Taking the first steps towards making a beautiful old house more eco-friendly is an extremely complex task, which is why homeowners should begin by consulting an expert, such as Alexander Creed, who heads the energy-advice department at Strutt & Parker. He’s been making Green modifications to his own historic farmhouse in Essex, a flint-and-limestone building with soft, red-brick detailing that dates from 1753.
‘It’s really important to make sure that nothing nasty is done to an older house that will cause problems later,’ he says. ‘Ours had been clad in concrete after the First World War, so we stripped all that off and replaced a lot of it with a lime render. This cured all the damp problems and improved the thermal qualities of the house.’ Mr Creed suggests that insulation, particularly in the roof space, is the first thing to look at with any house, as it can dramatically reduce energy consumption. ‘We used a sheep’s-wool product so that it would allow the house to breathe,’ he says. Modern products made with fibreglass are fine for new houses, but can cause damp problems in older ones.
Properties built after 1919 are likely to have cavity walls, and filling the cavity with insulation can boost heat retention. But with older walls built of flint, stone or cob, there’s little that can be done. ‘I’m wary of internal wall linings, but if you’re doing repair work anywhere, it’s worth thinking about adding a level of insulation if you can, and if the structure of the building lends itself to it,’ Mr Creed adds.
That said, 79% of traditionally built walls sampled by SPAB in a recent survey-including timber, cob, limestone, slate and granite-actually retained heat better than had been assumed. ‘We appear to be actually underselling the thermal performance of our old buildings by not fully understanding them,’ explains Jonathan Garlick, technical officer at SPAB. ‘Energy efficiency is becoming the key issue for people working with historic buildings. If we aren’t basing our approaches on the right figures to begin with, then we could, unintentionally, be doing untold invasive damage.’
Simple draught-proofing may be all you need to keep the heat in, but care also needs to be taken with windows. Chris Wood, head of building conservation and research at English Heritage (EH), fears that the energy-saving lobby is encouraging huge numbers of owners of Victorian and Georgian houses to have eco-makeovers, and that thousands of lovely old windows will be lost for ever. This has been exacerbated by a marketing drive from double-glazing salesmen offering plastic-framed units as energy-savers.
‘Many original timber sash windows have lasted more than 200 years, and are capable of lasting another century,’ comments Dr Simon Thurley, EH’s chief executive. ‘It’s a waste to throw them away unneces-sarily.’ Research carried out on windows rescued from a skip by EH shows that they keep heat in much more efficiently after some repair. Those who would like to take a more proactive approach to Green living, however, can go the extra mile and embrace renewable energy.
It’s not for everyone-set-up costs can be high and the technology intricate-but search agents such as The Buying Solution have seen a steep rise in the number of buyers taking an interest in the Green credentials of houses, not least because the Energy Performance Certificates survived the HIPs cull. Although it’s under revision, the Government’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) offers subsidies on alternative heating technologies, including biomass boilers, solar panels and ground-source heat pumps.
New owners of large estates are certainly showing great interest in the woodchip option. ‘This is exciting,’ says John Scott Kerr, sustainability and bio-energy consultant at Bidwells. ‘But you need 100 acres of woodland to begin to consider it, and the cost of setting it up is quite large. You need room to erect equipment, and manpower to cut the trees. It works well if you have extra cottages or holiday guest accommodation.’ The renewables industry fears that the RHI subsidies may be cut, but accountants such as Saffery Champness can provide help to navigate funding possibilities and tax breaks.
Eco-proof your home in five easy steps
1. Make sure your hot-water tank is well lagged
2. Give low-energy lightbulbs a try-they’re much
more effective than they used to be
3. An old central-heating boiler may be worth
replacing, as new ones are more efficient
4. Fit brush-style draught excluders to loose-fitting doors
5. Consider establishing different heat zones in the house
by adjusting the thermostat for some parts to a cooler setting