PRP architects’ Future of Retrofit event in Manchester last week brought into sharp focus the immensity of the task ahead for owners of existing homes when it comes to reducing CO2 emissions. For private homeowners and social housing providers alike, retrofitting poses more than tricky technical questions. It has the potential, quite literally, to change the face of Britain if external insulation systems are widely used.
The Climate Change Act requires the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced by 80% by 2050. In response to this the Government has set targets to undertake whole house energy efficiency upgrades to seven million solid wall houses in the UK by 2020 and all remaining homes by 2030. However, it’s likely that CO2 emissions from homes must reduce by more than 80% to make up the shortfall that will not be achieved in other sectors such as aviation.
It’s generally accepted that cutting energy use is the first step in cutting CO2 emissions and the best way to do this in homes is with insulation. External insulation is often the preferred route because of its many advantages – it minimises problems of thermal bridging, interstitial condensation and does not intrude into precious internal space – but when it comes to aesthetics it’s potentially disastrous.
We’ve already seen what the double glazing salesmen have done to the ‘faces’ of so many homes but the consequences of a concerted drive to install external insulation are far greater. Returning on the train from Manchester I pondered the concern expressed by one speaker that “the character of our housing stock might be rendered over”. Potentially the brick terraces I glanced from the train windows would be a thing of the past, replaced by bland facades of, in all probability, magnolia tinted render.
Many argue that this doesn’t matter. A delegate at the PRP event pointed out that to not embrace this solution would be like trying to keep every Morris Minor on the road when more advanced cars were available. While cars might not be the best analogy when talking about reducing emissions, he does have a point; maybe we shouldn’t be so precious about our more ordinary built heritage.
Of course this isn’t the whole argument. We can’t think about cutting CO2 emissions in isolation, we must consider sustainability in its broader sense. This relates to maintaining and nurturing communities and places where people want to live. Is there not a danger that we may suffocate our regional and local identities by burying the Accrington bloods, the Staffordshire blues, the Leicester reds, the London stocks, and all those other bricks and brick details under insulated render? Might we kill the ‘sense of place’ so important to the people who live in these homes?
A real dilemma and a challenge to designers to achieve a balance between retaining local distinctiveness whilst achieving high levels of insulation.