A photograph of a red brick tenement block building with numerous windows and satellite dishes
A general view of the south side of the Steamer Street Tenement block in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. © Historic England Archive. DP347785.
A general view of the south side of the Steamer Street Tenement block in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. © Historic England Archive. DP347785.

The Role of Maintenance and Repair in a Low Carbon Future

Part of the Heritage Counts series. Over 10 minute read.

We can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save energy in existing buildings through:

  1. Energy-efficient technologies. For example, retrofit measures such as insulation
  2. Operational improvements, such as supply chain efficiency improvements, and renewable energy generation
  3. Effective maintenance and repair (Firdaus et al, 2019)

To date, the emphasis has been placed on the first 2 approaches with maintenance and repair, a much-neglected area of building energy performance within the climate change discourse. Yet, effective ‘maintenance and repair’ practices can yield significant energy savings (Sullivan et al, 2010). Simple maintenance actions can effectively maintain the performance of the building envelope and its services (Firdaus et al, 2019). The performance of the building fabric can be enhanced both by carrying out repairs promptly and through regular maintenance (Historic England, 2018).

Every building's energy consumption can benefit from rigorous operations and maintenance practices.

Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy

Maintain and repair to save energy

There is a large body of research that emphasises the benefits of repairing and maintaining historic buildings and building services in technical and qualitative terms (see Historic England, 2023; Historic England, 2018; Historic England, 2017; SPAB, various years).

However, there are few studies that quantify the scale of the energy savings from these practices, which in part explains why maintenance and repair are largely absent from current climate change decisions and policies (Rizos et al, 2017). The reason why there is limited quantified data is ascribed to the diversity and scale of repair and maintenance interventions, the multitude of materials that can be used, and a lack of analytical effort coupled with no long-term monitoring (Hertwich et al, 2019).

The few studies that do exist demonstrate how proper maintenance and continuous repair can detect inefficient/malfunctioning equipment, as well as decaying building components and materials. This facilitates early actions to repair the equipment and repair materials and, in this way, improves energy performance and saves energy (Firdaus et al, 2019):

  • A study examining 20 different historic (pre-1919) suburban dwellings using computer modelling and live data found that maintenance, periodic renewal and benign changes (defined as interventions that have no or little impact on the visual heritage, heritage fabric that does not change the use or material behaviour of the historic dwelling) has the potential to achieve a 40% saving in energy consumption (Ritson, 2020)
  • Maintenance and operations measures cost approximately 20 times less and can achieve roughly the same energy savings as retrofit measures, according to the US Department of Energy (Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, 2023)
  • A damp wall, often a result of inadequate maintenance, can be over a third less energy efficient (BSI, 2013). Dampness and draughts from poor maintenance can be the cause of much higher energy use and long-term structural problems, posing risks to health due to mould growth (Ortiz, 2020)
  • Homes lose around a third of the heat through their walls and damp masonry. A common consequence of poor maintenance is increased heat loss; this can lead to higher energy bills due to greater heating demands (Energy Savings Trust, 2019)
  • The New Buildings Institute found that best practices in building maintenance and operations reduce energy use by 10 to 20% across all climate zones in the United States. In contrast, poor maintenance practices can increase energy use by 30 to 60% (Frankel et al, 2012)

Repairing versus replacing window frames

A recent study compares the carbon footprint associated with the repair of a damaged wooden window frame with the replacement of the window frame using a Life Cycle Assessment. The research found:

  • Repairing a damaged softwood window frame produces between 1.99 KgCO2e (from preventative maintenance: joint repair) to 5.05 KgCO2e (from curative maintenance: splicing repair) over a 25-year period
  • Opting to replace the softwood window frame with a hardwood frame generates 17.18 KgCO2e, while a uPVC frame generates 38.45 KgCO2e over the same 25-year period
  • Replacing the glazing as well as the window frame means the carbon footprint of the replacement scenario increases significantly to 76.69KgCO2e (hardwood frame + glazing) and 97.96 (uPVC frame + glazing) over the 25-year period

These findings demonstrate that the environmental impact of replacing a damaged wooden window with a uPVC window frame is 19 times greater than repairing the window frame over a 25-year period. Moreover, if the glazing is also replaced, a new uPVC window has a carbon footprint that is over 49 times that of a repaired window retaining its original glazing.

In the case of advanced wood decay, the environmental impact of repairs is greater (due to the use of more repair materials – resin and wood in this study). Nevertheless, even in this scenario the footprint of a new uPVC window frame is still 8 times larger (without new glazing) or 19 times greater (with new glazing) compared to the footprint of repairs.

