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.

7000 words – 35 minutes

On this page


A novel approach to renovating historic dwellings from Bristol


7.3.3 Understanding why works in the RMI sector may not deliver



7.8.3 The Neighbourhood Construction framework of systems



Effecting change


A novel approach to renovating historic dwellings from Bristol

Neighbourhood Construction (NC), a community interest company (CIC) in Bristol, has developed an innovative approach to home improvement that has systems thinking, psychology and personal empowerment at its heart. Simon James Lewis, the driving force of NC, has a degree in Three-Dimensional Design and studied at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Mid-Wales. As a consultant, designer, specifier, project manager and craftsman he has a lifetime of experience working in Heritage, Renovation, Maintenance and Improvement.

In 2012, following collaboration on a renovation project, Lewis and Nic Price, his erstwhile client (and service design and information architecture specialist), began to codify the complexities of the workflow. Lewis had for a long time been observing not only the practical process of a building project but also the emotional and psychological relationships of all those involved. Together Lewis and Price began analysing what was required to fully understand how to successfully complete high-quality projects from initial conception to completion. Realising the need for user testing, Neighbourhood Construction was born.


7.3.3 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.

“Renovation” 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.

“Maintenance” 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.

“Improvement” 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 – Nick/ Joseph 2019…



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.

(See Section 4.5 Materials – historic building fabric’ and ‘Section 4.6 – Materials – the interaction of historic building fabric & atmosphere’)

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 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.


7.8.3 The Neighbourhood Construction framework of systems


“It is through science that we prove, but through intuition that we discover”

– Henri Poincaré (1854-1912).

Neighbourhood Construction is an open-source framework of systems created to support the design, planning and delivery of successful renovation, maintenance and improvement projects. It is a knowledge-led, people-centred approach, based on a deep understanding of traditionally-constructed buildings. The materials used are generally natural and hygroscopic, but all interventions are focused on reducing the demand and consumption of energy whilst effectively resolving the problems associated with moisture. The use of the NC framework of systems can empower every individual that engages with it.

The framework recognises and embraces the importance of no-cost and low-cost interventions. Everyone involved develops an understanding of how the home performs and how energy and moisture-managing improvements can be tackled in isolation, room by room, or as part of a whole-house refurbishment.

A user-centred problem-solving tool, the framework empowers the individual through cooperative working and collaborative learning, building a more cost-effective, efficient project. A network of practitioners, predominantly in the Bristol region, provides peer-to-peer on-site training and structured tuition, through cooperative working and collaborative learning. The common language continually critiques and updates the systems. Constant improvements are made through peer support and peer review.

The NC approach applies to all stages of the renovation, maintenance and improvement work. That is the diagnosis, brief formulation and preparation, the building works and building operation; before, during and hereafter. Lewis and his team have identified a fractal process, agile working protocols and easily understood scientific principles, that underpin each stage. As something that can be self-organising and continuously evolving, this approach encourages personal development as well as ownership of the model.

Beginning with the no-cost and low-cost interventions, the process, protocols and principles learned are transferable, informing how to tackle more extensive interventions with a knowledge-led approach. The process, protocols and principles are sympathetic to the value of traditional buildings, featuring specific renovation measures and technologies. The projects and interventions are as much focused on managing moisture as on thermal comfort and energy-efficiency.


A simple five-step process guides the user through each phase, (titled) Brief – Design – Programme – Schedule – Team. These open-ended categories lend themselves with equal relevance to both large and small-scale projects. A fractal approach, whereby the same categories are used repeatedly throughout a project as it is broken into smaller sub-projects. They provide a simple mental model which does not need to be written down to be understood. NC believe that when structures and rules become too prescriptive they can lose their impact and relevance. The NC Process is versatile and agile, providing a more robust shared language suited to the complex and dynamic working environment of the RMI sector.

Each phase represents a paid consideration to acquire an independent opinion of an appropriate specialist for either the diagnosis, proposal, preparation or the delivery of the project. This removes the conflicts of interest that occur when speculating for a contract. For the team the Process provided a clear career pathway, tracking a practitioner from apprentice to consultant. This approach values and supports the individual’s personal and professional development.


