Why retrofit?

Roger advises us on how to make your old home more energy-efficient

Roger Hunt is an award-winning writer and blogger, the co-author of Old House Handbook and the companion volume Old House Eco Handbook, and he is leading Old House Eco Courses for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Here he talks about the benefits of retrofitting your old home.

We fall in love with old buildings because of their character and history; what we tend to forget are the downsides. Chief amongst these is that they’re often not terribly energy efficient. This isn’t something we can ignore. Not only is energy expensive, collectively the buildings we live in are responsible for around 26 per cent of Britain’s carbon emissions.

What can we do?

The simple answer is that we need to upgrade our homes or, to use the buzzword, ‘retrofit’ them to make them more energy efficient. This may sound easy but, with an old building - and I’m talking about everything from medieval timber framed houses to Edwardian terraces - there are certain crucial things that need to be remembered. For a start the building’s character and history should not be lost. Equally importantly, the way the building ‘works’ must not be upset.
Old buildings generally had solid walls and these were built with lime mortars, plasters and renders. These materials allowed the walls and floors to ‘breathe’ and prevented them becoming damp because moisture easily escaped. This state of equilibrium is upset if modern, non-breathable materials that trap moisture are used, such as cement-based products, ‘plastic’ paints and importantly, when it comes to retrofitting, some forms of insulation. Mistakes here can result in damp, decay and ill health for both the building and its occupants.
With this in mind, retrofitting should be planned and thought about holistically in terms of the whole building and the lifestyles of the occupants. The pros and cons of any measures being considered must also be understood.

Quick wins and opportunities

Think about the quick wins first. These bring the biggest energy savings with the least financial outlay or damage and include such things as energy-efficient light bulbs, loft insulation, draught-proofing and overhauling the heating system.
Next come the opportunities. For example, if you’re buying new curtains or blinds make sure they’re thermally-insulated. Where windows are being decorated or repaired get them properly overhauled with draught strips fitted or secondary glazing added - always try to avoid replacement windows which will mean the loss of original character, history and authenticity.
More major renovation projects present the biggest opportunities for retrofitting. They also provide the greatest possibilities for mistakes so don’t rush in without first understanding what’s best for the building. That way you’ll have an old home with character and history that’s energy efficient and sustainable long into the future.