What do you do when your sandstone terrace home is cold and draughty and a baby is on the way? If you’re Nina Murray and Josef Elias, you rip it all out, renovate, retrofit and install an air-source heat pump.

These radical measures were the route that was chosen when, two years ago, Glasgow-dwellers Murray and Elias became relatively early adopters in the world of retro-fitting, and their experience shows what is possible.

In 2022, at a time when most people thought air-source heat pumps were not for 1905 terrace homes like theirs, they chose, as part of renovating their home, to include insulation, underfloor heating, air source heat pump, solar panels and a new storm door.

“We started thinking about it around Christmas 2021," said Murray, head of policy for a human rights charity,  "and then found out we were pregnant around that time as well, so the build started growing arms and legs and we decided we needed a new bedroom as well.”

“Even with its double-glazing, it was draughty, and in winter, with the gas heating on, the sitting room was cold.”

Elias, a pharmacist,  had grown up in Vienna, in, they described,  a "much more environmentally aware" culture. His family's council house was well-insulated and warm.  heated by 'Fernwärme' or district heating systems. fuelled by renewables even back then). Hence the retrofit seemed, to him, a natural option. 

"I don't think," said Murray, "we realised when we were doing the work just how 'early adopters' we were and this has been a bit of a shock to us, that there has been so much interest in what we've done as something new and innovative when such measures have been standard for a long time in other parts of Europe." 

Several years, loans, grants, some serious cashflow stress and a baby later, they now have that warm home.

"It's 19.5 C all the time," said Murray,  "which is incredible for an old sandstone terrace in Glasgow. Except when it’s -9C outside – because at less than –6C   or –7C our air-source heat pump starts to struggle a bit. It’s optimised for –4C to 24C which is your average Scottish temperature. But otherwise we’re really happy with it and it’s just a much more comfortable home, generally.”

The arrival of baby Lawrie, now 19-months-old, was not, for them the trigger for the retrofit, though he did inspire them to expand their plans to include making their downstairs open plan, creating a new bedroom, a new bathroom and other features.

“The works definitely don't cost as much as some people think," she said, " if you can get the loans. But we couldn’t have done it without the loans and cash back. We also couldn’t have done it without the help of family.“

The Herald: Nina Murray pictured at home in the Southside of Glasgow. Nina has had her home retrofitted with an air source heat pump and extra insulation.    ..  Photograph by Colin Mearns.28th March 2024.For Herald on Sunday, see story by Vicky Allan.

A lot of the decision-making revolved around what seemed practical and logical to them, given they were already renovating. “We couldn’t," she said, "bring ourselves to buy a new gas boiler and put in new gas heating in this day and age.”

“We're not," she added, "‘on-the-street' members of Extinction Rebellion but we’re concerned about it and doing our best to do our little bit. Before all this, we got rid of our car and started cycling everywhere. We try to shop in small local shops and refill shops rather than big chains. Little things like that.”

Murray’s father had been a very early adopter of renewables. The draughty Highland farmhouse she grew up in had solar panels since 1980s, and her parents had converted barns into holiday cottages, one of which, in which her mother and father now live, was fitted with hefty insulation and an air-source heat pump. “They renovated that themselves ten years ago and at that point, they put in all kinds of renewable tecchnology. They are now living in it and reaping the benefits.”

“A retrofit just made sense,” she recalled, “and I’d seen the loans from Home Energy Scotland advertised and the kind of assessments they offer. So we took advantage of that and they persuaded us that there were measures we could take.”

Home Energy Scotland was their primary source of advice and information. She was, she recalled, surprised at quite how encouraging their advisors were about the possibility of a heat pump for a house as old as theirs.

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“The person who installed my dad’s heat pump had said. ‘Oh no, you can’t do that in an old home. It won’t work'. But the conversation with Home Energy Scotland really turned that around because they were  saying,  'You can do it. It’s possible. You need to do these other things first, like insulation.'”

The couple applied for all the loans and grants they thought they could: covering two different types of insulation, under-floor insulation and room and roof insulation, air source heat pump, and solar.

