RETROfit and energy efficiency guidance

Repair, maintenance and development of all buildings is important to keep them viable, vibrant and fit-for-purpose spaces for both living and working. The Low Carbon Agenda is increasingly cited as the justification for 'Retrofitting' buildings to reduce their carbon footprint through increased insulation.

Traditional building in need of repairA key point to remember is that Traditional Buildings - generally those built before 1919 - work in a completely different way to those built after the war. The reason for this is that buildings were usually built with local materials and lime mortars. Traditional materials allow the transfer of moisture, which is usually referred to as a building's 'ability to breathe'. They are mainly of solid wall construction and require 'breathable building materials and ventilation in order for them to work properly.

After 1919, Portland cement became the favoured basis for building mortar & plaster. This was due to it's ease of use, fast setting times and tough properties. Clearly when trying to re-build a bomb-damaged country, these qualities were even more attractive. Consequently, over time, both training courses and building regulations have been developed so that now, they only reflect the needs of post-war, cavity-walled structures, and if implemented on pre 1919 buildings can result in varying levels of damage - some superficial, some structural. We are now in a position that traditional skills are no longer taught in mainstream education, building regulations are not appropriate for old buildings and we have a workforce that is generally ignorant of the correct materials and building practice which should be used.

In an effort to make buildings warmer and drier, the desire to seal a building - making it water-tight by covering with cement plaster both externally and internally - along with uPVC windows, removal of fireplaces and raised ground level heights has ironically, often created the perfect conditions for rot, damp and materials failure. This can be seen up and down the country on old buildings with peeling and cracking renders, pebble-dash and paints, large patches of damp, infestations of beetle and rot. This situation could become even more serious if buildings are further insulated with the wrong materials in an attempt to access funding (through the Green Deal) or save on energy bills.

Many conservation and heritage organisations are carrying out research projects to try to understand the effects of certain types of insulation, and to build a case for more natural materials. This research is ongoing, but regular events and publications are available:

Centre for Sustainable Energy
The Love Your Old Home guide takes you through a 4-step process to planning energy efficiency improvements in traditional homes. It contains a questionnaire about your home which will help you find out what makes it a 'significant' building - when you understand this, you'll be in a good place to choose appropriate improvements and make an application to your local council.
CoRE is the independent, not for profit national centre of excellence for green retrofit skills in the built environment. CoRE's mission is to support professionals working for a low carbon, resource efficient UK through the refurbishment of our homes and buildings. It brings together training providers, manufacturers, contractors and trades who are seeking guidance on green retrofit skills and knowledge. 
Heritage Works
A practical step-by-step guide for developers, owners, local authorities and advisers. It provides invaluable advice and warns of common pitfalls and points to ways of overcoming them. It signposts more than 30 information sources and is intended as the ‘first-stop’ reference document or ‘toolkit’ for the regeneration of the historic environment and heritage buildings.
Climate Change and your Home
A website designed to help you understand more about the potential impacts of climate change and ways to save energy if you own or manage an older home.
Thermal Performance of Traditional Windows
Important scientific evidence is now available to counteract some of the misconceptions about the energy efficiency of original timber sash windows, a unique feature of England’s built heritage which is under threat and fast disappearing.
Historic Scotland Technical Papers
Technical Research at Historic Scotland is structured around better understanding of traditional materials and their use in historic and other structures. They are at the forefront of technical research relating to the built environment through commissioned work with sector specialists, joint initiatives with academic institutions and in-house research.
Historic Scotland Technical Research
Research is driven by the needs and requirements of the building conservation sector and associated activities.  They seek to develop and improve our understanding of traditional materials, construction techniques and issues affecting the built environment
SPAB for Homeowners
For free building conservation advice, visit the website or, telephone the SPAB Technical Advice Line on 0207 456 0916 (Monday - Thursday, 09:30 - 12:30).
Books, technical pamphlets and information sheets are available to purchase online.
SPAB - Professional and Technical

SPAB hold a Technical Panel Conference in June each year which is an opportunity for researchers and invited organisations to learn about and discuss current research into traditional building retrofit and building physics.

SPAB also hold a Techical Review, usually held in October which is open to all and is a review of current research, projects and activity related to retrofit and traditional building sustainability.

Sustainable Traditional Buildings Alliance (STBA) Guidance Wheel

The Wheel has been developed by the Sustainable Traditional Buildings Alliance (STBA) following on from their report “The Responsible Retrofit of Traditional Buildings” published in September 2012 and funded by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

The Wheel is both an aid to decision making and a way of learning about traditional building retrofit. It depicts more than 50 measures that can be used for the retrofitting or refurbishing of traditional buildings. It encourages exploration of the measures’ advantages, concerns about their performance and possible interactions between them.

Each measure has a number of advantages and concerns (categorised into technical, heritage and energy). The concerns are colour coded and their summary is shown in the wheel 'rings' for technical, heritage and energy concerns.

Maintain our Heritage

Maintain is collaborating with the diocese of Gloucester on a new scheme to keep churches in the Gloucestershire area in good condition. Maintain our Heritage (Maintain) was formed in 1999 to promote a new, long-term, sustainable strategy for the care of historic buildings with pre-eminence given to maintenance rather than sporadic major repair. A shift to systematic maintenance will require a change in attitude, policy and practice in government, the construction industry, the heritage sector and historic building owners.

Gutter Clear
Maintain is collaborating with the diocese of Gloucester on a new scheme called Gutter Clear to keep churches in the Gloucestershire area in good condition.
Your Climate A User Guide to Low Carbon Heritage Buildings

The low carbon heritage building user guide and case studies have been designed to help you reduce carbon emissions while retaining the special character of buildings.

Whether it’s listed, in a conservation area or locally important, there is always something that can be done to improve the environmental performance of a building.

If you want to carry out routine maintenance, are planning restoration or are interested in saving money, using the guide and case studies will kick start your low carbon journey.


Research and Reports


Responsible Retrofit - George Martin

The challenges of retrofitting traditional buildings at scale - Oliver Smith

Responsible Retrofit Guidance Tool - Adrian Leaman

The challenges of retrofitting traditional buildings at scale - Neil May

Blended Immersive e-learning and Virtual reality simulations - Majid Al-Kader

Workshop presentations:

Human Factors Considerations in Retrofits - Adrian Leaman

Solid Wall Insulation - Phil Ogley

Ventilation: balancing energy use, air quality, fabric performance and health - Diane Hubbard

Renewable Energy Generation in Historic Buildings - Graham Eastwick

Improving the Thermal Performance of Windows - Paul Baker


Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings Technical Review Conferences

Since 2011, SPAB have run these events for an invited audience to present the most up-to-date research work on Traditional Building Retrofit, Building Physics and Performance. Cathie Clarke from the Heritage Skills HUB attended these events and her personal notes from the presentations are available to download below. Heritage Skills HUB accepts no responsibility for the content of these notes, but have made them available as a general reference. If you would like more information about this important subject, a conference of similar presentations on Retrofit & Traditional Building Energy Efficiency is held in October each year which is open to all. Please see our events listing, or contact the SPAB directly.



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