Ireland risks not achieving its ambitious emissions reduction targets unless it finds new ways to attract construction workers, particularly to carry out retrofitting of buildings, the Oireachtas Climate Action Committee has been told.
Plans to retrofit 500,000 homes under the national retrofit plan by 2030 provided the basis for construction companies to chart career paths for workers, according to retrofit engineer Séamus Hoyne of the Technological University of the Shannon (TUS), but “there is clear challenge at present within the construction sector to recruit and retain staff”.
“The challenge of upskilling our workforce cannot be underestimated given the resource constraints that exist as present and our plumbers, electricians, construction workers, engineers and architects will be at the forefront of delivering emission reductions in the built environment,” he added.
In response to Deputy Darren O’Rourke (SF), he said the Government needed to urgently recruit across the EU, and to bring Irish construction workers back home through an innovative approach by not using traditional images suggesting labour-intensive activities. The sector was using advanced digital technology, a modular approach to construction and retrofits, and installing clean energy systems with major design elements worked out in offices, he said.
Mr Hoyne believed 19 to 20 “one stop shops” to process individual retrofits and assist with financing would be adequate, provided they had a good geographical spread, though there was a need to upskill small and mid-sized enterprises in construction. One stop shops would ensure national scale while such SMEs would “deliver at ground level”, he believed.
Tipperary Energy Agency – he currently serves at its chairman – had established the Superhomes one stop shop pilot in 2015 and in 2021 entered into a joint venture with Electric Ireland Superhomes with the ambition to deliver 8,500 retrofits annually by 2031, Mr Hoyne said.
“Critical to Electric Ireland Superhomes, and other one stop shops, will be growing the quantity and expertise of staff within the one stop shop and the contractors that they work with,” he added.
Dr Cathy Daly, a consultant with Carrig Conservation International in Ireland based at the University of Lincoln, said older and heritage buildings could help address Ireland's climate challenges but noted research for Historic England which found "it would take approximately 60 years for a new net-zero energy building to recoup the embodied carbon spent in construction. In other words, the greenest building is the one that is already built".
She highlighted the risk from badly-adapted buildings. “One of the main sources of maladaptation for heritage is inappropriate energy retrofit works. This may be due to a lack of awareness of heritage significance and/or a lack of technical understanding.”
While the current emphasis on energy retrofit was important, the integrity of traditional buildings with cultural heritage value, also needed to be respected, she added. “The challenge therefore is to formulate individual building retrofit strategies that create a balance between the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and the preservation of cultural heritage.”
Ireland’s cultural heritage was a resource providing many lessons around sustainable, low energy ways of living, Dr Daly said. The historic built environment, through its capacity for adaptive re-use, could make a significant contribution to a low carbon society through compatible energy efficiency upgrades “and the revitalisation of our historic town and city centres, both of which will lower dependency on fossil fuels”.
Deputy Christopher O’Sullivan (FF) said many buildings in urban areas were in a poor state which would require “a lot of money just to make them habitable”, and questioned whether old shopping premises and property over shops can be retrofitted at scale.
Dr Caroline Engel Purcell of Carrig Conservation International said this was "doable but expensive".
Committee chairman Brian Leddin said a renovation scheme was being mooted to reactivate this housing stock in towns and cities. While he accepted this might be not as easy as it sounds, he raised the possibility of having sufficient capacity to ensure such buildings were retrofitted.
Mr Hoyne said policies and incentives would need to be aligned to ensure this work was done appropriately.
In response to Deputy Richard Bruton (FG) who asked if shallow retrofits might be better than over specific deep retrofits might achieve greater decarbonisation sooner, he accepted greening the power grid with use of renewables might in time mean less stringent standards needed to be applied.
The current “design-led approach”, however, meant people would get into comfortable and more healthy homes much more quickly, Mr Hoyne said.