The blog

Roger Hunt is an award winning writer and blogger specialising in sustainability, old houses, housebuilding and traditional and modern building materials. He is the co-author of Old House Handbook and the companion volume Old House Eco Handbook.

Materials testing

Materials testing

New techniques and materials aimed at producing low carbon solutions mean this is an exciting time to be involved with new build and retrofit. There are dangers though, in the rush to innovate there may be failures along the way so it’s vital that there’s scrupulously testing and monitoring at all stages. This is why I was excited to hear about The HIVE, a new construction materials test facility at the BRE Centre for Innovative Construction Materials at the University of Bath’s Building Research Park in Swindon.

The £1m HIVE is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The building has eight individual cells constructed to be completely insulated from one another, each with a single face left exposed to the external environment. Within these faces walls can be installed that are made from a whole range of materials and construction systems. Importantly, the performance of these walls can then be evaluated in realistic, real life, open-air conditions. Consequently this creates a more accurate picture of environmental performance than the U-value assessments currently used in building regulations.

Real life testing is important. We’ve already seen the value of this in understanding appropriate retrofit solutions. Results from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Building’s (SPAB) in-situ monitoring of existing solid walls have shown that certain construction types perform much better in reality than their expected, theoretically calculated U-values. This is because standard U-value calculation programmes were designed to simulate modern materials such as bricks which are largely predictable. Calculated U-values do not necessarily take account of less uniform construction. For example, rubble-stone walls (which are constructed with random-sized stones) contain large air voids, lumps of earth and lime-based mortars which improve the insulation qualities of the wall. Likewise wattle and daub is a better insulator than is theoretically assumed.

In retrofit situations we’re still trying to understand how different materials will work for different applications and, even where the materials are proven, we’re often relying on high standards of workmanship to ensure they function as intended. Worryingly, without careful monitoring, potentially failures might not be obvious for some years and, in the meantime, both the health of the building and its occupants may be suffering.

Even where we think we know how a building will perform we mustn’t relax. I’ve recently visited new build homes that, on paper, seemed to work but overheating has occurred due to the way the occupants are using the buildings. I’ve also seen mould on walls and ceilings because ventilation systems have been turned off by residents trying to cut their electricity bills.

Image: ©University of Bath

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SPAB Working Party

For the last 25 years conservation experts and volunteer heritage enthusiasts have come together to join the annual Working Party run by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB). I went along to join them and created a video about the Working Party at Sullington Manor Farm near Storrington, West Sussex. They were working…

Listed building allure

Listed building allure

Every year, many of the estimated 450,000 listed buildings in the UK change hands on the property market. In England and Wales these properties are designated Grade I, Grade II* or Grade II having being deemed to be of historical, cultural or architectural interest. All buildings built before 1700

Environmental Pocketbook

Environmental Pocketbook

If you’re going to invest in just one book on sustainable, low carbon building I’d strongly suggest that you make it The Environmental Design Pocketbook. Now in its second edition, this useful volume by Sofie Pelsmakers should be essential reading for architects, designers, developers, planners, students, clients and anyone else involved in the construction and operation of buildings….

Fire in old buildings

Fire in old buildings

The devastating fire at the Grade I listed, 18th century National Trust mansion at Clandon Park, Surrey, once again highlights the need to do everything we can to protect old buildings. Whatever the size of the building, there are simple measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of fire, ensure early warning of a…

Adapting old buildings

Adapting old buildings

The need for fresh air and light in buildings is something I’m often talking and writing about because it’s central to creating a good home, but the theme is nothing new. I was reminded of this when I recently visited the King Edward VII Estate, near Midhurst, West Sussex. Here, the former sanatorium is being…

Building lime knowledge

Building lime knowledge

Lime, in the form of mortars, renders, plasters and paints, is a key component of old buildings and essential to their repair – or at least it should be. Today lime-based materials are also emerging into the mainstream and being used within low carbon construction systems, employed in everything from homes to superstores. All this…

Drain problems

Drain problems

A blocked drain is not a pleasant thing to wake up to. What’s worse is the realisation that it’s something that can generally be avoided by doing what I’m always talking about: maintenance. The drainage system is easily forgotten because much of it is hidden away underground but, as with any element of a building, it…

Building remembrance

Building remembrance

Visiting Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the poppy installation at the Tower of London, reminded me that the built environment frequently plays an important part in both remembrance and memory. Each of the 888,246 ceramic poppies that flood the moat of the Tower depicts a death in the British forces in the First…

Materials testing

Materials testing

New techniques and materials aimed at producing low carbon solutions mean this is an exciting time to be involved with new build and retrofit. There are dangers though, in the rush to innovate there may be failures along the way so it’s vital that there’s scrupulously testing and monitoring at all stages. This is why…

Hidden London

Hidden London

Impending development often means there is a chance to step back in time because archaeological investigation may be undertaken as part of the work. This is especially true in London where layers of history have been laid down by successive generations as the city has evolved. Visiting Barratt London’s Landmark Place site close to the…

SPAB Working Party

For the last 25 years conservation experts and volunteer heritage enthusiasts have come together to join the annual Working Party run by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB). I went along to join them and created a video about the Working Party at Sullington Manor Farm near Storrington, West Sussex. They were working…

Listed building allure

Listed building allure

Every year, many of the estimated 450,000 listed buildings in the UK change hands on the property market. In England and Wales these properties are designated Grade I, Grade II* or Grade II having being deemed to be of historical, cultural or architectural interest. All buildings built before 1700 Tweet

Environmental Pocketbook

Environmental Pocketbook

If you’re going to invest in just one book on sustainable, low carbon building I’d strongly suggest that you make it The Environmental Design Pocketbook. Now in its second edition, this useful volume by Sofie Pelsmakers should be essential reading for architects, designers, developers, planners, students, clients and anyone else involved in the construction and operation of buildings….

Fire in old buildings

Fire in old buildings

The devastating fire at the Grade I listed, 18th century National Trust mansion at Clandon Park, Surrey, once again highlights the need to do everything we can to protect old buildings. Whatever the size of the building, there are simple measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of fire, ensure early warning of a…

Adapting old buildings

Adapting old buildings

The need for fresh air and light in buildings is something I’m often talking and writing about because it’s central to creating a good home, but the theme is nothing new. I was reminded of this when I recently visited the King Edward VII Estate, near Midhurst, West Sussex. Here, the former sanatorium is being…

Building lime knowledge

Building lime knowledge

Lime, in the form of mortars, renders, plasters and paints, is a key component of old buildings and essential to their repair – or at least it should be. Today lime-based materials are also emerging into the mainstream and being used within low carbon construction systems, employed in everything from homes to superstores. All this…

Drain problems

Drain problems

A blocked drain is not a pleasant thing to wake up to. What’s worse is the realisation that it’s something that can generally be avoided by doing what I’m always talking about: maintenance. The drainage system is easily forgotten because much of it is hidden away underground but, as with any element of a building, it…

Building remembrance

Building remembrance

Visiting Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the poppy installation at the Tower of London, reminded me that the built environment frequently plays an important part in both remembrance and memory. Each of the 888,246 ceramic poppies that flood the moat of the Tower depicts a death in the British forces in the First…

Renovation tale – Part 1

Renovation tale – Part 1

This is the tale of my first major renovation project some years ago… On the table is the surveyor’s report; yellow Post-it notes stick from its pages in such profusion that they no longer have any relevance. Phrases like “needs attention”, “must be thoroughly overhauled” and “a fair amount of dampness” are highlighted by marker… Continue Reading