By David Gibbon — RICS Conservation Accredited Building Surveyor
Here’s an important issue. We hear a lot about saving the planet by reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses, mainly carbon dioxide, that we pump out into the atmosphere so causing the planet to warm up to a dangerous extent. The main strategies to counter this are to go over to renewable energy sources instead of fossil fuels and to burn less fossil fuels through energy efficiency: more efficient engines, cars, boilers etc and more efficient buildings, better insulation, better passive design and so on.
When it comes to creating better buildings one problem we face is that we have a massive legacy of existing buildings many of which were built in an era of cheap energy. What is to be done about them?
For a start we can’t pull them all down and start again. That would use up more energy and other non-renewable resources and put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than it would save. It is inconceivable, even in the very long term, that we could replace all our existing building stock, nor would it be desirable. Our traditionally constructed buildings are not, as a general rule, the worst offenders when it comes to energy misuse. Many more modern buildings are far more problematical but can often be greatly improved.
The improvement of the thermal performance of existing buildings is a major policy objective of government. The main means of driving this is the Energy Performance Certificate. However the EPC falls down badly when it comes to traditional buildings where the options for improvement are limited. We have three options. 1) Do nothing. 2) Do what we reasonably can. 3) Pull the building down and build an efficient building in its place. The first option will tend to be the outcome of the EPC which does not give credit for realistic efforts at improvement. There is almost nothing that can be done to a traditional building that will shift its grade from one level to the next. Is the intention to drive owners and managers towards option 3)? If so I think the policy is mistaken.
There seems to be confusion in the minds of policy makers as to how much benefit can be derived from improving the standard of new buildings. I’m not suggesting that improving the thermal performance of new buildings is not worthwhile but as a contribution to reducing global warming it can only be marginal. Every time a new building is built a step backwards is taken in terms of the consumption of non-renewable resources in its construction. Pretty well the best that new buildings can hope to do is to mitigate their own negative effect impact. The rate at which we replace our existing stock of buildings is slow and speeding it up would not be a positive step. That we need more new housing is agreed on all sides but however much new house building is ramped up, new houses and new buildings generally, will only ever account for a tiny proportion on the total of buildings in existence. This is particularly the case in a country like ours that has a fabulous legacy of high quality traditionally built buildings. Our buildings contain the fruits of the earth in the form of stone laid down millions of years ago and quarried and worked at great cost. Much of the timber in our buildings is the product of virgin forests and when a notch is cut in it 1 2 and even 3 hundred years (or more) later the resinous smell that comes off is a testament to its ongoing quality. The bricks in our buildings are the product, often, of now exhausted clay deposits fired by coal that was extracted at huge cost. The lime plaster on our walls and the slates and tiles and lead on our roofs bear testimony to the same exploitation of non-renewable resources.
Furthermore our historic built environment speaks to us. How many architects who have laboured to create the clean lines of a modernist aesthetic have returned home at the end of the day to their Georgian town and country houses?
So we need to look more closely and more positively at our existing building stock. Whilst the improvement of the energy performance of existing buildings can and should be driven by government policy, at least as important is the question of maintenance. Existing buildings are a massive asset but without adequate maintenance they could become a massive liability. A policy environment that permitted the incremental decline of the condition of our existing stock of buildings would lead in time to a catastrophe in environmental, social and financial terms. “Stitch in time” maintenance is essential to avoid this.
In recent times we have seen vast improvement of our stock of existing buildings in many areas. The Full Repairing and Insuring Lease has been the engine of much good practice as far as commercial buildings are concerned. It has, of course, notably failed in the leisure market where squeezing a profit out of hotel buildings has invariably resulted in superficial makeovers while the underlying fabric is held together with sticky tape. But private home owners have been incentivised by a buoyant market to improve their homes and many historic buildings have been brought back from neglect and decay.
However in the area of buildings in common ownership such as tenemental property in Scotland the story has been patchy at best. All sorts of difficulties face the owners of such property and the growth of buy-to-let has been broadly negative for it.
The maintenance of buildings also matters from an energy performance point of view. A poorly maintained building with damp walls will have a reduced level of thermal resistance. It will lose heat more rapidly. So maintenance is an energy conservation issue too and I believe that the maintenance of our existing stock of tenemental buildings can be radically improved. My paper on the subject attempts to show how.
David Gibbon is a Founder and Director at GLM, a mixed practice of building surveyors, architects and project managers and he is accredited by RICS in Conservation. He specialises in the care and conservation of historic buildings. He is an outspoken advocate of Statutory Notice reform in Edinburgh and of more general reform of the arrangements for common repairs in Scotland as a whole. If you would like to learn more about common repairs policy in Scotland, please email David at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter for common repairs updates on @Mrdeegee