Whether on or off-site, NC protocols fit into one of five categories, Communication – Cooperation – Welfare – Waste – Value. Participating in, and contributing to, a culture of best practice collectively reinforces the most common, normative or relevant approach during any given activity. Rather than these being a prescriptive and extensive set of rules applied in a cooperative command structure.

Fitting into all five of the Protocol categories, a risk assessment is used here as an example. It serves a good purpose to be written in preparation, however, it serves little purpose during delivery if it is filed in a drawer. Alongside this written risk assessment, a dynamic risk assessment is actively taking place on the day. Discussed and determined by the team, the emphasis is given to what is most relevant at any given time.

An appropriate strategy will be informed by context: the who, what, where, when and why of the project. It is more important to understand the perspective of everyone involved at any given moment and adapt the strategy accordingly. It can be constantly updated and more likely to be applied as it is owned by everyone involved. It becomes internalised and instilled in the culture.


Achieving building performance objectives require an understanding of some underlying principles. These can be understood from a variety of perspectives. Historically, collective wisdom was established through haptic perception and tacit knowledge. This inductive reasoning, (structured through observation, pattern, hypothesis and theory) is still prevalent within Heritage and Conservation. However, current knowledge is now established through research and testing. This deductive reasoning (structured through theory, hypothesis, observation and confirmation) is prevalent within energy-retrofitting and product-led improvement.

Philosophically: true wisdom begins with the collection of data, which with understanding conceives useful information. In turn, this information, again with understanding, builds into knowledge and the exchange of this knowledge establishes wisdom. The distinction between knowledge and wisdom can be understood as the difference between hindsight and foresight. Through cooperative working and collaborative learning, collective wisdom can be achieved. It is the sharing of the collective experience which lessens the risk of unintended consequences.

Learning through observation and recognising patterns, one’s personal learning journey is supported and celebrated. The learning is internalised and therefore more likely to be acted upon. It is therefore given greater importance to grasp the concept rather than to recite verbatim the associated theorem. Haptic perception encourages and supports experimentation and data capture to reinform these principles. Within the context of cooperative working, a consistent process and agreed protocols; anomalies are more easily detected and collaborative learning is established. However, true collective wisdom requires both inductive and deductive reasoning to ensure confirmation of the hypothesis. Without completing the cycle, both approaches can get things wrong.

Parallels are drawn in the following examples.

In response to demand, contracting companies within the RMI sector developed damp-proofing strategies through inductive reasoning. Applying waterproofing products may appear to solve the problem. However, only the symptoms, not the root cause, are addressed. On the other hand, product manufacturers and suppliers have funded research resulting in a range of approved methodologies for retrofitting wall insulation through deductive reasoning. Applying thermally resistant materials would appear to reduce energy use; however, this book provides many examples of where the hypothesis has produced unacceptable, unintended consequences.

Synthetic wood filler offers the market a product that solves a number of workability problems. Quick-drying, non-shrinking, easy sanding and ready to paint; they afford a more cost-effective ‘high performance’ solution. The manufacturer can demonstrate their product to be impervious to water penetration and resistant to degradation. However, the new impervious, non-hygroscopic, synthetic product, now placed adjacent to the original hygroscopic, natural material effects how moisture vapour interacts between the two.

The risk of condensation increases where the two materials meet. Moisture vapour attracted to the cold, dense, vapour closed, synthetic material is not absorbed due to the materials limited capacity for vapour buffering. Consequently, the increase in moisture vapour is concentrated on the adjacent original fabric resulting in an increased risk of degradation. This reflects how a ‘vapour closed’ mortar can affect an adjacent ‘vapour open’ masonry. (See Chapter 4.7 – Interaction of historic building fabric & atmosphere)

Originally, a material solution would be to mix finely ground chalk (calcium carbonate), with boiled linseed oil. In the right hands, this hygroscopic material can mitigate moisture problems, even at the most challenging of building intersections. It can be used to join glass to timber. It may not be viewed as cost effective to make one’s own filler, however, traditional window putty is widely available.

