Victorian terrace retrofit

The Need for Assessment

Unfortunately, ‘retrofitting’ buildings to make them more energy efficient is often a complex business – particularly when applied to older homes – so it can be hard to work out where to start. Most of the information out there is either supplied by manufacturers with a vested interested in making their products sound like a must-have, or is given in the form of generic advice that applies to the mythical ‘typical’ house or the ‘average’ family.

But if, for example, you live in a 16th century farm cottage, Georgian townhouse or a Victorian terrace, packed with character and historic detail, you probably don’t feel that recommendations for a ‘typical’ house really apply to you. And I’d be inclined to agree. I believe that every house, not to mention every household, is different. Even houses that were built at the same time and appear similar from the outside are likely to have been modified in different ways over time, and will be occupied by people with different habits, needs and budgets.

Appreciating these differences is vital. For example, the energy efficiency measures that are right for a single professional tend to be very different to those needed by a retired couple. Similarly, you’d likely recommend very different things for an off-grid house in Cumbria compared to a townhouse in Bath. If measures are applied in a generic way, there’s every chance that you might end up spending money on work or systems that don’t achieve the desired results, or spending more money than you need to. You may also cause problems for the future. For instance, inappropriate insulation can result in dampness and decay.

To avoid these mistakes, the best way forward is to undertake an assessment that is specific to your home. It’s an approach now enshrined in UK retrofit policy, with the government incorporating assessments as a key stage in the Green Deal. Green Deal assessments are designed to be mass-market, quick and cheap, enabling broad estimates of costs and benefits to be made as a gateway to Green Deal finance. This level of assessment is all well and good but I believe that it’s important to have a much more individual ‘masterplan’.

The idea behind creating a masterplan is that it goes into much more detail to allow the identification and comparison of a greater range of solutions. Importantly, taking this approach also allows us to be much more considerate of the complexities of older buildings. For example, focussing on measures that don’t interfere with period features, or assessing the relative benefits of breathable insulation materials that pose a lower risk to vulnerable walls.

Alongside the specifics of your home, a thorough assessment should also be capable of accounting for your wider plans. If you’re thinking about re-decorating, installing a new kitchen or building an extension, for example, you should consider what energy efficiency measures you can install at the same time. When undertaken alongside other home improvements, the additional cost of a retrofit can be much, much lower than if it’s undertaken as a stand-alone project.

If that sounds complicated, don’t worry. In recent years the sector has grown significantly and there are now an ever-increasing number of companies out there that can help with expert advice and support – from up-front planning and analysis to project man- agement. With a little bit of careful planning, there’s no reason why even the most traditional of properties can’t be an ‘eco’ house. And, in most cases, it should be achievable at a very reasonable cost.

This article originally appeared in the SPAB‘s Briefing: Energy efficiency in old buildings.