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BLOG: How to make your historic building more climate-friendly

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By Thomas Thurlow, Historic Buildings Officer

The climate emergency is in the news more and more but what measures can you take to make your home more energy efficient, especially when its historic or listed?

Of the residential buildings in England around 4 million or 20% were constructed before 1919. Almost a further 20% were constructed between 1920 and 1939. This housing stock is clearly less energy efficient than modern buildings. Energy use in homes accounts for approximately 14% of greenhouse gas emissions so targeting these buildings could have a considerable impact on UK emissions.

Almost every older building can accommodate some energy improvements without harming its special interest. However, an appropriate balance needs to be achieved between building conservation and measures to improve energy efficiency if lasting damage is to be avoided both to a building’s character and significance and its fabric.

Getting your building in a good state of repair is an important first step. There is no point putting solar panels on a leaking roof or installing a new ultra-efficient boiler if there are drafty windows that let all the heat out. Getting an energy audit carried out will highlight areas where the most effective energy improvements can be made.

One of the most basic and cost-effective measures is to draft proof windows and doors. Tempting as it might be to replace old, single glazed windows with uPVC double glazing, consider the environmental impact of the production of the uPVC. uPVC (unplastised Polyvinyl Chloride) (a plastic) is a major user of fossil fuels – a non-renewable resource; plastics production accounting for 4% of global oil production. Oil makes up 43% of the raw material of PVC. Sustainably sourced timber windows are better for the environment and if well maintained will outlast uPVC alternatives. There are numerous examples of timber windows on Exmoor that are over 200 years old. If you have a uPVC window over 30 years old you are probably considering replacing it anyway. Adding secondary glazing to a single glazed window will give the same energy efficiency as a double glazed unit whilst retaining the original window and is likely to be far cheaper.

Making sure your roof is well insulated is one obvious, cheap and simple measure. Make sure the insulation is evenly distributed so to avoid cold spots where condensation can develop. Adding insulation to walls either internally or externally is likely to be expensive and can cause issues with condensation so is best avoided. Insulating under floors can also provide excellent savings but needs to be done with care as blocking of ventilation can cause issues with damp and rot so be sure to take expert advice.

Solar panels can be an excellent way to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Getting advice on how much power they will generate for you vs the installation cost is an important first step. If you only have small, shaded roofs then the cost/benefit is likely to be marginal. Always contact ENPA prior to installation of solar panels as planning permission may be required. Placing the panels on outbuildings and roofslopes that aren’t widely seen will be preferable to principal roof slopes.

Air and ground source heat pumps are becoming an increasingly popular source of heating. Both work can draw heat from their surroundings and multiply it. The technology continues to change and improve. The placement of both potentially require planning permission so make sure you contact our planning team at an early stage for some free advice.

Electric cars are increasingly popular and so is the demand for charging points. Again its best to ask our planning team if any permissions are required.

Finally, an important point to consider is the amount of energy embodied in your building. If you own a 400-year-old cob and stone house with a thatched roof it was likely constructed from materials sourced within 10 miles of where it stands. If it has lasted for 400 years then the building is, in one sense, incredibly energy efficient when compared to a new building made of steel and concrete.

Image caption: Exmoor House is a Grade II Listed Building, originally built as a Victorian workhouse in 1854 and since 1974 used as the National Park Authority’s headquarters. Its energy efficiency has been improved by the installation of air source heat pumps, with plans to extend the amount of secondary glazing from the committee room to other parts of the building.

Published: 15 November 2021

T: 01398 323665
E: info@exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk