Green with envy? Period properties can join the eco-revolution

The UK government has set some of the world’s most ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions and buildings are one of the key focuses. Already, homes for sale are subject to an energy assessment and, from 2016, all new buildings will have to conform to a zero carbon specification known as Code 6.

But, as owners of period properties have discovered, the standards aren’t necessarily compatible with historic building methods and features. Fireplaces and sash windows can be draughty, walls aren’t meant to take cavity insulation and the buildings need to have air circulating from the cold outside – if they’re sealed tight, they may suffer from damp and rot.

Conservation areas and listed buildings, meanwhile, are subject to severe restrictions on changes to exteriors.

It’s a problem that the Max Lock Centre at Westminster University addressed in a study called Retrofitting Soho, which won a bronze award in the International Awards for Liveable Communities 2007 for Environmentally Sustainable Projects.

They came up with a list of ideas that can be adopted by home-owners who can’t simply rip everything out and start again – but would like to save both running expenses and the planet.

One caveat: be wary of eco bling – status symbol devices that save little energy, cost more carbon in terms of manufacture and transport than they save or have such a long pay-back period that they are uneconomic for ordinary householders.

Quick wins

These low-cost, undisruptive measures include draught-proofing doors and windows (there are conservation standard systems that are invisible), installing secondary double glazing, adding loft insulation (make sure that enough air still circulates to prevent the building sweating – it’s best to consult an expert), replacing all your bulbs with modern, low-energy models and avoiding power showers, which can use more water than a bath. Even heavy curtains and draught excluders can make a difference.

One new option is to install a smart meter that will show you how much energy you’re using, as you use it – a great incentive only to run the washing machine with a full load. Ask your energy company if they’re offering this comparatively new technology.

Easy life cycle hits

These are generally simple to implement but more expensive and may not be cost-effective unless they’re part of a regular refurbishment or replacement cycle.

They include replacing and upgrading boilers (biomass boilers use waste as fuel), appliances, controls and internal services systems. Heat exchangers may be an option but the work – especially in a tall townhouse, is likely to be intrusive and there can be a long pay-back period.

Conservation-standard double-glazing for sash windows is now readily available and new glass technologies can even provide some heat – again, watch out for pay-back periods.

Greening the exterior

Options include rainwater harvesting and light tubes, also known as sun tubes, to add natural light via a tube from a rooflight or roof dome.

Solar thermal and photovoltaic panels are less financially attractive now than they have been in recent years, as the subsidy is being cut and they may have a very long pay-back period, especially if the weather is particularly British.

In all cases, check with the council’s conservation department before you make any plans, as both conservation area status and listing may rule them out – although St George’s Church in Kemp Town recently launched plans to cover much of its roof with photovoltaic panels, with a view to selling the electricity it generates.

Shared or communal solutions

Neighbours can band together to share heating, air conditioning or ground source heat (known as fit and forget technology as they need little maintenance) but you need a garden that is accessible to digging machinery so a trench or borehole can be dug or drilled and the system works better with underfloor or warm air heating than with radiators.

Under the Renewable Heat Incentive, you may be paid for both the renewable heat you use and for any surplus that you can sell on. It is scheduled to come into force in October 2012 for domestic properties.

Further information

Brighton & Hove City Council can provide guidance on acceptable measures for listed buildings and in conservation areas.

The Energy Saving Trust has straightforward information about renewable energy and other carbon-friendly measures.

University of Westminster, Retrofitting Soho – the full report.

• There will be more on this subject in a future issue of the Regency Society Journal.

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