Case study: Just Barham

A Newport student landlord isn’t your typical carbon-cutting hero, but Just Barham’s energy-efficient portfolio shows that rented houses needn’t be the unloved energy guzzlers of popular imagination.

Just Barham: 22%

If you or your offspring have ever been within studying distance of a university, you’ll know that the student housing business doesn’t enjoy a sparkling reputation.

But Lyn Barham, a softly-spoken careers adviser turned Newport landlord, is about as far from the stereotype as you could imagine.

Her company – the aptly named Just Barham – has always been a family affair, with Lyn and her son jointly running the operation since acquiring their first property in 2003.

They quickly took to the new business, and the Barhams now own and manage four Victorian terraced houses dotted around Newport.

Biting the bullet

In a town with a reputation for poor-quality housing, Just Barham’s properties now stand out for their energy efficiency; a distinction that owes a lot to Lyn’s enlightened approach to repairs and renovations.

After a series of heating breakdowns at the first house, each newly–purchased property now has its boiler replaced with an efficient condensing model as a matter of course. When contractors came in to do routine repairs or redecoration, Lyn would often “bite the bullet” and ask them to add new high-spec doors and windows at the same time.

We knew we could get away with doing things a bit cheap and shoddy, but actually as a landlord that isn’t the way to go if you want to maintain the value of your property.

“We knew we could get away with doing things a bit cheap and shoddy”, Lyn says, “but actually as a landlord that isn’t the way to go if you want to maintain the value of your property.”

Getting serious

When Just Barham made its 10:10 commitment in late 2009, Lyn was determined to take it seriously. “We asked ourselves ‘If we really care about climate change, what can we do with our houses?’ The answer was to put in the best roof insulation we could find.”

With a new set of tenants moving in each year they only had to wait a few months to make this happen: by the end of summer 2010, all four Just Barham properties had their lofts filled to the brim with insulation.

But a truly efficient house needs energy-conscious occupants too, especially because Just Barham’s policy of bundling energy bills in with rent removes the direct incentive to save.

Lyn makes sure tenants are well-versed in boiler controls (especially important for erratic student schedules), and the virtues of appropriate seasonal attire.

“With heating we try to strike a balance: we say we don’t want you to be cold – that won’t do anyone any good. But equally we don’t want to visit in December and find you in beach clothes because the heating’s on so high.”

With heating we try to strike a balance: we say we don’t want you to be cold – that won’t do anyone any good. But equally we don’t want to visit in December and find you in beach clothes because the heating’s on so high.

If the company’s impressive 22% carbon saving is anything to go by, they’ve got the balance just right. And although these changes were more motivated by ethical concerns than financial returns, Lyn says the cost savings have helped shield the company from rising energy prices.

Next steps

Having new tenants each year means the awareness–raising work is never done, but Lyn doesn’t seem to mind – she’s clearly fond of her tenants, and relishes the opportunity to get them into a few good habits before they disappear off into the world.

“The students are brilliant, well-intentioned people, but they lead very busy lives. We’ve got a chance to plant ideas that they might not have thought of otherwise. They’re now more aware of what they can do, and that will remain with them in the future.”

For Lyn, however, the next steps aren’t quite so simple. “We’re a bit stuck now actually – we don’t have cavity walls to insulate, so if we did anything next it’d be solar panels. I’m going to look into it.” 

Either way, you can bet that Lyn won’t be putting her feet up. “When it comes to climate change there really isn’t a fence to sit on, and I think everyone can make a small difference. It’s easy to be put off by thinking it’ll be difficult, but really all it takes is a bit of imagination.”