Dr Niamh Murtagh, Prof Alice M Owen, and Dr Kate Simpson SBE0035
Written evidence from Dr Niamh Murtagh, Prof Alice M Owen, and Dr Kate Simpson
Submitted by Dr Niamh Murtagh (The Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction, University College London); Prof Alice M Owen (School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds) and Dr Kate Simpson (School of Design Engineering, Imperial College London), based on research undertaken with building Repair-Maintenance-Improvement practitioners in England.
1. Executive Summary
2. Recommendations to drive sustainable construction in the RMI sector
We are academic researchers from the disciplines of environmental psychology and construction research, investigating how to achieve a more environmentally sustainable built environment. Most academic research in this domain has focused on large projects and large organisations with relatively little attention paid to the micro-businesses and sole tradespeople who, in fact, form the majority of the construction sector. To address this gap, we interviewed 31 practitioners from around England, between 2015 and 2018, to understand their experiences, perceptions and beliefs around their work in general and energy-efficiency retrofit in particular . We maintain personal and professional links with individuals in the RMI subsector and we have seen no major or systematic change since the interviews were conducted – we believe that the findings remain relevant in 2021.
4.1 Although policy and research tends to focus on large organisations and large projects, 77% of construction sector workers in Great Britain work in businesses of fewer than 50 people, and 40% are sole operators . These are the people who work on existing homes on almost every street in the country on a daily basis. They are, in effect, the ‘army’ who will deliver (or not) a more sustainable built environment. This subsector of RMI includes all forms of construction and maintenance on existing homes, from loft extensions to new kitchens. Best estimates value its worth as 17% of construction output  although this may be an underestimate due to the difficulty of tracking very low value economic activity.
4.2 RMI practitioners are a hard-to-reach subsector and have been considered as beyond the reach of policy . Previous government initiatives such as the ‘Each Home Counts’ review have overlooked their importance, and the Committee on Climate Change has criticised policy for inhibiting relevant skills development in this domain . We know that the failure of policy such as the Green Deal has resulted in a lack of trust for new policy amongst practitioners  and this is likely to have happened again with the Green Homes Grant (2020-2021). Yet the engagement of RMI practitioners is critical to move the built environment in the UK towards sustainability. We need to understand the factors influencing the people working in RMI. We need to understand what, in general, they care about in their work, what they are capable of achieving and what opportunities are open to them. These internal and external factors guide the work they choose to do and therefore their likelihood to engage with or to ignore the improved technology and standards in home energy efficiency and environmental sustainability more generally.
4.3 In our research, we used an established framework on behaviour: the Capability-Opportunity-Motivation-Behaviour model (COM-B), previously presented to Government . The COM-B model encapsulates the understanding that changed behaviour results from a combination of people’s internal motivations to undertake the behaviour, their capacities to do so, and the opportunities in their surrounding contexts that will enable or frustrate their attempts to act. In order to change behaviour to achieve sustainable outcomes, factors in all three domains must be addressed.
Research Method and Participants
4.4 A total of 31 qualitative, semi-structured interviews were conducted around England (Greater London, the North and the South West). Of the participants, 15 were sole traders and a further 14 worked in firms with fewer than 25 employees. They represented a range of trades, including general builder, heating engineer and bricklayer, and offered services of a trade, and/or project management and design. The interviews included questions on type of work, subcontracting, motivation for the work, customer and market demand, and sources of knowledge. The interviews were audio recorded, transcribed verbatim and analysed thematically. In qualitative work, the aim is not to provide statistical generalisation, which can misrepresent individual experience through aggregation – qualitative analysis is intended to focus in depth on the participants’ experiences. It can provide novel insights into how people behave, what they experience and what they think and believe about, in this case, their work.
Table 1 summarises the major themes from analysis of the interviews. Some quotations from participants are given in italics.
Pride in outcome
A viable business
Positive working relationships
Demotivations for energy efficiency
Perception of increased cost
Lack of confidence in technical standards
Habit, custom and practice in construction
Manage and co-ordinate people and resources
Develop and manage positive client relationships
Building regulations and standards
Market and customer demand
Networks and trade associations
Key: High – referenced by more than 20 participants; Medium – referenced by between 10 and 20 participants
5.1 Most participants spoke of their pride in their work. Pride came from the satisfaction of doing a good job, of working to the best of their ability, attention to detail, setting high standards and the quality of the materials used. Although some participants noted that others in construction would cut corners or use cheaper materials, they emphasised their pride in the work they produced as a central motivation and source of satisfaction for them in their business. The practitioners enjoyed the variety of their work and the challenges it presented, enabling them to deploy their problem solving capabilities.
