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The Green Deal looms large

What will it mean for small architectural practices? asks Russell Smith

For some time now, the ‘Green Deal’ has been a mythical creature on a distant horizon, its arrival promising riches and a better future for homes up and down the UK. The promise has been to deliver energy-efficient homes at little or no upfront cost, repaid through a charge to energy bills, but much of the detail has been missing. Now, finally, the scheme looms large, with its secondary legislation having recently passed through the commons en route to Royal Assent. With these milestones, much is clearer: what measures will qualify, the protection it will offer and the code of conduct for providers.

The giants of construction and retail are now putting the finishing touches to their business models in preparation for the Green Deal’s start. But one thing remains worryingly unclear to me, not only as the managing director of an SME, but also as someone who has seen retrofit delivered at its best and worst over the years, is how it will work for the little guys.

The long-term success of the Green Deal will depend critically on small businesses. At this time of economic turmoil, the government cannot afford to exclude SMEs from the employment opportunities that a vibrant retrofit market can bring. Equally important, a Green Deal led by mega-corporations will potentially stifle consumer choice, fail to deliver quality and miss vital triggers for take-up. Why should we recommend the Green Deal to a client if it means that tomorrow they will be on the phone to a high street company who will not only take them through the scheme, but will also hoover up the work we rely on along the way?

Architects have to date played a leading gateway role in the early years of the retrofit industry. They have often been the first port of call for households wanting design and project management advice. But now with the Green Deal, there is a risk that this work will drift away, landing on the doorsteps of ‘one stop shop’ Green Deal providers with their massive supply chains.

It’s not just architects who are peering nervously into the future. So too are energy assessors, builders, electricians, solar engineers and even kitchen installers. Fortunately, there are plenty who aren’t just waiting passively for their fate. The recently established ‘Green Deal Conduit’ for SMEs, led by Parity Projects and supported by organisations which represent more than 100,000 SMEs in the UK, including the RIBA, is trying to carve a slice out of the big Green Deal pie.

The aim of the Conduit is to give SMEs a route to the Green Deal market over which they have control. As it stands, the only (semi) certain role for SMEs is as sub-contractors once a Green Deal Provider comes knocking. This may offer a steady stream of work to some, but will leave many frozen out. But the Conduit, if successful, will give an SME the chance to wrest control back, keep the client they’ve brought to the table and access the finance they need from a provider on their side. The project has already gone through a scoping phase, including positive meetings with DECC, who recognise that reputations are at stake if the scheme fails to provide for SMEs.

But there’s a long way to go. With the scheme now looking unlikely to start in earnest before next spring, we have a little more time.

A ray of light for the small practitioner is that, as currently designed, there is no way that the Green Deal will work for everyone. It is too bureaucratic, with interest rates too high to appeal to all but a subset of the 14 million homes that require energy efficiency improvements. So a very large market should exist outside the Green Deal. But that is no excuse for us to rest on our laurels. If we work collectively, we can create a role for ourselves in the Green Deal marketplace.

Russell Smith is managing director of Parity Projects

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