How to keep warm in an old house
How to keep warm in an old house

TEN THINGS TO DO WITH YOUR PERIOD HOUSE - article from 2010 (edited version published in The Times Dec 10 2010)

Global warming has been rocketing up the policy agenda and homeowners are being encouraged to insulate their houses to improve energy efficiency. But there has been a fightback from traditionalists who have beenarguing that period houses deserve a bit more respect.

Almost a quarter of existing dwellings are of traditionalconstruction and these were mostly built pre 1919 before cavity walls becamethe norm. Homes, both grand and modest, were constructed with local materials whichmeans bricks & mortar, stone, wood, wattle and daub.

Research conducted by Historic Scotland. English Heritageand the Society for the Protection of Ancient buildings (SPAB) is nowsuggesting that the ways of calculating the thermal properties of old materialsand old buildings have underestimated their qualities. Old buildings are not asinefficient as previously thought. Intechy -speak, this means that the actual U values - a measurement of how much heat istransferred across a material.– are coming out lower than the calculated Uvalues. Lower U values are a good thing.

Here are some top ten tips for ways to reduce heat losses from a traditional building.

Understand your building.

Spend the time to get to know all your building’s nooks and crannies. How thickare the walls? What are they made of? How are they finished? Old buildings getaltered and it is crucial to work out these layers of plaster, partitions,external renders, inner dividing walls and attic conversions before embarkingon a programme of improvements. Improvements should be carried out with minimaldisturbance to historic fabric and changes should be reversible. Traditionalbuildings are built with “permeable fabric that both absorbs and readily allowsthe evaporation of moisture”. They breathe. Care should be taken not to trapdamp in places where it can cause irreparable damage.

Repair your building.

Simple repairs can do much to help reduce the heating bills. Small holes, gaps andcracks in the fabric of a building allow precious heat to escape into the chillnight air. The spots, called thermal bridges, can be the cause of condensation.SPAB runs national maintenance week from Nov 19 – 26

Replace our boiler.

Boilers account for around 60% of the carbon emissions in a gas heated home,according to the Energy Saving Trust. British Gas recommend replacing boilersif they are more than 15 years old, and modern boilers can use up to a thirdless fuel. From the 1 October, all new boilers have to be A rated,or more than 90% efficient. A Baxi spokesperson points out that “ learning toget the best out of the boiler controls can help your fuel bills”.

Insulate the attic.

If you have no loft insulation you could be losing as much as 15 percentof your heating costs through your roof. Thick well maintained thatchis a good insulant, but slate and tile roofs will benefit from insulation. Accordingto SPAB ”If insulation can be insertedin a loft above ceilings (to create a ‘cold roof’), this is frequently one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to save energy.” Sheep’s wool or hemp based insulation work well with old buildings with good thermal properties and ‘breathabilty’. Though usually more expensive thanmainstream products, they are a renewable resource, require less energy toproduce, and are non-hazardous. A depth of 250mm of insulation meets currentstandards. It is important to maintain the ventilation of old attic spaces toavoid condensation.


Summer’s cool breeze is winter’s chilly draught and windows are often the culprit. “Recent studies of traditional windows have shown how simple measurescan help to reduce heat loss” says Dr Paul Baker of the School of the BuiltEnvironment at Glasgow Caledonian University. Putting up either curtains, shutters or roller blinds can lower the U value, while secondary glazing fittedto the inside of the window structure outperforms some double glazing. The best alternative results came from a dual solution of secondary glazing andinsulated shutters. North and south facing can be treated differently tomaximise passive solar gain (eco jargon for sunshine streaming in).

Insulating Walls

In situ research by Dr Caroline Wye for SPAB also suggested that old thick walls, whether of stone, or brick were better than standard calculations implied. A wide variety of regional stones need further study, but early indications are that the old builders knew what they were doing. On inside walls a new finish with an air gap can be effective. This could be plasterboard on timber battens, plaster on laths, timber on battens or painted panelling to give you that period interior.

Externa insulation.

Once again breathability is thewatchword here. Modern cement renders may trap the moisture in the wall whereit can condense and wreak havoc. Don’t be tempted to take the cheaper shortcut, but use sympathetic materials. Get advice from people with experience ofyour particular kind of period construction.

Watch out for damp.

Damp makes us feel colder, and can create an unhealthy environment. Frost damage. mould, and condensation are the things to watch out for following any insulation alterations. Old houses have stood the test of time and were built to balance the twin requirements of heat and humidity. Sealing too much heat inside a room, might lower the temperature of a thick outside wall which was designed to cool in summer and give back heat in winter.

Check the planning requirements.

There are two things about a building: its use and its beauty,” wrote VictorHugo. “Its use belongs to the owner; its beauty belongs to everyone.” Even if your period palace is not listed or in a conservation area, alterations to the outside have an impact on the neighbours. New building regulations, part L1B: conservation of fuel and power in existing dwellings came into effect on the 1 October 2010. But importantly for traditional buildings, energy efficiency requirements should be “up to but not beyond the point at which the ability of traditional buildings to ‘breathe’ to control moisture and potential long-term decay problems is likely to be unacceptably impaired” says architect, Ian Brocklebank.

Don’t change the building, change yourself.

Live in fewer rooms in winter, put moreblankets on the bed and tuck yourself up with a hot water bottle earlier in theevening. Turn the thermostat down a degree, and wear more clothes indoorsduring the chilly months. Winter drawers on.

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