Detail of exterior wooden wall panelling and window
Detail of Zetland house in Manchester, which has been transformed into a passive house © Rick McCullagh
Detail of Zetland house in Manchester, which has been transformed into a passive house © Rick McCullagh

New Report: “Greening” Historic Homes Could Save up to 84% in Carbon Emissions

Carefully retrofitting our historic homes could save up to 84% in carbon emissions, according to this year’s Heritage Counts report, published today (25 March) by Historic England on behalf of England’s leading heritage organisations which make up the Historic Environment Forum.

Buildings, including homes, are the third largest producers of carbon emissions in the UK today and homes alone account for 13% of all the UK’s carbon emissions. As England has one of the oldest building stocks in Europe, with a fifth of all homes being over a century old, we need to reduce the carbon emissions from our historic homes. But this is a complex process as every building is different and how they function is affected by a range of elements, from size and number of occupants, to the impact of regional weather patterns.

New research in this year’s report shows that when comparing a traditional terraced home in North West England with an identical property in the South East, there is a 17.6% increase in heating needs for the North West home, which results in a 13.8% increase in total CO₂ emissions.

This year’s Heritage Counts report aims to support and empower the people who look after our historic buildings. It shows the value of good custodianship, the power of small behaviour changes and the need to recycle and reuse our buildings first to reduce carbon emissions.

The scale and urgency of climate change requires people to take action now to reduce carbon emissions. Our buildings are important sources of embodied carbon, so we know we must reuse them, rather than demolish and rebuild, but as buildings are the third largest carbon emission producers in the UK after transport and industry we must also address their daily emissions. From small behavioural changes to larger energy efficiency improvements this new research demonstrates that we can greatly reduce the carbon footprint of our precious historic homes, whilst maintaining what makes them special.
Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive Historic England

Avoid waste, avoid carbon

Historic buildings were built to last across generations. To meet the government’s target of being carbon neutral by 2050, we know we must recycle and reuse our existing historic buildings, rather than demolishing and building new, so the CO₂ emissions already embodied within existing buildings are not lost through demolition.

Demolishing buildings not only produces millions of tonnes of waste (three fifths of all waste produced in the UK every year comes from construction, demolition and excavation) but building new has high energy costs and guzzles resources.

There are no simple “one size fits all” solutions to reducing the carbon footprints of historic homes, but homeowners need to consider the retrofit option that avoids waste and avoids carbon. This means keeping on top of repair and maintenance at home to improve the condition of its existing materials. It also means planning well for a retrofit, using fewer new materials with large carbon footprints, which are often imported from abroad, and instead using natural, durable and recycled materials.

Modelled examples in today’s report show that carefully retrofitting our historic homes can lead to substantial carbon savings in the long term. Carbon emissions could be reduced by up to 84% in a detached Victorian home, 62% in a Georgian terrace, 58% in a 1900s terrace, 56% in a Victorian semi-detached and 54% in a Victorian terrace.

“Greening” historic homes

Historic homes are all varied, with building type, materials and condition having an impact on their carbon emissions. Homeowners and occupiers have various steps to consider for reducing the carbon emissions of their homes, including:

  • Understanding your home: Understanding a building, its significance and the factors that impact its energy use is important when devising an approach to reducing emissions. The amount of energy a home uses is influenced by multiple factors, including its location, design, construction, as well as how many people live in and use it.
  • Keeping up with small repairs: A simple and effective starting point for every historic homeowner wanting to reduce carbon emissions is to repair and maintain their home. Old windows and doors would originally have been made as accurately as the considerable skills of a traditional joiner would allow, but over time they need maintenance. Cracked joints in brick and stone walls similarly allow water in where it would once have been kept out. Regularly repairing this minor decay will enhance the building’s performance and durability and avoid future potential higher costs. Today’s report shows that, in the case of a church, the knock-on costs of delayed repairs could increase by up to 26%.
  • Adding or upgrading the loft insulation: Loft insulation is a quick and cheap way of improving energy efficiency. Adding insulation where there is currently none can result in annual emissions savings of between 16-18%.
  • Adding secondary glazing: Single glazed windows can be improved by adding secondary glazing, which today’s report shows is one of the most cost effective measures for reducing emissions and can reduce annual CO₂ emissions by up to 7%.
  • Turning down the thermostat: Small changes to how we use our homes can make a big difference. Heating accounts for approximately 65% of a building’s energy use. Reducing energy for heating is a key aim of the UK’s net-zero targets. Turning down the thermostat from 21°C to 20°C and having the heating on for an hour less each day can result in an almost 10% reduction in annual CO₂ emissions. Adding draught-proofing can see those emission savings more than double.
  • Adding draught-proofing: Draught-proofing windows and doors, as well as dealing with open chimneys and flues, is quick and relatively low cost yet still has a tangible impact on emissions. Even well-fitted roller blinds can reduce annual CO₂ emissions by up to 2.5%.
  • Speaking to a professional: Seeking professional help from suitably qualified specialists with an understanding of historic homes is important. They can advise on the specific needs of your home and the best actions and materials to suit these needs.
Urgent action to combat climate change is among the 2030 United Nations Global Sustainable Goals. To be effective, action must be taken at every level and by everyone, not just Governments - we are all responsible and we can all contribute - collectively and individually.

Historic buildings are more than 20% of the total building stock in England and too often they are seen as a block to carbon reduction. The Historic Environment Forum is proud to support this Heritage Counts Research which shows a range of efficiency improvements that can be implemented relatively easily and cost-effectively.

Empowering people to retrofit their home in a more sustainable way with effective energy saving measures will be a major step on our collective journey to net zero.
Adrian Olivier, Chair Historic Environment Forum
I am delighted that this important new research is being announced at Heritage Day. I congratulate the Forum and Historic England on adding valuable detail to the case for the heritage sector’s role in helping to tackle the climate emergency. It helps illustrate the fact that re-use will always be more environmentally friendly than replace. I hope it helps concentrate the mind of policy makers when they consider the incentives currently created by the way VAT is charged on restoration projects.
Peter Ainsworth, Chair Heritage Alliance