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Building on the Past: energy efficiency in historic buildings

Dr Thomas Yarrow is a Senior Lecturer at Durham University.  In this perspective piece, he shares some findings and implications from his current project, Building on the Past.

In the UK we are obsessed with the past. Old buildings are all around us, valued in different ways, as symbols of history and tradition. They contribute to our sense of identity and place, and have a range of social and economic values. However, preservation of these buildings does not always sit easily alongside the aim of improved energy efficiency. Micro-renewables, double-glazing and improved insulation can all contribute to improved energy performance but can also adversely affect the aesthetic qualities and historic materials that we value. Around 20% of English homes were built before 1919, and older homes tend to be less efficient than those built more recently.  Making improvements to historic buildings poses challenges, so it is important to understand what these homes mean to the people who live in them, and work with them.

The Building on the Past project examines how ideas about heritage conservation, a set of beliefs about the value of continuity and tradition, relate to the environmental need to make historic buildings more efficient. The project aims to understand how ideas about heritage and energy futures are understood, through an in-depth study of the attitudes, values and beliefs of building professionals and home owners.House

So far, much of the academic and policy focus has been on the technical factors that explain existing energy performance in historic buildings, and potential for improvement. Consequently the social factors that explain how old buildings are used and modified are still poorly understood. Our research has found that understandings about the meaning and value of the past have several important implications for energy consumption.

Firstly, the uptake of energy-efficient technologies is affected by assessments of ‘appropriateness’ that involve ideas about the past. People’s ideas about aesthetic, material and historic continuity frame their perceptions of the degree and kind of change that maintains ‘character’ and ‘authenticity’. We found these considerations are particularly important in relation to decisions about windows and micro-renewables. However ideas about authenticity can also impact on less obviously disruptive changes, for example the use of ‘artificial’ building materials such as insulation. These assessments are particularly important in relation to traditionally constructed buildings, but also inform decision-making in relation to post-war and even new-build houses.

Secondly, ideas about the past play a part in people’s daily routines and the energy they use. On the one hand, appreciation of the character of old buildings is often associated with tolerance of lower levels of heating and lighting, and with forms of behaviour that adapt to these (as in this Punch cartoon).


Credit: Punch Limited

On the other hand home-owners’ ideas about authenticity, tradition and the past can also promote the use of less efficient technologies, including Agas and open fires. These ideas about character and history may be one reason why increased efficiency does not always mean reduced consumption – something that policy and regulatory frameworks need to recognise.

Thirdly, our research found that the way people understand character and heritage value, as well as how they understand energy efficiency, varies greatly between different buildings and situations.  This has implications for planning, showing the importance of having professionals appropriately qualified to make these assessments, and in particular highlighting the significant role of conservation officers, a role that is being undermined by Local Authority cuts.

Additionally, while much information already exists, the seemingly contradictory perspectives of heritage and energy conservation can be confusing for home-owners and building professionals. There is therefore further scope to aid decision-making, for example through models and information that facilitate building-specific assessments and balance historic, environmental and energy goals.

Our research suggests that a better understanding of what older homes mean to residents and building professionals could help inform more effective policy on both the conservation of energy and the conservation of the built environment.  To read more about the project, please visit the webpage here.

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