Understanding why works in the RMI sector may not deliver

Plaster workshop

The following has been prepared in preparation for a forthcoming publication ‘Built to Last’ in collaboration with Dublin City Council, Dublin Institute of Technology and Joseph Little.

This problem statement was written from the perspective of Neighbourhood Construction, an organisation developing solutions to the problems found within the RMI sector.

2000 words – 15 minutes


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Understanding why works in the RMI sector may not deliver



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Understanding why works in the RMI sector may not deliver


The sub-sector of the construction industry undertaking works on existing properties is known as the “RMI sector”. Neighbourhood Construction recognised that this acronym is both used and understood to mean either “Repair, Maintenance and Improvement” or “Renovation, Maintenance and Improvement”. Repair MI is a general term, more applicable to a machine or a system whereas Renovation MI is a more specific term, applicable to housing and construction. NC consider that when the sub-sectors are defined and categorised the latter, “Renovation, Maintenance and Improvement” is a more useful and accurate definition.


From the Latin verb novare – “to make new”. Renew, replace and refurbish – ‘doing-up’. NC consider renovation as a subjective improvement, aspirational or aesthetic change and by far the most significant proportion of economic activity within the RMI Sector.


From the Latin manus tenēre, “to hold (take) in hand” – conservation, restoration and repair. NC consider maintenance as akin to ‘Theseus’s ship’. Continually maintained it remains unchanged, it does not become a different boat.


From the Latin prodest – “of advantage”. Upgrade, modernise and ‘retrofitting’. NC consider improvement as enhanced performance, an objective improvement. Indoor plumbing, gas lamps, electricity, central heating, double glazing, solar panels, wall insulation and so on.


The Renovation, Maintenance and Improvement sector, (RMI sector) is worth €3.3 billion in Ireland annually and 26.7% of construction activity. (Construction Industry Federation 2015 Irish building magazine)

In the UK, ‘RMI in total, across all buildings and structures, was an area of economic activity valued at approximately £28 billion* (Killip 2012) in 2009 compared with energy efficiency spending, through the energy company obligation Carbon Emissions Reduction Target (CERT) scheme, of £800 million in the same year’ – Energy Retrofitting is less than 3% of the RMI sector. The sub-sector of Energy Retrofitting is small. NC believes effecting change requires engaging the entire RMI sector to achieve a shift in culture, improving the existing, rather than its further marginalisation or displacement. The following section will look at the RMI sector from the perspective of the 97%.

*Up-date – £35 billion



Neighbourhood Construction is addressing some fundamental problems they perceive in the UK’s Renovation, Maintenance and Improvement (RMI) sector. They recognise that most historic buildings feature a ‘smörgåsbord’ of past renovations which replaces or covers much of the original fabric. There is little awareness or celebration of age, authenticity, progression, or existing quality of historic dwellings. The market is driven by an aspirational aesthetic. Renovation and refurbishment, rather than the care and repair, the maintenance and objective improvement of the original fabric.

Through no fault of its own, the sector has become depleted of the knowledge required to understand the traditional thermal envelope. The focus on remodelling and the consumption of new products and finishes often overshadows the need to look at how and where dwellings under-perform. Without an awareness of the underlying needs of the property, the pervading culture and values of the sector are reflected in the housing market, lifestyle magazines, television programmes and advertising. These focus on style and encourage a transient, short-term attitude towards fittings and decoration which satisfies the need for self-expression and consumption. The culture perpetuates the myth that successful home improvement is personally fulfilling and easy to achieve.

Within the RMI sector, there are also some unavoidable conflicts of interest, and yet it has a culture that wants to do things right. Homeowners, contractors, specifiers and suppliers aspire to best practice, however, what is right? Decision making is subject to the influence of cultural norms. Over time, these norms naturally change and evolve. Decisions collectively made in the past can arguably be perceived as poor choices and yet within the context of their time they would seem correct and made with good intention. The repercussions to the building fabric were unforeseen and as we embark on a new wave of retrofitting, the mistakes of the past, choice of materials and working methods, need to be better understood.



