Vintage green – making older buildings more sustainable

A few years ago, when I moved home to an old house, the Energy Performance Certificate in my HIPP rated the house (on a scale from A to G) as an F with a potential of becoming F. And yet I still bought the house. Firstly, because like many people, I like old houses and am prepared to make adjustments to live in one, and secondly because I happen know that although they may not be air tight and cavity wall insulated, there are always ways to make old buildings work more efficiently and sustainably. We have, in fact, managed to reduce the heating bills by about half and use perhaps only a quarter as much fossil fuel on heating as our predecessor.

Let me throw a couple of facts at you:

  1. Two thirds of houses in the UK were built before 1961 and it was only in 1979 that building regs began to have any impact on efficiency standards (and only in 1995 that they were revised with particular emphasis on this area).
  2. Around 27 per cent of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions come from domestic homes

So, whilst building sexy new eco homes might grab headlines, our biggest challenge is really reducing energy usage and carbon emissions from our legacy housing stock. To quote the government’s domestic energy usage report;

"Much of Britain’s housing was built before the links between energy use and
climate change were understood. Much of it was also built when there were
very different expectations of thermal comfort.

To put it simply, most families in 1970 lived in homes that would be cold by
modern standards in winter – as cool as 12°C on average...... There may have been ice on the insides of the windows, and nearly everyone accepted the need to wear thick clothes at home in winter. "

Whilst most of us would not welcome a return to such levels of discomfort, we need to learn to be more economically minded with our energy use and our job as experts in the field is to bring home to consumers the need to:

  1. Reduce the energy required to heat these homes. This means taking the simple steps such as insulating, double glazing and draft excluding.
  2. Make a cultural – and therefore more difficult – change, and ask how much heat we really require, because it is people and not buildings that use energy. We have as a nation in just the last few decades become used to walking around our homes in winter in short sleeves and bare feet and lost the habit of turning off heating in rooms not immediately in use.
  3. And perhaps most importantly we must harvest as much energy as possible from the environment and sustainable sources. Because heating systems are ugraded more often and more easily than insulation (you can’t fill solid walls with insulation) this is where we can make the biggest difference most quickly to our energy usage.

In fact old buildings can have some advantages when it comes to going green. They are more likely to have generous plots, which open up possibilities for renewable options such as ground source heat pumps for example. Existing chimneys and fireplaces can also make for the easy installation of solid fuel stoves and boilers. And of course it is these homes where the greatest economic benefit can be reaped by owners willing to invest in sustainable technologies.

So what holds us back from greening up our old homes?

  1. Upfront investment costs
  2. Problems integrating with existing legacy systems or with ageing infrastructure
  3. Planning constraints
  4. Aesthetic considerations

Let’s deal with these objections one by one:

  1. The government has done some good work providing grants through the RHIPP and FITs (see my previous article on these for more info) to help owners. So money is available to help install solar and heat pump technologies for example. More can be done, and I’ve been lobbying the government to include heat pumps in the Green Deal for example (link) – but customers can be helped to find ways to make renewable systems pay and Stiebel’s local specification managers are happy to help (link).
  2. New products come on to the market all the time to deal with these issues – so always come and ask. Some of my favourite Stiebel Eltron products are specifically tailored to help with legacy issues – our High Temperature Heat Pumps (see our WPL 33HT) are far better with wet radiator systems than other heat pumps making them a viable options where you don’t want to rip up your ancient flagstones to install underfloor heating for example. They also have a unique start system which puts less pressure on weak single phase electricity supplies, meaning they can be installed where other heat pumps can’t. Our solar thermal panels and our WWK 300 series hot water heat pumps can also be installed alongside an existing boiler to reduce dependency on fossil fuels without having to change your central heating system. The latter was in fact one of the choices I have made for my own home
  3. My personal opinion is that planning authorities need to recognise the urgency of this need both in terms of achieving our green targets but also in keeping out older housing stock in demand. It is not uncommon for owners of listed buildings or those in conservation areas to struggle to gain permission to install heat pumps for example, when simple measures to disguise them can easily be taken. If this kind of shortsightedness persists I can forsee a time when rising fuel costs will make buyers shy away from listed buildings, leaving them at risk. We all need to keep the pressure on with this one, urging common sense and big picture thinking with our local planning departments.
  4. At Stiebel Eltron we pride ourselves on having products with German build quality and design standards that help our new technologies sit comfortably in any environment

In summary whilst we will never make old buildings “energy efficient” in the same way as a new build home there is a lot that can be done to make them more sustainable and cheaper to run – and the options get wider all the time. We simply can’t afford to be complacent when reviewing the performance of old houses – it’s true it may never reach an A grade efficiency when compared to the buildings constructed to the latest standards - but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t encourage every consumer who comes asking to replace an existing boiler to think about options that may reduce their carbon foorprint and ongoing bills. And whilst we should all, for the sake of the planet and our pockets, do as our grandparents did and put on a jumper and slippers before turning up the heating, being green in older home doesn’t have to mean roughing it. Using technologies such as heat pumps means we can offer the same levels of comfort with lower costs and carbon emissions than fossil fuel alternatives . And my cosy old home just proves it.

Old houses – some facts about why we need persuade consumers to make them greener
The average EPC rating in the UK is D. We all need to worry about what energy wastage on this scale does to the environment (see ref 1)
Two thirds of housing stock is pre 1961. Only a quarter of homes are classed as modern, being built since 1976 (see ref 2). If we don't want to go back to 60's standards of winter comfort, but we do want a healthy planet, we need to find new ways to heat our homes sustainably
It's getting more and more expensive to go on using energy as we are. the price of heating Oils increased by 25.7 per cent between Q2 2010 and Q2 2011. Gas prices rose by 3.6% (see ref 3)
Great Britain’s housing stock changes very slowly. So the it's just a dream to think we will all soon be living in shiny new eco homes. There are now nearly 26 million dwellings in England, Scotland and Wales, but only around 180,000 new homes are built each year, and far fewer homes are demolished (see ref.4)

Links to reference material

1. Energy performance certificate information
2. National housing statistics

3. Government UK fuel price data

4. Government UK domestic energy usage fact file