Source: CE Delft, 2023

Maintain and repair to increase durability

Buildings, infrastructure, and the materials used to construct them can have lifespans of decades to centuries, but their survival needs to be underpinned by regular and continued maintenance (Hertwich et al, 2019). Maintenance “is fundamental to conservation...” (Australia ICOMOS, 2013). The longer buildings and their building components remain in productive use, the less carbon is expended.

Numerous studies explore how to reduce the energy demands of buildings by extending their lifespans. This longevity has a direct impact on future energy demands:

  • A building with a lifespan of 80 years has a reduced environmental impact of 29% compared to a building with a 50-year lifespan. A building of 100 years and a building of 120 years have a reduced environmental impact in the order of 38% and 44%, respectively, compared to a building with a 50-year lifespan (Marsh, 2016). This study used Life Cycle Assessments for 792 parametric variations of typical construction solutions, covering all primary building components and based on contemporary practice. A full statistical analysis is carried out, which shows a significant statistical correlation between changes in building lifespan and environmental impact for all primary building components, except windows/roof lights
  • Cai et al (2015) estimated that extending the average lifespan of Chinese buildings from their current 23.2 years to a 50-year design life expectancy could significantly reduce carbon emissions by over 400 Mt per year. This reduction is equivalent to slashing one-fifth of current construction-related emissions and would save 3 EJ of energy per year (Hertwich et al, 2019)
  • A study (Peterson et al, 2022) examining the degradation of painted and rendered surfaces using in situ inspections of 16 building facades and statistical models found:
    • Cleaning operations reduced the overall severity of degradation, by 13% on average (12.2% for renderings and 13.2% for painted surfaces)
    • Partial repair of renderings reduced the overall severity of degradation of the façade by 71.1% on average
    • The service life of the coatings could be extended by repair and maintenance, promoting both sustainable and cost-effective management through the lifespan of the painted renders
  • Retaining historic fabric is key to preserving the authenticity of a building. This can be achieved with regular, minimal and small-scale maintenance work instead of disruptive and extensive restoration (Kindred, 2004)

Maintenance and repair are cost-effective measures

Within the commercial building sector it is well known that properly planned and executed operations and maintenance practices are one of the most cost-effective strategies for ensuring longevity, reliability, safety, and energy efficiency (Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, 2023).

  • Research demonstrates that preventative maintenance strategies result in economic savings as expensive and unnecessary repairs are prevented (Forster & Kayan, 2009)
  • Delaying repairs to historic buildings could increase the costs of repairs by 15% to 20%. Furthermore, it causes cumulative consequential damage, where one problem leads to another issue elsewhere in the building fabric. This could account for around 25% of the total repair cost for fixing all defects identified within the study. The research is based on 3 successive Quinquennial Inspection Reports for a sample of 30 listed church buildings across England (Historic England, 2019)
  • Orbit Housing group examined over 27,000 properties and found that the housing group could save over £4 million in management costs over a 20-year period by investing in the energy performance of their homes, including repairs (GLA, 2016)
  • Savings of 15 to 20% can be realised through the implementation of a proper scheduled maintenance program for the operation of heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in commercial buildings (Chimack et al, 2006)
  • Regular maintenance of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems ensures they operate efficiently. Dirty filters, malfunctioning components, or refrigerant leaks can lead to increased energy consumption. The Institute for Building Efficiency reports:
    • Portland Energy Conservation Inc. found that building operation and maintenance programs specifically designed to enhance the operating efficiency of HVAC and lighting systems decreased energy bills by 5 to 20% in commercial buildings, without significant capital investment
    • The National Center for Energy Management and Building Technologies conducted 45 interviews with industry experts and concluded that effective scheduled maintenance decreases energy bills by 15 to 20% in commercial buildings
      (Institute BE, 2012)
  • While energy-efficient technologies may require significant capital investment, energy management practices such as maintenance and energy monitoring are less capital-intensive. They mainly need knowledge, diligence and awareness. As a result, maintenance emerges as a highly cost-effective strategy in energy efficiency programmes (Firdaus et al, 2019)
  • Within the commercial sector, the value of different maintenance regimes has been shown to provide value for money for machinery:
    • A well-implemented preventive maintenance strategy [1] can offer cost savings between 12 and 18% over a reactive maintenance program [2].
    • A predictive maintenance regime [3] can yield savings of 8 to 12% over preventive maintenance alone
    • Predictive maintenance programmes have the potential to identify saving opportunities exceeding 30 to 40% (Office for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, 2023)
  • Using data collected from manufacturers, Thomas and Weiss (2021) estimate the national losses due to inadequate maintenance to be (on average) $222.0 billion, as estimated using Monte Carlo analysis. These costs arise from differences in unplanned downtimes and defects from different maintenance regimes, with 18.5% less unplanned downtime and 87.3% fewer defects for those that rely more on predictive than preventive maintenance

Energy efficient technologies are less effective on poorly maintained buildings

Investing in retrofit and equipment upgrades can improve the energy efficiency of buildings. However, without regular repair, maintenance, and monitoring, these measures may not attain their optimal performance. Indeed, the successful implementation of energy efficiency measures may be hindered if properties are poorly maintained or in a state of disrepair.

