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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Goldschmied

Britain’s Houses – Are They Doomed?

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

Have you ever got dressed in bed underneath your duvet? Growing up in the 1980s in South London I remember doing this often. Getting ready for school in the morning was never my favourite thing and made even more miserable in the middle of a freezing winter. So cold that the condensation on the inside of my window had turned to droplets of ice.

The heating in the house barely registered to increase the temperature in my bedroom. The wind would whistle through the eaves, straining the latch on the casement window as an icy blast eddied around my face.

“Luxury!” I imagine my brother mocking in a Monty Python voice.

The building was a solid brick mid-Victorian house. Elegantly proportioned, beautifully detailed, spacious, light and welcoming with delicate timber sash and casement windows but above all, it was home. I loved it and felt privileged to have been able to live there in relatively comfortable circumstances. Quite rightly, in Britain, we love our period houses and can't imagine the identity of our country without the vast tracts of Georgian, Victorian, Queen Anne and Edwardian homes sprawled across our towns, cities and villages. I love them! I spend much of my working life caring for period homes, making them better and ideally conserving them for the next 150 years.

Since those freezing mornings dressing beneath a duvet, I've lived in several other period houses but not a single one of them has offered a consistently comfortable interior environment. In the summer they overheat becoming stifling and uncomfortable and in winter they are cold and draughty. May and September generally provide the most equilibrious weather conditions to afford comfortable living conditions. So, that's two months of the year we don't have to worry about, but for the other ten months we must either pump it full of heat or condition the air to cool it down. Well, that might be the solution if we had unlimited sources of energy.

Even if each house or flat could generate its own electricity from a renewable source to provide the heating and cooling required, I am certain we'd seek greater efficiency and better ways of doing things. So installing energy saving measures is something we need to address now, even if we fantasise about a world where energy is unlimited, free and clean. Renewable heating (heat pumps, biomass, solar thermal and zero-emission boilers) and power technologies (Solar PV and wind) are improving and becoming increasingly accessible; so we're certainly making great progress in that direction but it will never be free.

Presumably most readers are generally up to speed with the key issues of energy and climate. Perhaps you've heard something about problematic fossil fuel supply chains, a changing climate and other pertinent ecological topics? In case you missed it, here’s a quick summary:

  • Extreme temperatures are more frequent = you need to heat and cool your house more!

  • Energy is excruciatingly expensive = heating and cooling your house costs more!

  • Burning oil, gas and coal releases toxins and pollutants = stop burning fossil fuels!

  • Oil-derived products maintain their toxicity for a very long time = avoid using them!

  • We can't continue consuming and discarding materials - reuse, recycle and avoid demolition!

So when it comes to improving our existing homes by retrofitting, the question we face is, what do we need to do right now to fix these obvious problems? To many, it's pretty clear - we need healthy, energy-efficient homes, without burning fossil fuels and without the use of toxic materials when renovating and extending. I've been trying to do something about these issues in my work for the last 20 years and finally a bit of momentum seems to be gathering.

There were some folks recently who very publicly tried to make the point and highlight the issue in a particularly effective way. They had a simple slogan “Insulate Britain”. Now, in some quarters, this slogan has become synonymous with civil unrest, with anarchy, with disobedience instigated by people, who some corners of the media might describe as, ‘the yoghurt-knitting wokerati’, or whatever the slur-o’-the-month might be. I'm not interested in the divisive rhetoric from politicians and commentators likely hustling for the ‘nomenklatura’ of a collapsing fossil fuel industry; what I'm interested in is the provision of effective and efficient shelter for everyone.

Typical Victorian house without any roof insulation.

Most people now are demanding change, and the built-environment industries are evolving their practices. Even central government has started to make some small efforts. VAT on the supply and installation of ‘Energy Saving Materials’ (ESM) has been cut to zero but not if you want to buy and install yourself. Nor if the ESM installation isn’t the primary purpose of the builder’s contract. So, at best, its half of a half measure. The intended efficacy of these measures may well be further compromised as less scrupulous or unskilled installers chase the flurry of work that the policy is designed to generate. Well intentioned but unlikely to be particularly effective.

Today, non toxic insulation is more prevalent. In 2012, phenolic insulation was the only feasible choice.

Building regulations minimum standards of energy efficiency have improved in the last few years but still fall a long way short of what we need to be aiming for - no jingoistic clarion cry of "world-beating" could be justified. When it comes to improving energy efficiency of existing houses, the Building Regulations standards should be considered as the barest-minimum. There are enhanced targets such as AECB CarbonLite Retrofit Standards and EnerPHit, which is as close to Passivhaus standard that a retrofit is likely to achieve. These are the energy performance aspirations we need to strive for. To discover how much these standards will improve the energy-efficiency of your home, whether a flat, a semi-detached, detached or terraced house, have a look at the LETI archetype examples

So ‘Insulate Britain’ is only part of the story; but “Insulate, Make Airtight, Ventilate, Decarbonise and Thermally Bridge Britain” was thrown out at the catchy-slogan committee meeting.

There is hope and plenty to be optimistic about.

The great news is, we have at our disposal right now all the tools we need to be able to make this happen yet the scale of the national challenge we need to consider is probably larger than you could guess. There are approximately 29 million homes overall in the UK with the oldest average housing stock in Europe (possibly the World). How many of these have an Energy Performance Certification (EPC) of band 'D' of worse? How many homes would need retrofitting with energy efficiency improvements to bring them up to EPC rating of ‘C’ (the new minimum standard) by 2050?

704,000 … per year … for the next 27 years.

That's 19 million homes requiring retrofit renovations to reach even the minimum standards.

What about reaching for enhanced standards?

According to the Passivhaus Trust, approximately every 35 seconds, 1 home retrofit needs to be completed, with an estimated 500,000 retrofits being implemented simultaneously, requiring approximately 2 million people in the industry. This would upgrade approximately 25 million homes to very high performance standards. These are the basic figures that make it hard to ignore the calls for a green-economy revolution.

So, what can you do now and why should you seek architectural expertise for your home?

This is not only about reducing CO2 emissions but also about holistically improving the conditions we live in day to day for ourselves, our children and grandchildren. If you are reading this and want to make your home better, warmer, cheaper to run and healthier, but most importantly you want to do it properly with emphasis on design as well as functionality, people like me are here to guide you.

Strategic retrofit proposals for a townhouse in West London

People like me have studied to understand the physics of buildings and trained to develop unique solutions for your home, ensuring that any intervention made performs properly for years to come. When it is done wrong, it can be devastating for your home, your happiness and your finances.

I have seen cavity wall insulation failures because the installer didn’t check or didn’t care whether they created a capillary bridge, used the wrong material or used the right material but installed it badly. Within months the walls become wet on the inside and colder than they were before. Often the installer has disappeared by the time customer’s houses started suffering damage; and when the government grants ran out, they would reappear rebranded as cavity wall insulation removal specialists.

Aha! But my house doesn’t have cavity walls so I just stick some insulation on the inside, block up the underfloor ventilation and I’m warmer, right? Yes, but... Without understanding the building physics you could well be creating a invisible mould farm to make you ill and damage your house. Unless you have calculated and considered factors such as the ‘dew point’ and ‘hygroscopy’ of the overall construction and taken account of both the internal and external environmental conditions, you could be harming your health and the building.

These are just a couple of small examples of how doing the right thing (insulating and reducing draughts) in the wrong way is a waste of money and is detrimental to your health. I would encourage you to seek proper guidance as soon as you are ready to renovate and retrofit. We'd love to hear your retrofit challenge and help you make a healthier home.

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