In our recent podcast episodes I stumbled upon a significant split in opinion when it comes to retrofitting old houses to high energy efficiency. There are those who see historic fabric as extremely important and something that must be preserved at all costs. Then there are others who believe that, due to dwindling fossil fuel reserves, the common sense approach is to make nearly all of our housing stock radically more energy efficient.
I concur with both of these arguments, which of course are in conflict with one another. So I imagined that we'd lay this subject to rest, move on and perhaps encounter it again further down the line. However, my wife happened to mention Ponsbourne Park to me.
I like to think I stay in touch with local issues but clearly I'd missed this one (as it's been bubbling away for nearly a year). Ponsbourne Park is owned by Tesco (the UK's leading supermarket) and is a site that they use for conferences, etc. I imagine it is far from ideal given the size of Tesco and I can completely understand why they might be looking for something more fitting of a world-class supermarket. So, of course, Tesco submitted plans to redevelop the site. As someone who lives nearby, word had somehow passed me by until this conversation with my wife. She told me that Tesco had just been given planning permission to knock down this 19th century building for their new academy.
This article from the Welwyn Hatfield Times shows you an artist's impression of the proposed scheme. [I did contact the Tesco Press Office for more information on it, but they have yet to get back to me.]
This is where it gets interesting! Tesco's academy will be state of the art and much more environmentally sound than what currently exists. It has all the benefits of what you might expect from a modern building: it's more at one with the landscape; the rooms will be much lighter; it'll be much more energy efficient; it's likely to have a better air quality inside. For this scheme they're even going to use combined heat and power (which we talked about in episode 12).
Hang on! If you'd presented me with exactly the same situation a year ago I would have reacted very differently. The first thing I would have expressed was outrage that they are knocking down a period property. I would have written a letter to Tesco complaining about it (assuming my wife hadn't told me after planning permission had been granted!) and telling them to go and build it somewhere else. Now I'm in a very strange disconnected place. What's more important here – the past or the future? I would be tempted to say the future because we've lived through the past but then our past is really important to light our way into the future. I want both!
In a world where resources are dwindling and change in how we live our lives is inevitable I'm not sure that doing nothing is an option. I desire to retrofit a Victorian property to the Passivhaus or EnerPHit standard. While I had thought twice about it after learning about the significance of historic fabric, I am now thinking again. With the loss of Ponsbourne Park's 19th century building I have to look at the bigger picture. This is probably only the tip of the iceberg. It is the blueprint of what might happen around the world. To me, losing period properties like this altogether would be far worse than losing a proportion of their fabric (which will often be invisible to the untrained eye). In carrying out this invasive retrofit we would at least be making these buildings future-proof. We know the aesthetics are desirable. We know that we may not be able to preserve their historical integrity but look at the alternative. I know what I favour.
It's also worth remembering that buildings evolve over their lifetime and often without fundamental destruction to their character. Can you imagine if nobody had fitted electricity, or piped water and gas central heating, how differently we might feel about living in older properties? The need for our existing housing stock to be retrofitted to a low energy standard will add a significant further layer of historic context to most buildings, but surely not to ruin the enjoyment of them?
I went to a meeting with a few of the residents from Newgate Street and was intrigued to hear that they had approached English Heritage to try and get Ponsbourne Park listed. English Heritage considered the application but decided there was nothing special that would afford it this status. So English Heritage – and organisations like this around the world – will have some tough decisions to make when it comes to choosing which buildings to save. In my mind this very small percentage of buildings does not need to be made energy efficient. It is the bulk of the housing stock which needs the serious attention.
Inevitably there will be cases of interstitial condensation, for example, on properties where people have slapped on internal wall insulation without fully understanding the process. This is a necessary evil of the bigger picture.
In the words of one of our recent podcast interviewees, Roger Hunt: “There are two things that are going to happen in the future. One is that we might regret some of the things we’ve done and the other is that we might wish we’d done much better.”
I agree with him but we have to try something.
What is more important to you? Restoring old houses to their natural splendour or preparing them for the future? Please add your comment below.