Retrofit Street

Retrofit Street Knowle West is a people-powered retrofit* project, guided by the foundational question of “What if the climate transition and retrofit of our homes and streets were designed, owned, and governed by the people who live there?”, as set out by the Retrofit Reimagined network. Designed as a street-based demonstrator, the project brings together local residents, designers, researchers, and technical experts to explore ideas, try them out for real, and share the learning.

The retrofit challenge

The UK’s homes are among the oldest and leakiest in Europe, prone to freezing in winter and overheating in summer. With less than 2% of new homes being built today meeting the highest environmental standards, more poor housing stock keeps getting added, and the scale of the retrofit challenge grows ever starker. Between now and 2050, 27 million homes in the UK need to be retrofitted – that means one home retrofitted every 35 seconds.

Originally built as part of the wave of “homes fit for heroes” in the wake of the Great War, the council-built estate of Knowle West was once seen as the future of how we might live better together. One hundred years on however, with their poor insulation, solid wall construction and high reliance on gas, Knowle West homes are ill-equipped for the climate emergency. Even before the latest cost of living crisis nearly a third of families in Knowle West were experiencing fuel poverty.

There is no doubt that retrofit is challenging. It can be disruptive, expensive, and the technical options and data opaque and overwhelming. The challenge is compounded by how retrofit tends to be packaged up – either as a centralised, top-down technical fix done to communities, or fragmented “house by house” and sold as a product to individual customers who can afford to pay. The result is retrofit pursued in a way that is isolated from wider issues like health, inequality, and housing need; government retrofit programmes underdeliver and under-spend; and a situation where many of us don’t have enough trust to even begin the journey.

an ecosystem approach

The urgency and scale of the climate emergency demands action that is deeper, more collective, and actively invites everyone in. Retrofit Street Knowle West is led by WeCanMake in collaboration with Knowle West Media Centre (KWMC), and part of an emerging network of innovative street-based retrofit demonstrators, including in Bristol, London, and Birmingham.

We are proud to be part of a wider people and place-led retrofit movement convened by Civic Square under the banner of Retrofit Reimagined. Other partners include the National Retrofit Hub, ACAN, Anthropocene Architecture School, Dark Matter Labs, HEAL, and Zero Carbon House. Together, we believe that four vital shifts are needed:

Retrofit Street is part of a new “Green Transition Ecosystem” project funded by ARHC and led by an alliance of four universities: Bath, Bristol, Cardiff, and Exeter, and in collaboration with the Future Observatory at the Design Museum. The two-year project is working with communities in Knowle West and Swansea to co-design energy efficient low carbon homes using biomaterials. The learning and biomaterial innovation is designed to feed into Bristol City Council’s wider decarbonisation strategy.

A street-based system demonstrator

Retrofit Street Knowle West is an open test-space to co-design and prototype an approach to retrofit that sees the home in the context of its surrounding street and neighbourhood. We define retrofit in broader terms than just insulation and solar panels, with the aim that communities are able to better respond and adapt to changing needs over time. We focus on:

  • Working and co-designing with families on our test street and in the wider neighbourhood. We have a “tenure blind” approach to ensure that everyone feels invited, and that solutions can be adopted by anyone whether they rent from the council or own their home;
  • A “kit of parts” approach to enable an accumulative transition to deep retrofit. This takes fuller account of highest points of impact, the phased management of council housing stock, and the realities of family budget for home improvements;
  • Biomaterials for retrofit, which take account of upfront and in-use carbon, as well as wider material justice imperatives;
  • Localised production using the digital fabrication kit in our community micro-factory to make components including cladding, windows, doors and shutters.
Upcoming programme

On our street demonstrator and together with local residents, we are working with a multidisciplinary design and technical team including engineers from University of Bath, ethnographic researchers from University of Exeter, architects Mikhail Riches, and the wider Retrofit Reimagined network. Our upcoming programming includes:

  • Data mapping using sensors and 3D scanners to capture the performance of homes, combined with people’s everyday knowledge of how their homes and streets work;
  • A creative Trade School series where local residents and trades can share and learn new retrofit skills together;
  • A participative co-design programme with artist residencies, inspire trips, film-screenings, workshops and place-based events to explore, prototype, and test ideas around retrofit;
  • A Dream Fund for local families to imagine, co-design, and make small-scale retrofit interventions on their street and front gardens (eg: planters, wormeries, rainwater harvesters, playing-out kit);
  • Co-designing and delivering a series of practical retrofit measures on homes on the street (Autumn 2024);
  • A showcase of the learning and stories from Retrofit Street at the Design Museum, as part of the wider Transforming Homes ARHC funded programme (Autumn 2025).
Be part of retrofit street

With an ethos of working in the open, our people and place-led approach to retrofit innovation is designed to be shared with other communities facing similar challenges to ours, and to constructively feed into and influence more market and government-led retrofit programmes and policies.

If you live on Andover Road, you might already be involved in the people-powered retrofit project. Andover is our ‘pilot’, where residents are co-creating and testing retrofit solutions for their homes and street, which will form a ‘kit of parts’ for Knowle West retrofit that anyone will be able to access! As part of Retrofit Street, we will be running a series of Trade Schools at KWMC The Factory and elsewhere. A trade school is an opportunity for anyone to share knowledge and learn new skills.

Got something to share at a Trade School or keen to collaborate or support Retrofit Street? Get in touch!

Click here to see our upcoming Trade Schools and events.

* Retrofit means to adapt something ‘to a new purpose or need’. In the context of housing, this doesn’t just mean solar panels or roof insulation – it could be anything that you do in your home, street or neighbourhood to adapt or enhance it to make it better for people or planet.

Retrofit Street is part of a two-year funded initiative bringing together expertise from architecture, engineering, social science, sustainability and community partners. Read more about the wider project here.