In this section, Roger Hunt, co-author (with Marianne Suhr) of the Old House Eco Handbook, introduces how, by using the right materials and appropriate techniques, our building heritage can be made sustainable.
Old buildings can be green. This may sound like a bold statement but take a moment to consider just a few of their qualities and it becomes easier to understand. As existing structures, old buildings represent an investment in carbon which is lost if we destroy them; their fabric frequently has high thermal mass, helping to prevent overheating in summer; they are built with natural, often local materials; they are relatively easy to repair; and, when they do finally come to the end of their life, their components can be reused.
Having said this, we need to make them sustainable into the future. Collectively, the energy used in housing alone accounts for around 26 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions so cutting energy use in older buildings is urgent, although not necessarily simple. Many have sold walls, and fit into the so called ‘hard to treat’ category, while a full understanding of the building physics and materials required to achieve appropriate retrofit solutions is still developing.
To be successful, retrofitting must aim to balance the needs and attributes of the building with the requirement for performance. Any retrofit must ensure that the building is enjoyable and comfortable to live or work in and not devalue what makes it special. Respect should be the watchword; this means applying a light touch and making repairs and changes that are gentle and sympathetic.
Old buildings represent tangible history and contribute a sense of place and community. Above all they have that hard to define quality: character. This embraces craftsmanship, detail, texture, light and shade and the patina of age. We don’t always identify these individual qualities in our mind. We should; they are what makes older buildings special and have much to do with why we like them. Sadly, over enthusiastic interventions or lack of thought kill character and, once lost, it’s not easily regained.
Indeed, all too often, the desire to add character leads to ‘restoration’ which easily results in inappropriate embellishment, conjecture and fakery. Much better to repair, mending with care and minimum intervention, thus maintaining the authenticity and integrity of the original.
This is not to say that we can’t make changes to old buildings; often it’s the accretions, added over time, that add interest. That said, installing replacement windows that are out of keeping with the originals or applying insulting render to a brick facade will profoundly alter the appearance of any building and, particularly in a terrace, such actions may have a hugely detrimental impact on the aesthetics of an entire street.
To make our old buildings sustainable, compromises are inevitable but we can’t simply wrap them in thermally efficient, airtight membranes and ‘duvets’ of insulation and hope for the best. What we need are appropriate, well informed and tailored solutions that balance respect with the ability to cut carbon and reduce fuel poverty so that our built heritage is sustainable for the enjoyment of generations to come.
Victorian and Edwardian terraces generally have solid walls
Buildings like the Royal Crescent in Bath provide a sense of place
A Georgian house exhibits the patina of age
Replacement windows can ruin a terrace
Roger Hunt is an award winning writer and blogger specialising in sustainability, old houses, housebuilding and traditional and modern building materials. He is the co-author of Old House Handbook and the companion volume Old House Eco Handbook.