Retrofitting Neighbourhoods: Exploring approaches to sustainable residential retrofit at an urban scale

Funded PhD Scholarship



An extremely high proportion of UK residential stock is terraced housing. It is an architectural typology that has been incredibly robust over time, creating active streets and accommodating changes to how people live. But there is a critical challenge with this dominant housing type – how can it adapt to contemporary sustainability targets, to rising energy costs and to the implications of climate change?
Mostly Victorian, their environmental performance does not meet current standards, nor contemporary occupants’ expectations. Over the years, central heating and hot water systems have been installed, and many have had insulation added to the roof space by owners, but these properties struggle to retain heat and are blighted by damp and recurrent maintenance issues. The implications of their deficient environmental performance are far greater than just the effect on their occupants: the UK’s energy-related carbon emissions are the highest they have ever been (Anderson, 2013) and around 30% of them can be attributed to domestic properties (EST, undated). In order to address this in any substantial way, there is growing consensus that instead of focussing on new-build regulations, we should be improving the environmental performance of existing housing (Swan, 2013, Boardman, 2007).
In practice, this challenge is being addressed at a small-scale, in a piecemeal way. A small number of specialist architects (such as URBED, the non-HEI partner in this bid) are commissioned by a relatively niche market of environmentally-minded homeowners to retrofit their terraced houses. This vastly improves their performance through material and technological upgrades. But retrofitting houses on this individual basis does limit the improvements that can be achieved. If we were able to retrofit at a neighbourhood scale, this would have an exponential impact on the efficacy of that work. By dealing with a series of houses at once, a wider range of interventions become possible: infrastructure and systems can start to be tackled, more homes can be improved more quickly and the cost to homeowners can be reduced or funds more effectively deployed (for example through neighbours sharing the cost of scaffolding or bulk buying materials). So why is this not already happening? Collective retrofit of a street or neighbourhood has tended only to be successful in a top-down approach, with publicly-owned housing, propelled by the autocracy that affords. When groups of neighbours with private ownership are interested in collectively tackling retrofitting their homes, they struggle to co-ordinate and agree on a course of action. Projects typically stall during initial discussions due to a lack of certainty in what should be done what the benefits would be, and due to discrepancies in what each household can afford to spend on the work.
Thus far, research in this area has focussed on top-down approaches to retrofit (Roaf, 2008, Lane, 2015). There is very little which scrutinises the architectural design aspects of retrofit, especially at a neighbourhood scale and little that incorporates social factors (rather than dealing with it in parallel) in order to simultaneously tackle vital issues of implementation. Those that do tackle this, have addressed very different climatic contexts such as Canada (TRCA, 2014) and different architectural typologies such as tower blocks (Lane, 2015), tenements (Roaf, 2008) and detached houses (TRCA, 2014). It would seem that in order to support neighbourhood scale retrofit of privately-owned terraces, and therefore make bigger inroads into sustainable retrofit, research needs to be undertaken to understand the obstacles to bottom-up approaches in order to navigate around them; to determine widely accessible guidance about what retrofit work is advisable for the terrace typology along with clarity in cost expectations; and to identify opportunities for interventions in wider infrastructure.


It is expected that the candidate will initially conduct a thorough literature review in order to establish the current state of knowledge and further refine the research question. Areas covered will initially include technological, social, political and design aspects of retrofit. There are then a wide range of methodological possibilities that can be deployed dependant on the outcome of the literature review and the particular interests and skills of the candidate recruited. These include, but are not limited to:



