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Making historic homes more energy efficient

Why make your home more energy efficient?

Nationally, about 20% of our homes were built before 1919, using traditional timber-frame or solid wall construction methods and materials. Maintaining the buildings we use is a powerful climate action as it ‘locks in’ the carbon used to build these in the first place.

When a typical Victorian terraced house is sympathetically refurbished and retrofitted it will emit less carbon by 2050 than a new building built to current standards, if you take into consideration not just the energy used in the building but also the carbon ‘locked up’ in the home’s materials; construction of a new home of the same size produces up to 13 times more carbon than refurbishment.

The UK has committed to reaching ‘net zero carbon’, where we do not create more carbon emissions than we absorb, by 2050. National and local government have brought in high energy efficiency standards for new homes, but we cannot meet our climate targets without reducing emissions and energy usage in all our homes. Improving energy efficiency is not only good for the climate, but it will also reduce your running costs, and increase the lifespan of your building.

Adaption to climate change and conservation of heritage are compatible aims. We do not need to accept the loss or deterioration of our collective heritage to achieve our climate goals. The heritage sector is founded on the concept that we must not prioritise ourselves over future generations. Conservation is, by definition, the process of managed change which sustains significance.

What else are the councils doing?

A climate emergency has been declared by South Cambridgeshire and Cambridge City Councils and both are taking strong action to cut emissions in the area.

South Cambridgeshire District Council adopted an ambitious Zero Carbon Strategy in May 2020 and a Business Plan 2019-2024 which sets out high level actions on zero carbon, including that we will help cut the carbon footprint from homes (which account for around 20% of carbon emissions from the district).

Cambridge City Council declared a climate emergency in February 2019 and have set an aspiration for the city of Cambridge to achieve zero carbon status by 2030 in its Climate Change Strategy 2021-26.  The climate change strategy includes an objective to reduce energy consumption and emissions from homes by promoting energy efficiency measures, sustainable construction, renewable energy sources and behaviour change.

General principles

Buildings from different periods have fundamental differences in how they have been designed to manage heat and moisture, and the skills and materials needed to maintain, repair, and responsibly adapt them. Solutions designed for the 80% of houses built after 1919 may not be appropriate for your home. They can be aesthetically damaging, environmentally ineffective or counter-productive, and in the worst cases cause harm to the health of the occupants. 

The most effective way to achieve energy efficiency is to keep buildings in good repair so that they last and do not suffer from decay requiring energy and carbon to rectify. Maintaining a building’s ability to regulate moisture levels is essential to its effective thermal performance; walls can be over a third less energy efficient if damp.

We recommend taking a holistic ‘whole building approach’ when considering ways to reduce the carbon footprint of a traditional or historic building. This involves taking account of the building’s fabric and location as well as the needs of its occupants. Measures should be designed to prioritise those with the biggest impact on carbon reduction and lowest impact on heritage significance. Detailed guidance and case studies on the whole building approach is provided by the Sustainable Traditional Buildings Alliance and Historic England.

Quick wins

Quick wins bring big energy savings with limited investment or fabric intervention and are often the same recommendations for both modern and traditional buildings. Links to further guidance on quick wins is included at the bottom of this page. Examples can include:

  • New or additional loft insulation
  • Draught-proofing windows, doors, floorboards etc
  • Clear and fix drains and gutters – damp walls are cold walls
  • Fitting insulated curtains or shutters
  • Chimney balloons to eliminate chimney draughts
  • Energy-efficient lighting
  • Switching to a 100% renewable energy tariff.

Substantial upgrades

Major renovation presents big opportunities and also the greatest possibility for mistakes and harm. Projects should be carefully considered using appropriate expertise, taking advantage of opportunities for enhancement and with an awareness of available technology. The following can offer significant energy savings with little negative impact on the historic significance of the building:

  • Overhauling windows to ensure a snug fit can reduce air leakage by 33-50%, without loss of an important historic feature. Where a historic window is beyond repair, it may be appropriate to replace with double-glazing units as slim as 11mm - or even 6mm vacuum units - allowing for slender frames and glazing bars which maintain building appearance.
  • Replacement of failing cement render with an appropriate lime render gives rise to an opportunity to add breathable insulation to external walls.
  • A boiler upgrade is a highly effective method of reducing your energy usage. Renewable energy technologies, ever smaller and quieter, can often be sited in a discrete location, or effectively screened, and connected to existing pipework. They are especially welcomed where they allow for the removal of a large gas or oil tank, although will need to be combined with fabric improvements and be used in tandem with underfloor heating or oversized radiators to ensure that they work efficiently.

What consents do I need?

