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Energy Conservation in Historic Buildings

The focus on new build often fails to fully recognise the significant reductions in emissions that can be achieved through refurbishing and reusing older buildings. The historic environment is a finite and non-renewable environmental resource in its own right; not only in terms of the embodied energy but also in terms of local identity and sense of place. Traditional methods of construction and land management are often sustainable, though often incorrectly seen as inefficient However owners of many historic public buildings are in the forefront of energy conservation and recent research has demonstrated that the least energy efficient buildings tend to be those constructed post-1919.

For environmental reasons alone, using existing buildings efficiently must be a global priority. Replacing a building demands a considerable investment of energy: the energy embodied in the old building will be lost, and further energy will be used in its demolition.  To this must be added the cost of materials (including transport) and construction of the replacement building. The government’s Performance and Innovation Unit report, Resource Productivity, has noted that ‘energy is consumed in the production of construction materials such as bricks, cement and metals and in their distribution. Over 90 per cent of non-energy minerals extracted in Great Britain are used to supply the construction industry with materials, yet each year some 70 million tones of construction and demolition materials and soil end up as waste’ (PIU 2000) This accounts for 24 per cent of the total waste generated by the UK. By sustaining historic buildings we can both reduce energy consumption and sustain the identity.

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Poorly designed or inappropriate energy-saving measures can seriously detract from the historic character and fabric of buildings and landscapes, whereas well designed measures can make considerable savings with little or no damage. Proposals to replace historic buildings with new stock that is ostensibly more energy-efficient could result in serious losses of historic character and diversity as well as being far more disruptive to the local community.

Part L of the Building Regulations aims to improve energy efficiency in buildings. However the special interests and embodied energy in existing historic buildings needs to be recognised and balanced to avoid the erosion of historic character. English Heritage have produced useful advice and close liaison between Building Control and the Conservation Officers will help raise this issue further.

Over the next year it is hoped that through joint working within Cornwall Council, Cornwall Sustainable Energy Partnership and the new Cornwall Low Carbon Economic Unit that detailed advice will be available relating to sustainable role played by the historic environment in Cornwall, how our homes use energy, and which adaptations are the most effective. There may well be different answers for different types of building.

Additional advice on energy saving measures in historic buildings can be obtained from the following document downloads (the documents open in a new window):