Year 1 - It is expected that the candidate will spend the first year reviewing literature, establishing the state of knowledge pertaining to retrofit of terraced house neighbourhoods. Depending on opportunity, some engagement with clients for ongoing projects may take place this year. Discussions with the specialist architects and sustainability experts at URBED will take place, at least informally. This year the candidate will be based dually at URBED and at Manchester School of Architecture (MSA).
Year 2 - The second year would be expected to involve finalising the research question, aims and objectives and defining the research structure and methodology accordingly. The majority of the empirical work should then be executed this year. This year the candidate will be based dually at URBED, engaging with clients and consultants, and at MSA.
Year 3 - This year would predominantly be spent completing empirical work; analysing and reviewing results; and using the findings to develop guidelines for neighbourhood retrofit. It will include writing up the thesis for submission. This year the candidate will mostly be based at MSA.
Impact and Contribution to Knowledge
Public Impact
By developing retrofit guidance for homeowner communities to adopt, this project aims to produce an accessible resource thus enabling uptake of retrofit beyond early adopters, and contributing to wider goals set by government to reduce residential energy demand and carbon emissions in our existing housing stock (Heaslip, 2013). This guidance could identify a foundation level of collective retrofit interventions for a neighbourhood which constitute an optimal baseline for improvement. It could also then specify additional beneficial interventions that can be pursued by individual households as and when finance allows.
Industry Impact
The findings of the research will be disseminated also as best practice guidelines for architects working in retrofit of this housing type, to enable them to support clients to work in neighbourhood groups.
Additionally, strategies at a neighbourhood scale could help electricity networks’ anticipate substantial changes in local energy demand, and plan adjustments to local substations accordingly. Neighbourhood scale retrofit also has the potential to reduce demand on the local grid, making it more resilient especially at peak times (UKGBC, 2017).
Policy Impact
The findings of the research have the potential to impact policy around sustainable retrofit of existing buildings. A report for policy-makers will be produced to support evidence-based policy and a framework for achieving government targets for reductions in domestic energy use and carbon emissions.
Contribution to Knowledge
In academic terms, the implications of retrofit at a neighbourhood scale have thus far not been substantially explored, from an architectural perspective, from the position of facilitating a bottom-up approach nor for terraced housing. Therefore, this project has the potential to progress the current state of knowledge in this area quite significantly. Additionally, social factors in retrofit have tended to be researched in parallel, so by integrating this aspect into the research there is the potential for more nuanced insight and implementation.

External Partner Organisation

This is proposed as a collaborative PhD with, as mentioned, a non-HEI partner – URBED Urbanism, Environment and Design. URBED is an internationally renowned, award-winning, multi-disciplinary practice with expertise spanning urban design, architecture, landscape architecture and sustainability. Far from a typical practice, it is constituted as a small, particularly socially-minded co-operative, that pursues more than just commercial commissions.
Marianne Heaslip, Associate Principal at URBED and contributor to this bid, will co-supervise the research. This will include monthly supervisory meetings with the candidate and academic supervisor(s) and hosting the candidate in the URBED office for around 50% of their studies. Her and her colleague Lorenza Casini’s expertise and experience in this very particular topic will be at the disposal of the candidate. Additionally, the time of other staff will be available if it is pertinent to the project. URBED are committed to providing the candidate with:

- The Carbon Coop, a householder-member cooperative working on domestic retrofit and cooperative energy systems transformation
- Local District Network Operator, Electricity North West
Public and private clients
- Community-based organisations seeking to revive their neighbourhoods (Community Land Trusts and Community-Led Housing organisations)
- The Association of Environmentally Conscious Building
- The Academy of Urbanism

In-house training as part of the practice’s CPD programme and a small annual budget to contribute towards the costs for the candidate to attend/participate in relevant external events.




Aims and objectives

Although the candidate will refine a research question in accordance with the findings of their literature review and their own interests and expertise, the initial question the research will address is: To what extent might a collective, neighbourhood approach to the sustainable retrofit of terraced houses be beneficial and achievable? Its aim will be to understand how a neighbourhood of terraced houses in private ownership could collectively be retrofitted. The following objectives can be identified:

Specific requirements of the project

Applicants are expected to have a very strong academic and professional background in architecture.

Modes of Study Available, and funding information

Open to Home/EU and International candidates


Option 2     Part-time route    

Open to Home/EU and International candidates

Student eligibility

This opportunity is open to UK, EU and overseas applicants. Funding is available for the equivalent of UK/EU fees - overseas applicants will need to pay the difference in fees.


Informal enquiries can be made to:

Dr Lucy Montague

How to Apply

The quickest and most efficient way to apply for this course is to apply online. This way, you can also track your application at each stage of the process.

Apply online

Please quote the reference: AH-MH-2019-retrofitting-1.

Please complete the additional Postgraduate Research Degree Supplementary Information document and upload it to the Student documents section of your online application. This collects important information about your research application and there may be delays if you do not submit this document.

Before you apply, we recommend that you:

Next Stages of Your Application

We will contact you to let you know the initial outcome of your application, and invite you to attend an interview where appropriate.

Once the university is satisfied with the following, we will send you an offer letter informing you that you have been offered a place of study:

Some offers may be conditional upon achieving certain grades in your examinations, or successfully completing a particular programme. You must satisfy these conditions before we can confirm your unconditional place.

Please choose the option for "PhD Architecture starting in April 2020" when applying online.

Queries about the application form and process can be directed to

Closing date

28 January 2020


Interviews will be held in the week commencing 10 February 2020, with the successful applicant expected to begin their studies in April 2020

Research Study