UK government identifies energy efficiency barriers in heritage buildings

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Last week the UK government released its review of the “practical barriers” facing owners of heritage-listed homes and buildings when upgrading their stock to be more energy efficient. The 58-page document combines research and feedback from local authority conservation officers, heritage consultants and architects, heritage organizations, construction industry representatives and homeowners, and reveals five major issues.

The planning system is the first major hurdle, with respondents claiming that obtaining special permissions to upgrade their dwellings – spanning the fit out of solar panels, heat pumps or double glazing – takes “too long.” In some cases, this has led to applicants losing out on financial subsidies or being discouraged from applying.

A deficit of available council capacity to deal with these requests was also identified. According to the review, it took roughly two months for council staff to consent, alter or extend applications – but the document acknowledges the volume of local authorities reporting these kinds of decisions has increased over the past 12 months. Supporting local authorities to “develop critical skills and build capacity” was a recommended fix.

A shortfall of skilled construction workers was also problematic, with contributors citing the “loss of skills in the heritage construction industry as a key barrier to adapting historic homes.” This gap, compounded by workforce shortages and growing market requirements, led to project delays and in some instances the installation of “unsuitable measures.” Plugging the gap and training the workforce with specialist skills, however, could be a way to “boost the ‘green economy’” and create jobs, according to the report.

“Complex”, “sometimes contradictory” and “not easy to understand” information from a variety of sources was also identified. Respondents claimed there was not one major voice offering data surrounding historic home energy efficiency improvements, and what was offered varied between being “too generic” to “overly technical.” Those who sought independent information were often left out of pocket, according to the review.

“Many homeowners are therefore left uncertain about what they are able to do and whether they need permission or consent from their local planning authority to do it,” the report states. Improving digital information offerings and making the presence of the government’s heritage matter advisory body, Historic England, more well-known will help address the problem, the review recommends.

Retrofitting costs were also considered a “widespread problem” by the respondents. But this was an issue even to those with mainstream dwellings, the review found. “Cost is routinely identified as a key barrier to deployment, in terms of upfront and running costs, as well concerns about long payback periods,” the document states.

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Expensive construction and installation fees have been compounded by a lack of specially trained construction workers and traditional materials, as well as general “challenges with the cost of living,” according to the review. This has led to fewer households being able to afford the upgrades, making energy efficiency improvements “unobtainable” to many.

There is no support currently offered designed to help upgrade and retrofit historic homes, but the UK Government has established a “suite of measures” to support energy efficiency upgrades and low carbon heating system measures, according to the report. This includes grant schemes, social housing improvement initiatives and other schemes.

The review, spearheaded by the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ), also listed 55 policy measures currently in place or planned to help get the UK’s 5.9 million historic buildings to Net Zero.

Downing Street said it would continue to work with the heritage sector and industry to continue examining the “most effective” and “best value” policy mechanisms to support the transition. “DESNZ will continue to consider the applicability of, and challenges faced by, historic homes as part of the schemes and support available,” according to the review.

The review was originally established to determine the “regional variations in experiences” of adapting listed buildings and homes in conservation areas with renewable energy technologies, however the researchers discovered the issues were “experienced across the country.”

DESNZ worked with the University College London Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering and London-based urban innovation company DG Cities for the review, with the research concluding in August 2023.

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