  • A domestic retrofit demonstration project (PRP and Peabody) compared the projected costs of retrofit with actual costs. This demonstrated that properties in poor condition significantly increase retrofit costs: initial condition contingency estimate = £0; Quoted estimate from contractor = £4,125 (14% of the total quote for retrofit); actual outturn = £25,109 (32% of actual costs) (Raslan et al, 2020)
  • The Energy Saving Trust states it is “not recommended [wall insulation] if the outer walls are structurally unsound …” “[Wall insulation] cannot be done before fixing any problems with penetrating or rising damp.” (Energy Saving Trust, 2019)
  • Empirical studies have found that a cost-effective way to improve energy efficiency is to combine investments in energy-efficient technologies with continuous energy management practices. Without performing maintenance and monitoring, the potential energy savings generated by energy-efficient technologies will not be achieved (Backlund et al, 2012)
  • A study of over 27,000 properties found that less energy-efficient properties require more repairs. Properties in EPC band D have 18% more repairs relating to damp and mould growth than the stock average. For properties in EPC bands E, F and G, this figure rises to 48% above average (GLA, 2016)

Incentivising maintenance and repair

There are currently few incentives that encourage good maintenance practices amongst building owners and occupiers. Tax incentives, such as tax credits against income tax liabilities and VAT reliefs, are a way to incentivise retrofitting and recycling of the historic environment (Revelli, 2013). In light of climate change and the urgency by which energy reduction in buildings is required, it is argued that there is a growing need to incentivise good repair and maintenance practices.

  • Policy has long recognised the need for substantial change in the construction industry, but the current strategy for the sector forms part of a wider agenda to advance technological innovation, particularly for new-build projects, as opposed to repairing and maintaining existing buildings (Murtagh, 2021)
  • The UK’s VAT system imposes a 20% tax rate on the repair, maintenance, and refurbishment of existing buildings, whilst new-build developments are VAT-free. The heritage sector has long argued that redressing the inequality between new and existing development is a priority to meet our 2050 carbon targets, grow the economy, and reduce operational costs to owners (IHBC, 2014)
  • According to the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), a VAT cut on home improvements could generate £15 billion in new taxes, create 95,000 jobs, and unlock a £1 billion green revolution (FMB, 2019)


  1. Preventive Maintenance involves maintaining by tending to the asset at specified time intervals, in the same way that a vehicle is serviced once a year or every 12,000 miles. This can help make sure that certain elements, such as lubrication, are always fresh and not wearing down (UE Systems, 2014)
  2. Reactive maintenance is the ‘run it till it breaks’ maintenance mode. Reactive maintenance involves addressing issues only when they arise (Office for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, 2023)
  3. Predictive Maintenance involves routine inspections using various development technologies. Predictive maintenance operates effectively in the same way that a check-up at the doctor does, using sophisticated technologies to gather information on the health of an asset. This can help anticipate where possible instances of wear and tear may occur and predict a failure before it happens (UE Systems, 2014)


