Introducing ‘retrofit poverty’: the inequality of opportunity to improve the energy performance of the home

Dr Nicola Willand1, Dr Sarah Robertson1, Professor Ralph Horne1, Professor Emma Baker2, Dr Trivess Moore1

1Rmit University, Melbourne, Australia

2University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia


Combining the concepts of energy justice, poverty, social practices and the capabilities approach, this conceptual paper argues for research into retrofit poverty as the inequality of opportunity to improve the energy performance of the home. Following the Paris Agreement, the reduction of carbon emissions and the protection of vulnerable people have become dual political imperatives. Retrofitting the existing housing stock can benefit both the environment and householder health. However, retrofitting is a voluntary, private, self-driven and often costly activity. Current retrofit policy tools, which rely on market-based schemes and assume householders as empowered and rational actors, have had limited success, and there is concern about inequitable access to their benefits. Commonly cited barriers are low income, lack of information and the split-incentive, yet geographical, socio-economic indices have proven inadequate predictors of retrofit activity, and the stereotype of the profit-driven landlord has been challenged. Hence, policies addressing the social impacts of low carbon transitions must look beyond energy subsistence poverty to retrofit participation disadvantage. A better understanding of householder retrofit experiences and practices is needed to reveal the mechanisms that shape the capabilities needed for retrofitting and to reveal inequalities of opportunities to reduce energy costs and emissions.


Dr Nicola Willand is a Lecturer at the School of Property, Construction and Project Management at RMIT University and a Chief Investigator in the ARC Linkage grant project Household energy efficiency transitions (HEET): Scaling up affordable urban retrofit. As an architect by background, Dr Willand approaches sustainability in the built environment as a socio‐technical system. Her research interests focus on strategies that minimise environmental impacts and life cycle costs while maximising productivity, health and social justice. Her current work explores residential retrofits as an opportunity for health and equity.

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