5.2 The data showed a prevailing concern with maintaining a viable business. There was evidence of attention to costs, ensuring low overheads, pricing carefully, considering the impact of charging VAT and of the extra expenditure involved in taking on employees. The practitioners tried to buy carefully, looking for low prices from suppliers, not over-buying, and scrutinising waste. However, few of the participants appeared to prioritise profit for its own sake. This is not to suggest that businesses and individuals in the RMI sector are not motivated by profit. Rather, it shows that financial rewards are only one of many motivations. Earning a livelihood was a fundamental driver but was linked to customer satisfaction, personal satisfaction in quality of work, and maintaining good relationships with other industry professionals. They acknowledged interdependence with others, complementary skills and co-operation. Teamwork on site was valued as well as strong relationships with other actors in the sector including builders’ merchants, architects and building inspectors: “We're not only doing construction, we're trying to build a relationship with people”. Being respected by others was valued and so too was loyalty, to subcontractors and to builders’ merchants.
5.3 Most of the participants appeared strongly motivated to achieve customer satisfaction on completion of projects. A strong customer focus meant protecting the customer’s money.
5.4 For many of the participants, although not all, there was evidence of a personal commitment to energy efficiency and to being part of creating a more environmentally-friendly sector. Some expressed it as a preference, a habit of always trying to include more energy-efficient technologies, encouraging customers to consider better approaches, or focusing on building performance. Several also actively tried to reduce waste of materials and products in their work.
5.5 But several beliefs and perceptions were noted which discouraged practitioners from offering more sustainable solutions. Some believed that customers could not or would not pay extra for more energy efficient work and their perception of increased cost for customers led to negative attitudes to newer energy technologies: “renewable energy, it's far too expensive for my common man that I work with”. Several expressed a lack of confidence in technical standards. For example, some were against the notion of airtightness, which is perhaps unsurprising as it works against prevalent cultural norms in UK building where natural air infiltration has been accepted as an aspect of domestic construction. Some practitioners attributed the slow progress towards greater energy efficiency in buildings to habitual customs and practices but interestingly, this assumption stands in contrast to the evidence for motivation for variety and overcoming challenges on the job, discussed above.
5.6 Practitioners gained knowledge over time and through practical experience, beyond that learned via formal training. Several described their own or others’ ability to work across trade boundaries in order to get projects completed. They frequently referred to the need for continuous learning. Sources of information for the practitioners included co-workers, manufacturers’ representatives, manufacturers’ training courses, trade magazines, trade associations’ materials (e.g. National Housing Building Council), wholesalers and builders’ merchants, and specialist (e.g. Planning Portal for Building Regulation Approved Documents) as well as general internet searches. Their learning was mostly reactive and ad hoc, sometimes triggered by changes to mandated requirements such as building regulations, or by client demand.
5.7 The variety of work and scale of projects required flexibility from the participants. In addition to the practicalities of ensuring the right people and capabilities were deployed, many spoke of the need to develop good working relationships, centred on trust which needed to be cultivated over time. Earning trust from the client was important, with the recognition of the value of the work and the risks involved for a client requesting work on their own home.
5.8 Solving problems, such as overcoming tricky detailing and dealing with unforeseen challenges once the work started, were themes that appeared repeatedly: “Problem solving, that is my job, problem solving. From the moment I wake to the moment I go to sleep, it is problem solving.”
5.9 Views were mixed on the effectiveness of regulation and policy around energy efficiency. Although some felt that building regulations had become very stringent and struggled to meet them, overall, the regulations were seen to contribute to industry change. There was concern over whether the regulations were understood and enacted by all, or ambitious enough, and there was some frustration at others in the industry who considered them to be a target rather than a minimal baseline. The communication of updates to building regulation was patchy, with many turning to colleagues to hear about changes. As micro-enterprise practitioners, their capability to keep up-to-date was ad hoc at best, due to time and resource constraints.
5.10 In relation to experience with previous national policy initiatives such as the UK Boiler Scrappage Scheme, some had had positive experiences but others felt such schemes tended to favour large businesses. Considering education, it was noticeable that training for policy schemes was not discussed by any participant: there was no expectation that policy changes would include training opportunities. While there was acknowledgement of the need for training on new energy efficiency technology, the training referenced by participants was that offered by manufacturers on their own products, and typically trade-specific.
5.11 Customer and market demand were varied. While some householders were unaware of pioneering technologies, others actively sought more sustainable homes. Some practitioners reported this as a niche market for those able to pay.
5.12 The networks of building practitioners and connected professionals were a source of information, trust and recommendations. Trusted colleagues offered the opportunity to gather information on the feasibility of products or proposed solutions, and on how to meet the regulatory requirments. Builders merchants were an important source of information, especially on products and on training by product manufacturers.
5.13 Reliability of new technology for energy efficiency was a concern for some participants. The concern of losing trust and reputation could lead to practitioners avoiding risks with new products.
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