Over time, inductive reasoning has demonstrated hygroscopic materials to be an excellent solution. However, without rigorous scientific testing and deductive reasoning; specifying this material for a repair could be viewed as not applying due diligence.

Synthetic wall insulation solutions present themselves to the market as rigorously tested and degradation resistant products. They can be confidently specified. The energy performance and material characteristics have been measured and can be warrantied. However, the impact these products will have over time on the original fabric, to which they are applied, is neither thoroughly understood or covered by a guarantee. With innumerable different masonry types, each with varying characteristics, to be considered and tested; the deductive process required would need to be extensive and could never be all-inclusive or conclusive.

Without a deductive evidenced-based approach to the original fabric, the information provided by the manufacturers of the new products takes precedence without insight into how it will interact with the original. Those working within RMI, Heritage and Conservation, could foresee this approach to be both problematic and detrimental. However, challenging this approach is seen as unscientific.

In these examples, the definition of the problem and how it was solved then become the source of the problem. The theoretical solution has created additional problems. By observing varying methods as well as questioning the objectives an organisation can learn to effect change using double-loop learning.

The RMI sector, however, is not a single organisation.


The NC projects evolved in response to some fundamental simple problems. By applying no-cost strategies and low-cost interventions as part of a diagnostics process, Lewis, through his buildings pathology had identified many of the most common causes of familiar symptoms and offered cost-effective solutions; as they were more often all that was required and afforded, to resolve. It was then possible to demonstrate the effectiveness of applying the prevailing normative approach to challenging scientific method.

The projects look in turn at common problems associated with each element of the house. Importantly the house is viewed from the perspective of being a home. Connections are made between the practical and emotional needs of the occupants as well as the practical and emotional needs of the property. For example, the functionality of a door could be perceived as purely a practical consideration, however, learning instinctively when to operate the door is more likely to be in response to an emotional need. Either the occupants need for comfort and modesty or the emotional needs of the property. Perhaps the need to increase air exchange with cross-ventilation or the need to reduce internal convection currents that convey moisture; resulting in energy loss and degradation. Seeing the property as the patient, with emotional needs is perhaps anthropomorphising. However, this perspective helps instil the perception required to instinctively achieve underlying objectives.

Collectively the NC Projects could be viewed as a simple guide to maintenance, understanding how to operate a home, or as an accessible and affordable model for objective renovation via a critical and incremental approach. As a series of workshops, the projects build into a comprehensive home improvement course, a school for cross-disciplinary RMI learning.

When an activity is large and multi-layered the scale of unknown parts can feel overwhelming. It is important to learn each part within the whole. Knowing where one is within the model, as well as how to find and unpack other parts is reassuring. A simple mental model can provide reassurance and guide each user on their unique journey.

Explaining and understanding the framework of systems, and subsystems: the Process, Protocols and Principles; without context presented a picture of complexity for something that is much simpler in practice. A user journey is required, to map the framework of concepts together with interrelating practical projects. During the early prototyping, as the framework was evolving, it needed to be present, yet open to interpretation. Lewis used the game ‘Monopoly’ to present and explain the framework as a journey around the board. This universally recognisable image proved to be a successful metaphor as well as a useful visual aid. The Monopoly board has continued to be used to picture, explain and communicate the framework of systems. (see figure x – the universally recognisable image of a Monopoly board.)

The board game is an analogy for Activity theory. The actor or subject has an objective. There are tools, rules and a network of players acting out different roles. Each side of the board represents one of four categories (People, Internal Weather, Thermal Envelope and Damp). Each property square on each side of the board represents a project, either a strategy or intervention. The other spaces around the board can be used to introduce other aspects of the framework, Process, Protocols, Principles and so on. The user may take a linear journey around the board to introduce the projects. Or use it to think about everything at once, understanding where they are in relation to the whole.

