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Stop, evaluate, Retrofit!

by Roger Hunt

Retrofitting a home to make it more energy efficient and green is both satisfying and worthwhile, or at least it should be. Ideally the process cuts energy bills, reduces carbon emissions and makes the building more comfortable to live in. But, and there are some big ‘buts’ here, before you rush in stop and think. If you don’t you might end up doing things that cause problems to the building, result in health issues for the occupants and devalue the property.

How do you avoid these problems? It’s actually not that difficult, you must know your building, know your lifestyle and know what will give you the best payback.

Knowing your building is key, especially if it was built before around 1919 and has solid walls. Old House Eco Handbook, my new book, deals with the issues that must to be considered, notably the need for old buildings to breathe, the retention of original fabric and the importance of character. Ignore these concepts and you risk devaluing the building and potentially storing up problems for the future.

Crucially there must be a goal and a plan. To achieve this, it’s essential to think about both the building and the processes holistically. All the building elements need to be evaluated – chimneys, roofs, windows, doors, walls, floors – in conjunction with ventilation, water savings, heating efficiency and energy generation. These things interrelate and a good assessment of the options for each, based on sound data and a careful analysis of the building involved, is essential.

A well prepared assessment should produce the action plan or ‘roadmap’ that will form the basis of everything that is done this year, next year or ten years down the line. Importantly it will minimise the risk of problems later and the danger of work having to be redone because it conflicts with what follows. It should indicate what measures are worthwhile as well as those that are less so in terms of cost, financial benefit and environmental impact.

Without this understanding mistakes will be made. Even something as simple as blocking up draughts may prove disastrous if not considered alongside the need for ventilation to prevent poor air quality and condensation. A new energy efficient boiler might end up being oversized if the insulation that is going to wrap the house has not been included in the performance calculations.

In old buildings wall insulation in particular could potentially result in damp problems, and may be an aesthetic disaster, if ill thought through or inappropriate for the type of wall construction. Quick fixes are not the answer. There need to be checks and balances to ensure the building’s fabric is not damaged and its character and history in not lost.

The message is simple: stop and evaluate all the options before retrofitting. Do that and you should end up with a building that is a great deal more energy efficient, environmentally friendly and comfortable than when you started.

Roger Hunt is an award winning writer and blogger and the co-author of Old House Eco Handbook, a practical guide to retrofitting for energy-efficiency and sustainability. He blogs at