Conservation of the past trumps going green

listed building Squerryes Court

Conservation, and the preservation of historic buildings, is preventing owners of listed buildings from adding eco-friendly improvements to their homes to reduce their carbon footprint.

Following the guidance of Historic England, a conservation officer must approve any alterations made to a listed property. Their priority is to keep the building as much as possible in its original condition, but that means its preservation is more important than its owner’s attempts to protect the environment.

We all know that historic buildings are an important part of our heritage. These buildings provide valuable insight into how people lived and worked in the past, and help to preserve the character of the places in which we live. Historic buildings as diverse as houses, churches, windmills, lighthouses and factories are under the care of conservation officers, who make recommendations on how a building should be conserved as well as helping owners with grants and observing current legislation.

Like owners of less historically important properties, many owners of older properties would like to replace fossil fuel heating with eco-systems, such as air source heat pumps. However, they are unable to replace single glazed windows with double glazed updates and timber floors cannot be replaced with solid floors to prevent draughts. Without such updates, it is not viable for an air source heat pump to replace fossil fuel heating in an older property, as they are designed to work well with modern buildings.

There are around 450,000 listed buildings in the UK and most are used as private homes. Many are not on the grid, and rely on oil fired boilers to provide heating and hot water. Consultations are currently underway to ban the sale of oil fired boilers with effect from 2026.

One alternative would be the installation of a biomass boiler, a heating system that requires space for machinery and storage for the wood pellets used to fuel the system. Burning wood pellets increases the carbon footprint while releasing wood smoke and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Electric heating, too, might be considered – but this form of heating is around three times more expensive.

Some conservation officers have been sympathetic, as seen on a refit of the grade I student halls of residence at Trinity College, Cambridge. Here, single glazed windows were replaced with double glazing and walls were fitted with 60mm thick insulation installed on the inside, without affecting skirting boards and cornicing. The changes made it possible to install a ground source heat pump system and reduce carbon emissions by 88%.

Even upgrading single glazed windows that are hard to think of as ‘historic’ has been rejected, as experienced by the owner of a grade II listed 18th century property. Replacement of the 1970s windows was rejected on two occasions, even though she had proposed replacing them with traditional style double glazing that has been approved by heritage experts.

It is not proposed to make sure changes to truly historic buildings. Home owners are simply calling for greater flexibility within the system, to make it possible for them to make sympathetic upgrades that will mean they continue to be able to live in their homes before they become too expensive to run.

Historic England said it was “actively exploring with the government and other organisations ways in which the system of managing change to listed buildings can best address the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions.”

Meanwhile, a buying agent in Wiltshire and Dorset has said that fewer and fewer people are showing interest in buying a listed property. Richard Scrope said: “If nobody is living in them, they will become derelict. Either we adapt them to be more sustainable or we will lose them.”