The projects around the board help the user understand their emotional journey and how simple psychology can assist with getting things done. Self-determination: when motivated by one’s personal observations and choices, decisions are more likely to be actioned. Fundamental to no-cost behaviour interventions. Theory of reasoned behaviour: empowered to get things done, supported with templates and tools. Central to low-cost intervention. Theory of reasoned action: valued for one’s contribution, as well as valuing the opinions and contributions of others. Cognitive bias: perceptual distortion, subjective decision making can lead to mistakes and inappropriate or unnecessary intervention.

The visual metaphor of the Monopoly Board, alongside the cognitively efficient fractal categories of the; Process, Protocols and Principles, allow the whole framework to be thought-about collectively and communicated verbally whilst users participate in an activity. In a sociotechnical system could the tool simply be a way of shared thinking?

Best practice requires practitioners to focus not only on the job but also the things around the job. The successful delivery of a project depends not only on the practical execution but also the value and wellbeing of all those involved.


Neighbourhood Construction has moved away from the use of predefined roles and ‘static’ hierarchies. Whether homeowner, contractor, specifier or other, those practising the NC Framework of systems are described as Practitioners. This culture empowers the individual. It values the spectrum of experience and knowledge that everyone can bring to a project. Opportunities for individuals to step up and take the lead are supported. Others may wish to step back when there is an opportunity to learn. NC believe this openness to roles changing creates a more appropriate or ‘dynamic’ hierarchy, where better cooperative working can occur leading to collaborative learning. The roles of master and apprentice are still highly valued, however, the roles are not static, they shift dynamically in response to the needs of the project.

Peer support is encouraged on both a micro and macro scale. Asking for practical or physical help may already be part of the culture within the RMI sector, however, calling upon those with greater experience is not. NC Practitioners ask each other for assistance and guidance with each other’s projects. Cooperation is encouraged and facilitated as part of the practitioner culture. Support is available with the brief formulation, design and planning as either a paid consideration or as part of a reciprocal transaction. Being able and willing to receive and give advice and support within the network is an essential part of personal development.

Peer review is also encouraged amongst practitioners. Either as an informal method of checking each other’s work or a friendly excuse to show and tell. Contrary to the existing culture of the RMI sector where opportunities to challenge, question or contribute to the beliefs of others are seldom encouraged. Within the NC practitioner network, everyone is always learning.

Progress is tracked. Self-documented – as ‘Homework’, the value can be applied to both the breadth and depth of experience within each project category. It is, therefore, possible to be valued as a generalist as well as a specialist. Support is also given to teaching forward, reinforcing what has been learnt. The series of short, concise workshops (described below) build into a comprehensive course. Seen in reverse, the five steps of the NC Process, (Brief – Design – Programme – Schedule – Team); become a career path. Team members are supported to become project managers and a manager to become a project programmer. In turn, a programmer is supported to become a project designer and a designer to become a consultant. The relationship between master and apprentice also critiques the iterative progression of each intervention. The NC Systems are under continuous review updated by the practitioners. The system builds.


“Constructivism – a theory that learning is an active process and that people gain knowledge and understanding through the combination of experiences and ideas.”

– Cambridge Dictionary – Online

Home tutorial

NC provide home tutorials rather than a straightforward consultancy advice service. The latter can be perceived to be relatively passive, while the former can join homeowners on a journey of guided discovery. The tutorial focuses on no-cost and low-cost strategies, interventions and projects. These can be used to confirm the diagnosis whilst obtaining achievable goals that develop practical as well as project management skills. Achieving positive results with behaviour strategies and simple interventions can build a homeowner’s self-efficacy before embarking on larger projects. This perspective considers the property as the patient and the homeowner as an active part within the systems of the house. The implications for how changes affect the original fabric are then understood. The homeowner can then make more informed decisions through an increase in their confidence and understanding of how to manage energy, moisture and indoor air quality in their houses.

