Cheap and instantly available energy is a modern phenomenon. Older buildings had to function without the central heating and artificial lighting that we now take for granted. Until the Industrial Revolution transport costs were very high, which meant that most materials and labour were locally sourced. In historic towns and villages most services were provided within walking distance of people’s homes. The way traditional buildings were made and used can therefore provide useful pointers for modern low-carbon building and living.
Traditional buildings can often perform extremely well in energy tests. Thick walls and relatively small windows give a high thermal mass, which means they stay warmer in winter and cooler in summer than many modern houses. This is true even of the most unexpected buildings: for example experiments have shown that 16th-century half-timbered houses can sometimes out-perform modern buildings. Older terraces are usually easier to keep warm than detached houses, simply because they have fewer walls through which to lose heat.
Traditional building materials are often more durable than their modern replacements. They can also be more cost-effective in energy terms. In the past the investment in materials was high, but labour costs were relatively low. Today, by contrast, we place a premium on time-saving. For example, traditional softwood window frames have an almost indefinite life if regularly repainted, but plastic window frames, which do not require painting, need to be replaced every 10 or 15 years, or whenever a pane of glass is broken. Traditional buildings lend themselves to energy-efficiency strategies that are also sympathetic to their historic character- for example bringing internal shutters back into use.
Back to top