It makes sense to adopt a step-by-step approach when contemplating improvements to the energy efficiency of an old building:
1 Maintenance. Many people focus on expensive high-tech solutions when thinking about making their homes greener but it’s best to start with practical, routine maintenance. Straightforward measures, such as regularly clearing out gutters, will stave off the decay and unnecessary replacement of building components. They will also prevent your walls becoming wetter and, therefore, less thermally efficient, as will the use of ‘breathable’ finishes, such as limewash rather than moisture-trapping plastic-based paints containing petrochemicals. Keeping windows and doors in good repair will reduce heat loss, too, while re-washering dripping taps cuts down on water wasted.
2 ‘Quick wins’. After addressing maintenance, concentrate next on ‘quick wins’ – measures that can be implemented easily, have a short payback and cause little disturbance to the fabric of an old building. Draught-proof your windows, doors (covers can be provided for letterboxes and keyholes) and floorboards. Chimney balloons can be used to stop heat loss via flues that are not in use. Add heavy curtains, shutters or secondary glazing (ie panes that go inside your existing windows). It makes little sense, of course, to attempt to improve insulation levels in a building if draughts have not been properly addressed! Next ensure your loft is well insulated, including pipework and the access hatch. Other quick wins could involve lagging your hot water cylinder, fitting thermostatic radiator valves and low-energy light fittings, installing a water butt for garden purposes and placing water-saving devices in lavatory cisterns.
3 Major work. More significant work that could be justified might entail upgrading your boiler and heating system (maybe changing to a renewable fuel source) or, in certain circumstances, reinstating a missing lime render or rainscreen (such as vertical tiling or weatherboarding) on a wall suffering from rainwater penetration. Bear in mind, however, that some work that may be suitable for a modern building can be extremely detrimental to an older one, especially if it inhibits the evaporation of moisture. Unfortunately, this may include items recommended on an energy performance certificate (EPC) because the software inadvertently discriminates against older, c1919 buildings. When contemplating major work to save energy in an old building, therefore, seek the advice of a suitably qualified professional. The SPAB may be able to advise on the names of suitable specialists in your area over its technical advice line (details below).
Last but not least, don’t forget that sustainable living is about an entire attitude of mind. Try, therefore, to take a holistic view that takes into account the whole building and how you can improve the way you use it – throw on a thick jumper instead of turning up the heating, air dry rather than tumble dry washing, keep your central heating at reasonably even temperatures, and, of course, turn off electrical appliances and lights. Where available, obtain materials locally to limit transport distances and cut pollution. In the end, human activities, not buildings, consume energy.