As stated on the Neighbourhood Construction website, during the tutorial the homeowner and consulting practitioner will:

“We’ll look at any symptoms or issues of immediate concern raised in your enquiry. We’ll discuss your short, medium and long-term aspirations for the property. We’ll consider the broader context of energy and moisture in the home. We’ll develop an understanding of how your house performs and how best it can be improved. We’ll talk through how we can best support you with the design, scope and delivery of your project. Following the visit – We’ll reflect, then re-group to review and critique our collective understanding as well as exchange and develop any new thoughts and ideas.”

The re-group, or ‘motivational interview’, empowers the individual to make informed, personal choices that are more likely to be followed.

Objectives, as well as roles, can shift. Often homeowners go on to attend workshops and better manage their project. Changing their perceptions of what support they needed for both planning and delivery. Asking for help where they thought they could manage, and managing where they thought help was needed.

Home audit

The Home Audit is a condition report that focuses on the functionality of the property. Looking at how operable the house is as well as how well it is being operated. Initially, Lewis, via his consultancy work and Home Tutorials distilled down the most common faults into a simple checklist. The checklist follows the same strategies and interventions that became the board game. The home audit can be self-applied by the homeowner/occupier or practitioner and updated following each project.


The value of the workshops extends far beyond learning the use of specific tools. It is easier to design, plan and deliver one’s own project having participated in a real project in someone else’s home. Homeowners, contractors and specifiers learn together. Sharing insight leads to mutual appreciation and working connections. The experience can shift what roles they each will go on to play. By combining the design, specification, and delivery, participants learn a clear methodology to ensure consistent results with good cost control.

Learning to measure is fundamental. The three most common mistakes made with a tape measure, transposition, transposition and transposition. As well as avoiding the accumulation of error, working with proportions, quantifying materials by weight versus volumes, calculating square metre costs and how these can be used to determine the labour costs for each stage informing how to plan each day.

Understanding material characteristics is essential. Whilst engaged in this haptic experience it is easier to grasp the material science. Participants are encouraged to develop their ability to learn by touch and by eye. The NC principles are instilled by practice, understanding the why as well as the how, they are easily recalled when required.

Products are selected for quality and proven track record. Appropriate material performance is observed during application and confirmed through the ongoing observation of completed projects. Each intervention is a system, continuity is, therefore, most important. It is the material characteristic that is required not necessarily a specific product. However, the continuity of the product reduces variables, leading to a better understanding of the process.

As stated on the NC website (in relation to the workshop: ‘Plaster’)

“Peer to peer, on-site training, structured tuition and open formate learning. It promises to be an exciting few days! We’ll be working alongside experienced practitioners, learning how to design and plan, as well as the practical delivery. We’ll consider the underlying objectives of the installation within the broader context of energy and moisture in the home. We’ll look at the preparations that are required and how these affect the quality and speed of the installation. We’ll be mixing and applying both coarse base-coat and fine top-coat lime plaster. We’ll accurately calculate both the water and plaster required for each surface and plan the delivery. We’ll get things moving with a little system thinking and team building. – Lunch of sandwiches will be provided.”

“The content will be covered on days one and two, day three is optional, providing an opportunity to practice, demonstrate and re-visit aspects of importance to you. On the afternoon of day three is the open day, an opportunity to invite your family, friends or colleagues to ‘drop-in, take a look and have a go!’ and for you to demonstrate and teach what you have learned.”

Subject to demand and availability NC currently offers twelve, two-day workshops. These are titled Utilities and Activities; Electricity; Plumbing; Vents; Voids; Doors; Windows; Joinery; Masonry; Bio-aggregate; Plaster; Paper and Paint. By default, each workshop focuses on an easily resolvable common problem relating to energy and moisture. However, the learning outcomes depend on the needs of the apprentice practitioner. Some attend to gain insight, others to become delivery practitioners. Practitioners self-determine their education pathway. Breadth and depth of participation are tracked: generalist, specialist, trainer or coach.

Open days

As stated in the description above, each training event has an open day. An opportunity to observe before jumping in, take a look first-hand at the interventions and meet those who are currently participating. Existing delivery practitioners also often share their experiences. They enjoy critiquing the work and helping with the completion and clean-down. This is a sociable opportunity that often continues afterwards when discussions move to a local public house. There are also free informative evenings where practitioners have the opportunity to share stories and present their work.

