Energy efficiency & traditional buildings

Energy efficiency and traditional buildings

Given the current rate of replacement of the UK housing stock (around 1 per cent per year) we will have to live with our existing homes for a long time to come. According to the 2007 Housing Green Paper Homes for the Future: More Affordable, More Sustainable, the government has calculated that only one-third of the houses being used in 2050 will have been built since 2007, this means that new building can only have a small impact on total emissions. It is in everyone’s interests to ensure that existing buildings are well managed and maintained, and that any changes that affect their function are made circumspectly.

Diagram of house


The UK building sector must make a large contribution to any reduction of greenhouse gas emissions: according to figures published by the Government, some 46 per cent of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions come from fossil fuels burnt to provide energy for buildings, and about half of this is attributable to home use.

Although it is often assumed that the older a building is, the less energy-efficient it must be this is really not the case. Before the 20th century fuel was expensive and awkward to handle. Buildings were consequently designed to use as little as possible; by contrast the buildings of the later 20th century were designed for cheap supplies of energy ‘on tap’, and can be spectacularly power-hungry.

About a quarter of all existing buildings are ‘traditionally constructed’: built using traditional materials and techniques, such as thick solid walls and with plenty of natural ventilation. The results were not always ‘best practice’, but it should not surprise us that they are often found to be very energy efficient when actually measured. Thick solid construction acts as an excellent thermal buffer, stopping the building either gaining or losing too much heat. Another fundamental difference between modern and traditional buildings is that the modern versions are designed to keep moisture out with layers of impervious materials (such as cement and plastic membranes), whereas traditional buildings work by using solid permeable materials that can absorb a great deal of moisture without damage, and release it slowly back into the environment as conditions become dryer. 

Using modern materials and approaches on older buildings can cause severe damage and actually decrease energy efficiency. Ill judged alterations risk making buildings that up to that point were functioning well begin to fail. For example, adding external insulation to a thick solid wall is not only likely to be a waste of resources, but can lead to moisture problems in the wall. 

No changes should ever be made that risk long -term damage to the building. To reduce emissions we may need to improve efficiency in all buildings, modern or traditional, but we need to be very sure that any proposed works take account of the unique composition of the building and harm neither its performance nor its historic character.

If you would like to improve energy efficiency in your home go to Tell us about your home and customise the site and then select Saving energy.

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Tell us about your home & customise this site

If you tell us where you live in England and when your house was constructed we can provide more specific information about the potential effects of climate change on your home. We can also provide you with more detailed information on how to save energy to reduce carbon emissions.


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