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How and why to retrofit your old home

Do you have an old home? Or are you thinking of buying one?

Many of us love living in older properties due to their character, sense of space and period features. But many of us despair at how cold, draughty and expensive to heat they are in winter.

This doesn’t need to be the case. A properly designed and executed retrofit can dramatically improve your comfort throughout the year, without damaging the historic character you fell in love with.

What is a retrofit?

A retrofit is work that modifies and upgrades an existing building for energy efficiency. Retrofitting includes actions that increase the health, comfort and quality of the building, whilst reducing the property’s impact on the environment.

Why would I retrofit my older property?

There’s a host of benefits to having a warm and comfortable home, which we’ve previously written about here.

It’s estimated 80% of the UK housing stock that will exist in 2050 is already built. Many of these have been built 80-plus years ago.

This was at a time when environmental standards were much lower. Because of this, there was little or no consideration given to sustainability and comfort.

As a result there is plenty of opportunity to retrofit an older building. Both to deliver efficiency benefits and create happy, healthy homes for you and your family.

How can I improve my comfort?

There are four main actions that can be done:

  • Thermal insulation: Wrap the building in a warm blanket to keep the heat in
  • Minimise cold bridges: Cold bridges are gaps in your insulation. They need to be minimised to avoid heat loss or condensation issues.
  • Air-tightness: Uncontrolled air-leakage can also lead to unwanted heat loss.
  • Ventilation: Improving ventilation to ensure good air-quality and humidity control.

Undertaking a step by step retrofit

You may not be able to do everything you want in one go. The above actions can have unintended consequences if done incorrectly. By following a phased plan, you can mitigate risk and minimise negative impacts on your home.

By taking an informed and holistic approach you will ensure you gain the maximum benefit at every stage of the retrofit.

We’re experts at retrofitting older properties. Our new retrofit strategy service can drastically improve the performance of your home.

Get in touch today to discuss your project in more detail.

Which materials work best in a retrofit of an older building?

  • Natural insulation materials: Materials such as wood-fibre insulation, hemp/lime plaster/insulation and clay plaster are great for retrofitting older properties. They allow moisture to pass through which reduces the risk of condensation forming.
  • Intelligent membranes: These membranes improve air-tightness whilst protecting the building’s construction from moisture. They stop moisture getting in to the construction when humidity is high, but allow it to escape when humidity is low.

At Cinder Bridge Road we found the hemp/lime plaster applied to the existing walls made a huge difference to humidity levels in the house. This vastly improved comfort and, despite its minimal insulation, instances of condensation have disappeared.

New and old at Cinder Bridge Road

At Sycamore Hall we used an intelligent membrane with a simple internal wall insulation to dramatically improve our clients comfort.  When combined with a well-designed and installed MVHR, the system delivered a comfortable and risk-free build.

Sycamore Hall

What other considerations are there?

A different approach to retrofit is needed in a property older than 80 years old to avoid the risks of unintended consequences.

Air-tightness and good quality ventilation can make a huge difference to your comfort. Prioritising these over other measures will mean you’re more likely to have a comfortable and risk free build.

For example on our Grindle Cottage project we concentrated on roof insulation, windows, air-tightness and ventilation, but avoided upgrading the existing walls. This delivered energy performance far better than a new-build home with little risk of unintended condensation.

Grindle Cottage

This approach also means there is plenty of clean, fresh air 365 days of the year.

What are the risks of a poorly designed retrofit?

It’s really important to design retrofit measures in a holistic way when working with a historic building. Otherwise there could be significant, unintended consequences: both to the building and to its occupants. These include:

  • Interstitial condensation: This is condensation inside the buildings fabric, as opposed to on the surface, which is a risk of poorly designed, additional insulation. This could damage the building and encourage mould growth out of sight. Which can all have serious implications for the longevity of the building and for air quality.
  • Thermal bridges: Breaks in the insulation, especially if these are isolated, can lead to cold spots. These lose heat but also provide surfaces for potential condensation and unhealthy mould growth.
  • Reduced air quality: Making a building more air-tight will certainly help with heat loss but can conflict with its original ventilation strategy. Carefully designed ventilation is critical to ensuring there is plenty of clean, healthy air.

Where can I find out more about these risks?

The Sustainable Traditional Buildings Alliance [STBA] has some useful tools for understanding the possible risks of retrofit measures in traditional buildings.

The responsible retrofit guidance wheel is especially good. It identifies which other elements of a building might be impacted by a measure and what consequences should be considered.

Are you ready to improve the performance of your historic home?

As a practice we’re passionate about improving the comfort, safety and health of our clients by retrofitting their homes or businesses.

Read more about our retrofit strategy here, and get in touch to begin your own retrofit journey.