Historically, home improvement has been driven by the desire for new technologies, such as improvements to sanitation and thermal comfort. These include indoor plumbing, gas lighting, electricity and central heating. Retrofitting new products and systems into buildings built before such technologies existed is inevitably invasive. Floors that were never meant to be lifted and walls that were never intended to be chased, continue to be damaged each time further alterations and upgrade works takes place. This unwitting damage can be more than aesthetic: it can alter how the fabric of the building performs.


The responsible homeowner, wanting to do right by their property, may embark on improvements, oblivious of the impacts on the building fabric and the repercussions to its performance. They may also assume a contractor, specifier or supplier to have a wide-ranging knowledge of fabric performance when in truth this is highly unlikely.

The desire to personalise one’s home through small-scale improvements as a projection of cultural aspiration overlook the practical considerations of thermal comfort and moisture management. New kitchens and bathrooms, remodelling the layout, or solely applying a fresh coat of paint, all add to the ‘smörgåsbord’ of inappropriate materials that lead to unintended consequences. Preoccupied with the task of selecting fixtures and fittings, this retail experience of self-expression through improvement is reinforced by the industry, validating a culture of modernising and retrofitting, with little understanding of the consequences to the original fabric.


Much of the advice currently given to homeowners embarking on RMI projects comes directly from the contractor tendering to carry out the works. The homeowner, having perceived a problem or conceived an aspiration, seeks a recommendation and then the opinion of a contractor. Engaging directly with a person that has practical experience can offer advantages, but can also present some conflicts of interest. While some contractors prefer to quote for a predetermined specification, others would rather work to their own designs. The contractor should have clarification as to whether advice and design are being sought, or solely a quotation for a predetermined scope. On these smaller projects, efficiencies of scale lend themselves to the discussion of both design and cost simultaneously. It may not be onerous to expect that an hour or two of time be applied speculatively and then recouped on aggregate through the delivery of the works. However, at what scale is it more advisable to divide the design and scope from costing and delivery.

The conflict of interest runs deeper than time and finances. Regardless of their depth of knowledge, a contractor’s perspective will always be subjective. With the best of intentions, while aspiring to achieve good quality work, their advice, beliefs and approach will reflect both their formal and informal training as well as experience gained. The knowledge and access to available materials and processes are most likely to be informed by modern products and techniques. Contractors may never receive appropriate training with respect to the original fabric and methodologies. This knowledge of the original fabric is found tacitly in many contractors and heritage specialists but is not fully understood by scientific examination, does not disseminate readily and is, therefore, unlikely to be part of the specification.


When the financial conflict of interest is removed, and a trained specifier or experienced contractor engaged, inappropriate advice may still unwittingly be provided. Coordinating the retrofitting of systemised products and processes is not without its challenges. Without an evidence-based approach to the fabric, the information provided by the supplier and manufacturers of the new product takes precedence over the original fabric without insight into how they interact.

Many of the most common problems can be resolved using care and repair or even with behavioural strategies, such as operating operable doors and windows. Learning how to repair and operate what one has, can often be more effective and kinder to the building than renovation. A good conservation-focused architect or consultant should be able to advise on no-cost and low-cost interventions, as well as producing specifications for unseen improvements to the fabric, whether applying wall insulation or simply decorating using appropriate materials. Likewise, an experienced mason or painter may also be the appropriate person to engage in a paid consideration to specify this work.

Sourcing the right advisor and honouring their advice with payment are crucial steps in the completion of successful and appropriate renovation, maintenance and improvement work. On projects of a larger scale, comprehensive specifications can be a useful and cost-effective tool. However, many of the projects undertaken in the RMI sector are of a very small scale and, albeit subjective, there is plenty of free advice available from both contractor and suppliers looking to acquire a contract. Consultancy fees are viewed as an unnecessary overhead that diminishes the budget, reducing the scope of deliverable work. Independent advice is understandably perceived as not cost-effective and simply not required. For smaller RMI projects to access affordable appropriate impartial advice, a more agile tool is required.


