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

Funded PhD Scholarship


This is a fees-only scholarship which will cover your annual tuition fees (around £4,260). The project is also included in a wider open funding competition which may lead to a full scholarship being offered. We will confirm the funding available before we issue any offers. This project will also have additional income from 16 hours a week teaching in the School of Architecture, enabling the candidates to gain teaching experience while pursuing their PhD.

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:

External partnership

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.

Aims and objectives

Question, Aim 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:

View a full list of references

Specific requirements of the project

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


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 (full time)

Please quote the reference: ArtsHums-LM-2019-1.

You must also complete the additional Postgraduate Research Degree Supplementary Information document and upload it to the Student documents section of your online application.

Closing date

Midnight, 14 January 2019


Interviews are likely to take place between late January and mid February.

Research Study