Green Property: Refurbishing derelict homes

imageSarah Lonsdale tests the latest ‘eco’ products and sorts the fads from the finds. This week: refurbishing derelict homes

It is a contemporary scandal of monstrous proportions. There are about two million families in this country who need homes but who are priced out of buying or renting because of a lack of supply. Yet there are thousands upon thousands of houses lying empty – nearly three quarters of a million in England alone.

In the Midlands, North East and North West, great swathes of perfectly sound Victorian terraces, in better condition than ones in Fulham or Putney that change hands for over £1m each, are standing derelict; boarded up, their roofs stripped of lead, the elements slowly doing their destructive work.

In the past few years, 16,000 period terraces have been bulldozed to the ground and only 3,000 new homes have been rebuilt to replace them. Thousands more stand empty: design classics with airy front rooms flooded with light from their bay windows and ingenious split-level floor planning going to dry rot and black mould.

Next month, the designer George Clarke will bring this to the nation’s attention with a new television series, The Great British Property Scandal. The preservation group Save Britain’s Heritage and the architect Mark Hines have also been working on a solution to the problem and next year will produce their first demonstration projects of how these Victorian houses can be brought back into use and be good for the next 100 years.

The solution involves “bolting on” prefabricated highly insulated two-storey rear extensions, which will create more living space and an energy-efficient back wall.

Combined with improvements to the existing houses such as extra roof and floor insulation, LED lighting and a new boiler, these refurbished terraces could be transformed into low-energy low-bill starter homes at a fraction of the cost of building a new house from scratch.

The bolt-ons, plus improvements, will cost between £10,000 – £60,000, depending on the range of extras that are installed.

“We have developed about 10 different rear extension types,” says Hines. “Some have first-floor balconies, others ground-floor porches; they come prefabricated with all services and, by providing extra space for two good-size bedrooms plus a bathroom upstairs, will give these homes a new life.”

He says the beauty of this solution is that because streets of period terraces – some several hundred houses long – are all identical, it would be simple and cost-effective to refurbish entire streets en masse.

The extensions are made from timber frames filled with a lime and hemp mixture. Hemp has a high thermal mass, so is an excellent eco-building material and grows extremely fast, sucking up carbon dioxide as it grows. Its potential as a low-cost green building material has led to hemp making a comeback to British agricultural land, with more than 3,000 acres, mostly in East Anglia, now under cultivation.

Civic leaders in areas where there are a large number of period terraces requiring updating in local authority control are supplying homes to be demonstration projects. One such area is Mansfield, which still retains hundreds of period terraces.

“There are, of course, times when there is no alternative to demolition,” says Tony Egginton, Mansfield’s Mayor. “However, we also have some Victorian gems that we never want to lose. We need to see how, in practice, it will be more cost-effective to refurbish, so we’re giving Mark and his team a number of houses he can experiment with.” Other areas involved in the demonstration projects will include Brighton and Manchester.

Will Palin, the secretary of Save Britain’s Heritage, says that in recent years the scale of demolition of sound homes has been akin to the widespread destruction of the Sixties, yet because it has been happening in poor areas, much has gone unnoticed. “These homes form real communities and have stood for 200 years. It is scandalous, quite apart from the sheer waste of bulldozing and starting from scratch. These eco-solutions will provide low-cost starter homes for young families and allow these houses – many of extremely high building quality – to survive into the next century.”

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