They missed out, however,  on a loan that could have saved them paying up to £5000 up front for the solar panels. “We had an issue with our installer, as their MCS certification had lapsed during the application process so we could either pay for this ourselves or restart the loan process for solar with a new installer which we just didn't have the time (or headspace) for at the time.”

The whole raft of retrofit measures cost £28,000, with £13,000 of that paid immediately out of their own savings. Total grant funding received was £9500, a further £5,500 was borrowed as interest-free loan from Home Energy Scotland. They are currently paying off that loan, at a rate of £47 per month.

The Herald: Nina and Josef's air source heat pumpNina and Josef's air source heat pump (Image: Nina Murray)

The bundle of air-source heat pump, underfloor heating and radiators cost them £13,730.  £7500 was paid for by grant and £2500 covered by a loan.

These costs, however,  represented a relatively small fraction of the close to £80,000 of the whole renovation - which involved removing two walls to make the downstairs open plan, fitting a new kitchen, new flooring, a new bedroom, bathroom, cellar, French doors and kitchen windows.

Murray also couldn’t have done it without the support of her brother, given how disruptive the work was. “Because we had decided to put underfloor heating in," she said,  "and we had to rip all the floors downstairs, and we didn’t have a functioning kitchen or bathroom, or a floor – and I was quite pregnant at the time - we had to move out and live with my brother for four months. It was lucky that they were around the corner and were happy to do that.”

Other difficulties included cashflow and the amount of chasing of loans and grants required. The couple even had to borrow money from their parents. “At that time," Murray recalled, "in  2022, you had to apply for the loan and cashback giving quotes and then there was a huge delay. I work in advocacy and I had to put all my skills to the test to get the loan processed as quickly as possible – because all of our contractors were on hold because you can’t start the work until the loan is approved, so that was a bit of a challenge.”

After paying for the work, they also found themselves waiting for the cashback grant funding. “We had to borrow some money for a month from my parents to be able to pay the bills and get the money back in our accounts, which was a challenge.”

The Herald: roof insulation and Nina and Josef's homeroof insulation and Nina and Josef's home (Image: Nina Murray)

“The grant and loan system is great, but it really needs to work as it is intended – because it definitely didn’t work for us. And it needs to be more accessible.”

“I took a long time for that money they kept promising," she recalled. "They would say the money will be with you next week, and then it wasn’t. I had to keep calling and it would all be on the next week’s payroll but it wasn’t so it took 3-4 weeks of me chasing for that money to come in.”

Among the biggest challenges, she said, were the forms and paperwork.. “It’s very complicated. The whole process is not clear at all. In my day job, I read legal documents, so I’m trained to look at this stuff – but I found it complicated. I found it difficult to read through the grant agreement and it wasn’t clear at some point whether they were just giving me the loan or whether they were also giving me the cashback and I had to clarify that with them.

“All these things should be much more simple and there should be support available to people to apply and sort it rather than for me to have to endlessly chase, endlessly. I don’t know how many times I was on the phone to them, chasing..”

Last year their total electricity bill was £2200. “Our first year using only electricity was a tricky one as the cost of electricity went up so much in 2023 and we were still working out how to maximise the efficiency of our system.”

The Herald: Open plan living area at Nina and Josef's homeOpen plan living area at Nina and Josef's home (Image: Nina Murray)

“The cost varies hugely across the year," she said, "so in summer average bills are around £50pcm and in winter around £200-300pcm. We don't yet have a way to store or export our solar energy, so we are just using what we can during sunlight hours by running a washing machine or dishwasher during the day. We're exploring battery and export tariff options and hope to be able to save more money in the future now we have the foundations in place.”

Murray and Elias are now also members of LocoHome Retrofit, which provides technical know-how and support in Glasgow. “We have really benefitted from being part of their community in terms of better understanding our system, what other tweaks we could make to it, and sharing our story and hearing those of others doing similar things. We wish we had met them sooner to have been able to benefit from their independent advice/assessment service before we undertook the work as this kind of service was not around when we were planning our retrofit.”