Planning permission and listed building consent

Getting consent is not a barrier to improving the energy efficiency of your home. Many energy efficiency measures do not require planning permission or listed building consent, but as this is a complex area, please ask us for advice.

If your home is within a Conservation Area, but is not a listed building, please consult the Planning Portal Interactive House. Alternatively, please use our free Duty Planning Service to find out if you need planning permission, by using our online form to book a Duty Planning appointment. in South Cambridgeshire, or phoning the contact centre on 01223 457000 to book an appointment in Cambridge

If you own a building which is listed or in a conservation area you can contact a Conservation Officer and we will help you understand the consents that are needed and can give you general advice by phone or email on improving energy efficiency. Please use our other pre-application advice services if you require a site visit, meeting or detailed advice. 

You can apply for planning permission or listed building consent through the Planning Portal.

Where planning permission is required, applications in South Cambridgeshire will be determined in accordance with Local Plan Policy NH/15: Heritage Assets and Adapting to Climate Change, and applications in Cambridge City will be determined in accordance with Policy 63: Works to a heritage asset to address climate change.

Building Regulations 

Building Regulations may be required for carrying out works to make your historic home more energy efficient.

The Building Regulations for conservation of fuel and power in existing dwellings (Part L1B) require special consideration for buildings of traditional construction as well as listed buildings and buildings in Conservation Areas, specifying that the aim should be to improve energy efficiency as far as is reasonably practicable. The work should not prejudice the character of the host building or increase the risk of long-term deterioration of the building fabric or fittings.

To find out whether building regulations are required for your work, please visit the 3C Building Control website for further information, or email 3C Building Control to talk through your scheme. The first hour of advice is free. Please provide as much detail as possible and your enquiry will be forwarded to a surveyor in the first instance.


Historic England: Climate Change, Sustainability & Energy Efficiency. A gateway to Historic England’s extensive advice and research, worth exploring. Particularly pages Practical Guidance on Energy Efficiency ; Generating Energy in Older Houses ; Modifying Historic Windows as Part of Retrofitting Energy-Saving Measures | Historic Englandand overarching guidance documents:

Planning responsible retrofit of traditional buildings (PDF) Sustainable Traditional Buildings Alliance (STBA). Part of the ‘Responsible Retrofit Series’. The STBA is a collaboration of not-for-profit organisations supported by CITB, Historic England, Historic Environment Scotland, and Cadw.

Institute of Historic Buildings (IHBC). Retrofitting of Traditional Buildings guidance note

Responsible Retrofit Knowledge Centre and Guidance WheelDeveloped with funding and support from CITB and the Department of Energy and Climate Change, now part of BEIS.

Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB): Knowledge Base. A growing resource on conservation old buildings including categories Common Problems, Maintenance, and Energy Efficiency.

Old House Eco House: A Practical Guide to Retrofitting for Energy Efficiency and Sustainability (2019) Suhr & Hunt in association with SPAB – guidance, case studies and events for residents of Cambridgeshire.A Quick Guide to Low Carbon Living in Older Homes (2021) from the Bath Preservation Trust who have a range of relevant guidance online.

A Bristolian’s Guide to Solid Wall Insulation (2015) STBA, DECC, Bristol City Council. This illustrated guide is now used by homeowners throughout the UK to make more informed decisions about how to insulate their homes.

Love Your Old Home workbook (2014) Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE), a homeowner’s guide to significance and planning energy efficiency improvements in traditional homes.

Heritage Counts Research published by Historic England on behalf of the Historic Environment Forum, particularly: There’s No Place Like Old Homes: Re-use and Recycle to Reduce Carbon (2019)

Case Studies including the Zetland Passive House ‘the UK’s greenest retrofit’ in Chorlton Conservation Area, the eco-retrofit of a Grade II listed Clapham townhouse. Slightly deviating from domestic examples but closer to home: Going Green at Wimpole, and an ‘exemplary retrofit’ at Trinity College Cambridge.

Greater Cambridge Shared Planning

South Cambridgeshire Local Plan 2018, Policy NH/15: Heritage Assets and Adapting to Climate Change and supporting text, (p 21).

Greater Cambridge Sustainable Design and Construction Supplementary Planning Document 2020, 3.10: Works to heritage assets to address climate change.

South Cambridgeshire Listed Buildings SPD 2009, Chapter 14, Sustainability, Energy Efficiency and Listed Buildings. Please note policy and technology references are out of date, however the principles remain relevant.

Thermal Imaging Camera - a tool that can help you spot where heat is leaking out of your home.

Grants for elderly, disabled and vulnerable people for home adaptions including for energy efficiency.