SUSTAINABILITY AND REDUCING THE CARBON FOOTPRINT OF HISTORIC BUILDINGS
The Bury Town Trust (BTT) is a signatory to ‘Heritage Declares’, across the ‘heritage’ sector body that sees the climate emergency as the preeminent issue facing society. We also accept that the historic environment can and should play its part in achieving the substantial reduction in carbon emissions needed if we are to resolve this crisis. However, there is still a necessity to protect what is special about our historic cities, towns and countryside and avoid unnecessary harm to our treasured heritage assets by making changes that would compromise their ‘special interest’ and the value of their ‘settings’.
What the BTT is aiming to do in the medium term is to provide links to information that the owners of heritage assets might find helpful when looking for solutions to lower the carbon footprint of their premises. This introductory document really is just to give some background as to what to avoid and also owners’ responsibilities. Although not wishing to put anyone off making changes to their heritage assets, there are legal issues that need addressing as well as aesthetic and heritage ones too.
Firstly, it is important to understand what is protected in a listed building and a conservation area. In the case of a listed building, all of the building (inside and out and all elevations), and curtilage buildings built before 1948 are protected by the designation. The setting of a listed building is also protected. The Town and Country Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 expects that changes to a listed building or its setting will only be acceptable (and therefore given Listed Building Consent and/or planning permission) if they protect the ‘special interest’ of the building and its setting. In conservation areas, the Act requires that when changes are made, the character or appearance of the area should be preserved or enhanced.
Some of the measures which can be undertaken to lower the carbon footprint of a building may require formal approval from the planning authority. What this means is that if you have a property which is listed or in the curtilage of a listed building, or in a conservation area you may need Listed building Consent and/or planning permission to make changes to it, including those changes which would reduce the carbon footprint of a heritage asset. Instigating a dialogue at an early stage on proposed works with the local authority will often help with the whole process of obtaining consents.
Historic England provide excellent advice on their web site: Climate Change, Sustainability and Energy Efficiency | Historic England. And they are clear in their advice that changes to a heritage asset should be based on a full understanding of its special interest and should be approached on the basis that any changes should be made in a holistic way, taking into consideration the building as a whole. So, it is recommended that proper professional advice is sought from consultants such as architects or surveyors who are accredited in building conservation or others such as members of the Institute of Historic Buildings Conservation (IHBC). They should be able to advise how changes to a heritage asset could be undertaken which would not ‘harm’ their special interest, their setting, or the setting of other adjacent heritage assets. They should also be able to advise on the kinds of changes that would be appropriate for any particular type of building. They may advise on taking further advice from engineers who understand and can provide guidance on the kinds of plant and installations which would be suitable for the premises under consideration.
Professional advice is important and not just for historic building legislation. There are technical issues too. As an example installing insulation to loft spaces can be harmful to the fabric of historic buildings if ventilation to prevent condensation has not been considered. Professionals may be able to recommend simple installations which could significantly lower the carbon footprint without harming the heritage asset.
A few examples include:
- Installation of solar panels: St James’s Church in London’s Piccadilly, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Grade 1 listed has solar panels on the parts of its roof not visible from ground level, as indeed does Gloucester Cathedral.
- Secondary glazing: The design can be very sophisticated now and such installations are generally welcomed in heritage assets rather than losing historic joinery and glass. It often also has the bonus of reducing traffic and other outside noises.
- New extensions or garden buildings might be used to accommodate air source heat pumps and/ or solar panels discrete from a heritage asset.
- Loft insulation: if installed with appropriate ventilation, is almost always an easy option to reduce energy consumption.
To sum up, all changes must be made on the understanding of what is special about a heritage asset so that it can be protected, and changes can be made taking the whole building and its location into account. These changes could be in areas which are less sensitive or in ways which do not harm that special interest. Every heritage asset is special and there are no ‘fits all sizes’ solutions to reducing carbon footprints, but it can be done, and it must be done.
Useful further reading about sustainability: SPAB Old House Eco-Handbook: A Practical Guide to Retrofitting for Energy Efficiency and Sustainability by Roger Hunt and Marianne Suhr – White Line Publishing (2019)
Sustainability and 11 High Baxter Street – a Future Guided by the Past An article outlining how it has been possible to practice sustainable principles when restoring a historic building.
Historic England –
Technical Tuesdays: technical conservation webinars
Energy Efficiency and Historic Buildings
SPAB – Energy Briefings