Mainstream suppliers present a palette of modern synthetic materials, as a readily available systemised solution developed for the new build or retrofit market. Specialist suppliers are hard to reach, and may be seen to complicate rather than facilitate ‘getting things done’; there is little time for unforeseen complexity. Once again, despite being subjective, the suppliers and producers of products become a trusted source of information, giving advice and recommendations to homeowners, contractors and specifiers. How these products relate and perform in conjunction with the original fabric is often overlooked. Seen as either an authority or barrier, the supplier of choice informs the market with what it wants to hear. The dominance of these ‘quicker, cheaper and better’ modern products, pushes the merchants of traditional materials into specialised markets. Suppliers don’t stock what people don’t buy, and people don’t buy what suppliers don’t stock.

Organisations within the Sector

Energy-efficiency focused retrofitters are relative newcomers in the RMI sector. They are likely to be larger, more commercial companies offering a specific product or systems. By simplifying the process for the homeowner, they offer a ‘one-stop-shop’, supplying their product as part of an advice, specification and installation package, in much the same way as installing a new kitchen or replacement windows. These ‘upgrades’ are then made in isolation rather than within the context of understanding the whole house as a series of interrelating systems. The sub-sector of improvement or ‘retrofitting’ is growing. In doing so, simple no-cost, low-cost, care and repair for the functionality of the building has become neglected, while retrofitting upgrades and improvements in isolation has resulted in materials and methods that are damaging the original fabric (see Section 4.5 and 4.6).

The way the Irish and UK RMI sectors are structured has a lot to do with this. It is a fractal and fragmented, self-organising sector of small and medium-sized enterprises, frequently autonomous, self-employed individuals. In some cases, they will work in isolation, occasionally cooperating with other individuals, and sometimes working within larger groups or organisations. The problem is a product of the system itself, rather than the individuals within it.

Imagine the RMI sector as a single organisation and that organisation as a system. Within that system, there are groups and individuals that can be understood as subsystems, even though those subsystems are complex, open systems on their own account. The products used are from the same group of suppliers, the work carried out will be familiar and recognisable, and the attitudes and culture will appear consistent across this sector. There are of course regional and local differences, but these are minor compared to the similarities we can observe. (Morgan, Images of Organisations)

So it seems, when you look at it, you could be mistaken for viewing this sector as one organisation. Perhaps this is where attempts to improve the RMI sector have failed. Where it is possible to effect change through the command structures of a large organisation, it is not possible to apply in what is currently a fragmented and disparate RMI sector. Recognising this, what would this sector need to be able to function and communicate as if it were a single entity? (Frederic Laloux – Reinventing Organisations)



“When groups with very different occupational attitudes are placed in a relation of dependence, organisations often become plagued by this kind of ‘cultural warfare’.”

Images of organisation, Morgan 1986

Neighbourhood Construction is exploring what is best practice not only for the practical process of a building project but also the emotional relationships of all those involved. NC has observed the problems associated with a culture that wants to do the right thing yet a culture that is onerous.

One of the initial observations was the negative impact an inappropriate hierarchy had on the dialogue within the sector. Shifting this towards an appropriate hierarchy respects the value of the individual who is best placed to make the right decision. It is not that the hierarchy should not be present within the division of Labour. The hierarchy must not be static. A dynamic hierarchy promotes successful cooperative working and cross-disciplinary collaborative learning. This challenges a deep-rooted history of class conflict, empowering people to develop beyond these prejudices, enacting a change of culture, from adversarial to collaborative. (Morgan, 1986)

Success depends not only on the quality of work or advice given but also on the method and context in which such information is gathered, critiqued and disseminated.

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Interaction of historic building fabric and atmosphere

The purpose behind traditional decorative Architectural detailing. The historic building fabric was designed and detailed to manage moisture vapour by successfully interacting with the atmosphere. Before modifying the original, the function and purpose of the existing form should first be fully understood.