Decarbonising heritage and traditional homes

A recurring challenge for housing associations when it comes to decarbonisation is the difficulty of retrofitting heritage and traditional homes. Below is a round up of some of the key information and practical guidance for retrofitting heritage and traditional homes.

Heritage homes are those which have special considerations under the planning system, due to the character and historic interest attached to the building. Traditional homes are typically defined as those built before 1919. 

Often the construction of these buildings differs to contemporary housing. For example, many are 'moisture open' meaning they allow the ingress and egress of moisture through features such as timber flooring and ventilation through chimney chutes and draughts. Consequently, these houses may require special treatment to ensure the natural balance within the home and to avoid issues with damp and mold. Find out more about the barriers to retrofitting heritage homes.

In our decarbonisation guide, we advocate for a 'fabric first' approach to decarbonisation but this may not always be appropriate for every building. It is key that heritage homes are retrofitted responsibly to ensure the protection of its character, the comfort of residents and the cost-effectiveness of heating the property. 

Historic England guidance

As the public body with responsibility of protecting heritage buildings, the primary source of guidance comes from Heritage England. The most relevant documents are outlined below and more guidance can be found on their website.

Energy Efficiency and Historic Buildings: How to Improve Energy Efficiency (2018) covers the ‘whole building approach’, outlining best practice for retrofitting heritage homes. Within this guidance, Historic England have included thirteen technical guides (see part 5: ‘Where to Get Advice’ on page 42). These cover best practice for roofs, window and floors, walls and floors.

Planning Responsible Retrofit of Traditional Buildings (2015) looks at the complexity and uncertainty in the way that older buildings, new technologies, nature and people perform and interact and how, by taking a realistic whole building approach, risks and liabilities can be reduced.

Energy Efficiency and Traditional Homes (2020) considers energy efficiency improvements to those traditional homes described as heritage assets within the planning system.

Other guidance

The Sustainable Traditional Building Alliance have created an interactive retrofit guidance wheel (updated in 2020). The wheel covers the benefits and drawbacks of various retrofit measures, linking to additional research in each area.

Responsible Retrofit of Traditional Buildings (2012) is a report on existing research and guidance with recommendations from the Sustainable Traditional Building Alliance guide which identifies the key issues in relation to retrofit.

In 2021, Historic Environment Scotland published Guide to Energy Retrofit of Traditional Buildings. Please note that there may be some differences between Scottish and English regulation, particularly in relation to planning.

Heritage Retrofit: Older Buildings and Sustainability is an annual magazine. The first edition, from 2017, was is free to access.

The Institute of Heritage Building Conservations has issued a guidance note (March 2022) as part of their toolbox on protecting and working on heritage buildings.

The UK Centre for Moisture in Buildings have created a framework dealing with managing excess moisture in older homes in relation to energy performance.

Who to speak to

Rory Hughes, Policy Officer