Effecting change

The Neighbourhood Construction framework of systems evolved in response to the collective needs of its participants, homeowners, contractors, specifiers and so on. It has demonstrated the possibilities that can be achieved when simple interventions are facilitated using a universal tool. It has also demonstrated that it is possible to successfully effect change from within the RMI sector. The patterns observed are a recurring phenomenon and warrant further attention.

The RMI sector is a fragmented, self-managing organisation, far from the holistic methods of the past. Without facilitating a little joined-up thinking, with each improvement comes unintended consequences that result in a smörgåsbord of damage to the original fabric. This unwitting damage has a negative impact on the performance and energy consumption of our historic dwellings. And now a new wave of improvement threatens the original fabric, energy-retrofitting. Regulatory standards are being applied, fitting well with the command structure of the new build construction industry. However, it is contrary to the existing self-organising structure of home improvement. Without effecting change, the regulated approach, such as PAS 2035 could further marginalise the existing RMI sector – ‘the 97%’. All RMI work has the potential to have a more positive impact on energy and comfort.

Conventional retrofitting will inevitably continue. Without engaging the existing RMI sector simple no-cost and low-cost energy improvements will continue to be overlooked. Homes will continue to be inadvertently less efficient faster than energy retrofitting can effect change. Can the smörgåsbord be removed and a more holistic approach applied? Can the individuals involved continue to act autonomously yet be trained to intuitively considers the energy consequences of all retrofitting? Can autonomous individuals be permitted to instinctively apply their understanding of why and empower their capacity to think for themselves? Is this contrary to the approach of a command structure that disempowered the individual with a division of labour?

Despite appearances, the RMI sector is not a single organisation, effecting change is therefore challenging. In its favour, the sector is already a self-organising system, synonymous with a Teal organisation.[1]A Tool is required for the whole to operate as if one organisation: a system. A way of thinking that supports quality advice and work by gathering, critiquing and disseminating information and objectives.[2]For this to be possible, the RMI sector needs to be part of the broader conversation. Such an organisation could then question objectives and observe varying methods to effect change.[3]Connecting the circle of learning to enhance both product-lead research and tacit knowledge.[4]

The RMI sector must be empowered and transformed into a single organisation. A shift of culture is required to build this change, it needs to be developed by all those involved and shared, peer to peer in the workplace. The performance gap can be attributed to the lack of appreciation for the neurodiversity of all those involved in the learning, teaching and feedback process. The RMI sector does not respond well to learning by passively receiving information. However, the organisation and those within it, respond favourably to learning whilst actively involved in the process. This is a Constructivist Learning Environment and it is essential to effect change.[5]

Never before has there been the potential to better understand our buildings. The information and technology and transfer are now available to create a more appropriate way of working. The most cost-effective approach to achieving a significant reduction in carbon emissions from the existing housing stock is empowering a change of culture within the RMI sector. Uptake cannot be forced but offered as an open source resource that empowers the users to smarter more efficient working practices, driving uptake, identifying and supporting those best placed to effect change.

On this page


A novel approach to renovating historic dwellings from Bristol


7.3.3 Understanding why works in the RMI sector may not deliver



7.8.3 The Neighbourhood Construction framework of systems



Effecting change

[1] Frederic Laloux – Reinventing Organisations

[2] Sociotechnical system

[3] Double-loop learning

[4] Inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning

[5] Constructivist Learning Environments

[6] Activity theory – (Activity theory as a framework for designing constructivist learning Environments. H. Jonassen, David & Rohrer-Murphy, Lucia. 1999)

With special thanks

A community of homeowners and practitioners has grown up around NC. Amongst the most active of these is David Copeland – Hawkland Ecological Construction. David has fully embraced and supported the development of the NC framework of systems, providing feedback through implementation and contributed. Through his understanding of organisational structures, David has made an invaluable contribution to the development and definition of the NC system.