that retrofit is slow and complex, and heat pumps offer an opportunity to decarbonise the grid now. 


In fact the more inefficient the house, you could argue the bigger decarbonisation impact a heat pump could have! “Ducks for cover”


This strategy, of not waiting for retrofit does point to another reason you may take a fabric-first approach. 


Ventilation. More precisely the lack of it.


Unless you have been hiding under a rock for the last six months, you may have noticed a bit of a condensation damp and mold crisis. For those that have been paying attention for a bit longer , you will be well aware, that within the social and private rented sector, it’s a long-term, deep and profound problem.


A problem that without question, improving the fabric (retrofit) can have a significant impact on. 

But it’s an impact that is going to take years to have well, an impact. So how do we deal with those not lucky enough to see an upgrade on their home any time soon?


One is improving ventilation as part of a strategic approach to managing damp and mold. 


This was proven to work very well in what now come to be called the “Thamesmead condensation, damp and mold strategy” which took a ventilation-first approach to the problem along with smart control of the heating.


Thamesmead is a residential area with approximately 4,500 properties that came under the ownership of the Peabody Group in 2014. This marked the first time in a long while that it had a single, well-funded organization overseeing its management. 


Since acquiring these properties, Peabody had made continuous efforts to preserve and improve them, investing over a million pounds in repairs and compensating residents for issues caused by dampness and mold.


To address the problem of damp and mold in Thamesmead, a coordinated strategy was devised. The primary focus was on identifying and addressing the underlying causes of these issues before determining the order in which properties should be repaired. The aim was to eradicate these conditions and prevent their recurrence in the future.


The reality was, while there was a significant number of properties earmarked for retrofit and even regeneration, many thousands would be left for years before their turn for major attention.


But with a well-thought-out and targeted approach, of stable heating and a well-designed ventilation strategy many of the issues could be solved or at the very least significantly reduced. So successful was the approach that years after the works, no mold was reported from the properties.


This approach may give us some insight into how a strategic approach to ventilation combined with robust systems that combine the capacity to meet changing demands within a property could not only help tackle damp and mold in rented accommodation in the short term but be retrofit ready when fabric first does become a reality to those waiting.


Demand Controlled ventilation when designed and applied as part of a strategic approach to damp and mold can adapt as the problem is brought under control, adapt to the changes in seasons and occupancy patterns, but also provide an assurance that as a building is fundamentally changed through deep retrofit or incrementally changed over time through single measures, it will also adapt.


Such is the scale of the condensation,damp and mold problem that any and all weapons we have at our disposal will need to be brought to bear. But with strategic approaches to the problem, we can help to solve a now-now problem while also preparing our buildings for the future and a fabric first, well second approach.

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