  1. Australia ICOMOS (2013). ‘Burra Charter & Practice Notes Australia ICOMOS.’ Available at: https://australia.icomos.org/publications/burra-charter-practice-notes/ (Accessed: 13.11.23)
  2. Backlund, S., Thollander, P., Palm, J. and Ottosson, M. (2012). ‘Extending the energy efficiency gap.’ Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235217547_Extending_the_energy_efficiency_gap (Accessed: 14.11.23)
  3. BSI Standards Publication (2013). ‘BS 7913:2013 Guide to the conservation of historic buildings.’ Available at: https://framptons-planning.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/CD-H23-BSI-Guide-to-the-Conservation-of-Historic-Buildings-2013.pdf (Accessed: 14.11.23)
  4. Cai, W., Wan, L., Jiang, Y., Wang, C. & Lin L. (2015). ‘Short-Lived Buildings in China: Impacts on Water, Energy, and Carbon Emissions.’ Available at: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.5b02333 (Accessed: 14.11.23)
  5. CE Delft (2023). ‘Carbon footprint repairing versus replacing of window frames - Public report.’ Available at: https://cedelft.eu/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2023/04/CE_Delft_210382_Repair-Care_public_Def.pdf (Accessed: 14.11.23)
  6. Chimack, M., Aardsma, J. and Novosel, D. (2006). ‘Energy Reduction through Practical Scheduled Maintenance, Report NCEMBT-061102.’ Available at: https://www.nemionline.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Chimack_M_Energy_Reduction_Through_Practical_Scheduled_Maintenance_NCEMBT-061102.pdf (Accessed: 12.10.23)
  7. Energy Saving Trust (2019). ‘Damp Walls? Energy Saving Trust Has Verified Products That Can Help.’ Available at: https://www.energysavingtrust.org.uk/damp-walls-energy-saving-trust-has-verified-products-that-can-help/ (Accessed: 02.08.23)
  8. Federation of Master Builders (FMB) (2019). ‘Cut the VAT to unleash green housing revolution, party leaders urged.’ Available at: https://www.fmb.org.uk/resource/cut-the-vat-to-unleash-green-housing-revolution-party-leaders-urged.html (Accessed: 10.10.23)
  9. Frankel, M., Heater, M. and Heller, J. (2012). ‘Sensitivity Analysis: Relative Impact of Design, Commissioning Maintenance and Operational Variables on the Energy Performance of Office Buildings’. Available at: Sensitivity Analysis: Relative Impact of Design, Commissioning, Maintenance and Operational Variables on the Energy Performance of Office Buildings (aceee.org) (Accessed: 02.08.23)
  10. Firdaus, N., Samat, H A and Mohamad, N. (2019). ‘Maintenance for Energy Efficiency: A Review.’ Available at: https://doi.org/10.1088/1757-899x/530/1/012047 (Accessed: 31.07.23)
  11. Forster, AM & Kayan, B (2009). ‘Maintenance for historic buildings: a current perspective’. Structural Survey, 27(3), pp.210–229. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1108/02630800910971347 (Accessed: 10.10.23)
  12. GLA (2016). ‘Positive energy– the business case for retrofit’. Available at: https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/renew_positive_energy_-_the_business_case_for_retrofit-_online_0.pdf (Accessed: 10.11.23)
  13. Hertwich, E.G., Ali, S.H., Ciacci, L., Fishman, T., Heeren, N., Masanet, E., Farnaz Nojavan Asghari, Olivetti, E., Pauliuk, S., Tu, Q. and Wolfram, P. (2019). ‘Material efficiency strategies to reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with buildings, vehicles, and electronics—a review.’ Environmental Research Letters, 14(4), pp.043004–043004. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab0fe3 (Accessed: 10.11.23)
  14. Historic England (2023). ‘Funding Sources for Owners: Conservation and Maintenance.’ Historic England. Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/advice/hpg/assistanceforowners/maintenance/#:~:text=There%20is%20no%20direct%20legal,urgently%20necessary%20for%20its%20preservation (Accessed: 10.11.23)
  15. Historic England (2019). ‘The Value of Maintenance?’ Historic England. Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/value-of-maintenance/ (Accessed: 14.11.23)
  16. Historic England (2018). ‘Energy Efficiency and Historic Buildings: How to Improve Energy Efficiency.’ Historic England. Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/eehb-how-to-improve-energy-efficiency/ (Accessed: 13.11.23)
  17. Historic England (2017). ‘The Maintenance and Repair of Traditional Farm Buildings.’ Historic England. Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/maintenance-repair-trad-farm-buildings/ (Accessed: 10.11.23)
  18. Historic England (2008). ‘Conservation Principles, Policies and Guidance.’ Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/conservation-principles-sustainable-management-historic-environment/conservationprinciplespoliciesandguidanceapril08web/ (Accessed: 10.11.23)
  19. IHBC (2014) ‘Policy regarding Value Added Tax (VAT) on historic buildings.’ Available at: https://ihbconline.co.uk/toolbox/research_notes/vat.html (Accessed 14.11.23)
  20. Institute for Building Efficiency (2012). ‘Energy Savings from maintenance- fact Sheet.’ Available at: https://www.johnsoncontrols.com/-/media/jci/be/specialty-pages/service-ppc/maintenance/files/ibe-energy-savings-from-maintenance-factsheet-final.pdf?la=en&hash=11AB666BDB30501FFAB3A200610269FFC4F8D199 (Accessed: 10.11.23)
  21. Kindred, 2004. TBC.
  22. Marsh, R. (2016). ‘Building lifespan: effect on the environmental impact of building components in a Danish perspective.’ ResearchGate. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/306384687_Building_lifespan_effect_on_the_environmental_impact_of_building_components_in_a_Danish_perspective#:~:text=years.%20...-,...,of%2050%20years.%20 (Accessed: 13.11.23)
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  24. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (2023). ‘Improve Operations & Maintenance’. Available at: https://www.energy.gov/eere/buildings/improve-operations-maintenance (Accessed: 13.11.23)
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