Eco-improving period property

imageSarah Lonsdale tests the latest ‘eco’ products and sorts the fads from the finds. This week: eco-improving period homes

It’s all very well eco-improving architecturally uninteresting homes. With apologies to residents of bungalows and houses built in the Seventies and Eighties, these often uninspiring boxes don’t look any worse – and usually look better – for extra cladding, new windows and altered rooflines.

But the vast majority of our housing stock is older, and considerably more beautiful. How do you eco-improve a period home in a conservation area without annoying the neighbours, falling foul of planners or desecrating a lovely streetscape? Yet rising fuel bills and concern for the environment are inspiring home owners to take the plunge with historic buildings in sensitive locations.

Will Hitchcock, his wife Rachael and their two children live in the village of Nayland, in the heart of Constable country. Their home, a pair of Victorian cottages knocked together, is built from mellow red brick with a dark slate roof, and is surrounded by the verdant fields of rural Suffolk. It is also in the village conservation area, so when they embarked on eco-improvements they needed to be careful about preserving the streetscape.

The impetus for making the changes that would eventually drastically reduce their home’s energy requirements came from both economic necessity and environmental concern.

“I grew up on a farm, and my parents were focused on working with, rather than against, nature,” says Will, an IT manager. “Nayland, like a lot of rural communities, is not on mains gas. We rely on deliveries of oil, which was getting increasingly expensive. When the children came along, I started to think about the world they would grow up in.”

The Hitchcocks have made changes to how their home uses fuel, as and when they have had the means. “The house has solid walls, so we started by insulating the external walls on the inside, with 1½-2in of drylining plasterboard,” says Will. “It is a messy but fairly inexpensive job, so my advice is to do it when you’re redecorating. It made such a difference: the walls lose heat much slower.”

Will left no detail untouched. Floorboards have been sealed with silicon, and even keyholes have been covered up. With the insulation and solar thermal panels to heat water, the oil tank needs filling only once, rather than twice, a year – saving £780 annually. Altogether, the Hitchcocks reduced their carbon emissions by 62 per cent.

If you are brave enough to be radical, take inspiration from Robert Cohen and Bronwen Manby, who have reduced carbon emissions from their 180-year-old home, also in a conservation area, by 79 per cent, bringing their fuel bills down to zero.

Their 1830 town house in Hackney, north London, is a beautiful example of elegant early Victorian urban architecture. The classical façade is typical weathered London brick, and light floods in through shuttered sash windows. “It was student accommodation when we bought it, so there were few original features left,” says Robert. This meant that when they installed internal insulation, they were not covering up any ornamental coving. Altogether the external walls have nearly 200mm (8in) of extra thickness added, which includes a 25mm (1in) air gap between the original walls and the insulation. “We compensated for the loss of space by extending the back wall by two metres,” says Robert, an energy consultant.

“During the building work we uncovered a Twenties Art Deco fireplace, which we have restored, so we’ve actually ended up with more historic features than we started with.”

The single-pane sash windows at the front have been replaced with identical double-glazed ones; the more contemporary rear of the house has triple-glazed windows.

“All the backs of the houses in our street have had modifications,” says Robert, “You can’t avoid it in a 180-year-old terrace.”

Some changes did require planning permission, which was granted on account of their turning the house into an “exceptional low-energy building”. The house only requires underfloor heating to the ground floor and gas bills are £300 a year, offset by money generated by their solar pv system.

Both homes will be open under the Old Home Superhome scheme next month, March 17-25. Visit to find the open homes nearest you

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