What's more important – preserving heritage architecture or retrofitting it to high energy efficiency? In our first forum on a Google+ Hangout we discuss some of the issues.
Homeowner Ross Atkin (who has recently retrofitted his Victorian house)
This debate was primarily focussed on buildings that were constructed before 1910 or the time when building technologies changed.
When Retrofitting, There is No Single Approach That Fits Every Building
In historic buildings where the façade is a strong part of the character, externally insulating would not be appropriate. However, just as importantly, internally insulating would cause major disruption as well, particularly if many of the original features are intact. So, when retrofitting an old house for energy efficiency, each building must be assessed individually.
From a purely energy point of view and from a moisture point of view it’s much better to insulate on the outside of a wall and to wrap the existing building in insulation.
Old Houses May Not Need a Deep Retrofit
If the definition ‘old houses' is a small enough percentage, for example between 5% and 10% of the total housing stock, then it is possible that these houses could be retrofitted in such a way as to minimise damage to their character. If energy consumption were reduced, perhaps by 50%, while the remaining 90% or 95% of the housing stock is brought up to Passivhaus levels, saving 80% or 90%, then the overall the situation would be much more in line with where it needs to be.
Occupants of Old Houses Must be Willing to Live Like the Inhabitants of the Previous Centuries
In an energy constrained future, for those who choose to live in an old house, compromises must be made. The inhabitants must consider that they adopt a lifestyle that is more like how things used to be in previous centuries, where they lived at colder temperatures. In winter, the inhabitants might retreat to a smaller portion of the house. Since the 1970s the temperatures of our homes have gone up from 12 degrees to 19-20 degrees (on average).
Old Houses Could be Vulnerable if Not Made Energy Efficient
There is a danger that as energy prices increase, people are not going to want to buy buildings unless they are energy efficient. As it is easier to construct low energy buildings from scratch than it is to retrofit them, more old houses could fall victim to demolition. Making old properties as energy efficient as they can be without destroying the character will help. The rest is down to accepting this overall colder temperature, which will only be in the winter months anyway.
Simple Measures Can Really Improve Energy Efficiency
There is a lot that can be done to improve energy efficiency that isn’t going to cause damage and destroy the character and value of the buildings. For example, draught proofing is relatively easy to do and doesn’t have a huge impact on the building. A certain level of insulation can be done without having a huge impact on a building.
Every house must be individually understood and then appropriate measures should be carried out in a sensitive way.
A Passivhaus Retrofit for Many Old Houses Wouldn't be Appropriate
Retrofitting an historic house to Passivhaus standard by insulating internally would effectively involve building a house within a house. That would mean gutting the place. While this could still be appropriate where significant damage has already occurred, for example the Princedale Road Passivhaus in West London, it is unlikely to be a solution to roll out.
The UK is Stifling Advances with Conservation Overkill
The balance between conservation and actually providing housing that works for people in terms of health, energy costs and the environment is weighted too heavily in favour of conservation in the UK. The planning system often treats everywhere as a conservation area, when this is not the case. All this does is preserve the status quo rather than allow progress.
A Proportion of Society are Stuck in Their Period Properties
With investment in social housing, the very poor are getting a much better standard of housing. Those that are wealthy can also afford to self-fund energy efficiency measures. However, there's quite a large percentage of people in between, either unable to fund changes or perhaps stuck in rented accommodation. These people aren’t choosing to stay in heritage accommodation, it’s simply what is available and what they can afford.
There Needs to be More Education
People still do not seem to have the knowledge of how they can make their homes better and more energy efficient. Even those who live in eco houses quite often do not fully understand how to live in them. There needs to be more help available.
Social Housing is Leading The Way in Eco Retrofits
It doesn't seem to be volume house builders that are leading the way, but housing associations. They’re the people that are experimenting, coming up with the ideas and solving the problems. There is a lot to learn from the social housing sector.
Need to Solve Damp Issues
No house should have damp issues, but they can stem from mistakes that have been made in the past. Before retrofitting a house these issues should be addressed because a damp house is a cold house and a wet wall is a cold wall. Stopping dampness will create a much warmer and more environmentally friendly house in the first place.
In the UK, VAT Encourages New Builds
Paying 20% VAT on retrofits as opposed to nothing on a new build sends a clear message. As retrofits are more complicated anyway it does favour knocking buildings down and starting over again, especially in areas where skills are limited.
The Focus Should be on Creating Decent Homes
Lifestyle plays a big part in energy efficiency so it's not just about buildings. For example, switching on all the lights and leaving the windows open in an energy efficient house will have a negative effect. So while the fabric of the building is important, there is also a fundamental lifestyle change that must be adopted. The future of housing should be creating decent homes for people, considering the environmental aspects, the energy usage but also things should be clean, dry and healthy.
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