Renewables in historic buildings – negotiating the barriers

Your rating: None
Published: July 2011

Many listed buildings and those in conservation areas are in real need of the energy independence renewables can bring, especially where they are off the gas grid. However they often face some different challenges to new build homes, so we look at some basic approaches to your project below.

Cut demand

The first step with any green energy project should be to make the property as energy efficient as is practical. Have a look at Chris Morgan’s introductory guide on GEN. Older properties can suffer from poor maintenance such as damp walls, so ensuring that this work is done upfront will bring long term dividends.

The introduction of the Government’s ‘Green Deal’ from October 2012 will provide loan support for retrofitting older properties where the energy savings will be more than the cost of payback of the loan. This may cover improvements such as windows where the initial Green Deal home assessment shows that energy savings are significant. Be aware though that some retrofitting work such as window replacement or upgrading may require the same listed building consent as detailed below for renewables. 

There are financial incentives for electricity generation (Feed-in-Tariff) as well as for renewable heating systems under the Renewable Heat Incentive or RHI which will come in this Summer. The RHI scheme will require that houses have a minimum energy efficiency rating before they can apply, making this first step even more important.

Weigh up your options

After thinking through how to reduce energy demand, assessing options for different renewable technologies is the next step. There are a number of factors to be borne in mind such as cost, ease of use, position of available roof space or fuel storage alongside what you want the installation to achieve and/or replace.

However particular attention is needed around the visibility of the technologies installed in listed buildings such as solar panels and biomass flues (see below). Technical characteristics of your home may also rule out certain technologies, heat pumps for example work best where the building has a good ‘air tightness’- this may be difficult to achieve with older buildings, even though you have done the initial work on efficiency improvements. In that case, woodfuel pellet boilers or stoves maybe more suitable for space and water heating, especially if combined with solar thermal panels for heating water in the Summer.

Do some research though on your options and ask several companies to quote you who have experience of installing different technologies to suit buildings like your own.

Planning system

For listed buildings including non-listed buildings in Conservation Areas there are several steps to potentially go through- planning permission, listed building consent and building warrants. Depending on the technology, planning permission maybe needed for an external change to an historic building. This varies across the UK however and there are some ‘permitted development’ exemptions in England for example. Check the EST and the Planning Portal for the latest rules and variations across the UK. There are fees associated with planning applications. 

Listed building consents will be required across the UK to show that the installation does not effect the character of the building and area, whereas building warrants maybe needed to verify that the changes are safe and fit for purpose. Listed building consent is free to apply whereas a building warrant also attracts a fee.

The key thing here is early discussion with your Planning Department officer who will advise you alongside the Building Control Department about the different parts to the process. There can be a lot of variability between councils and we know of some examples where the need for building warrants has been waived.

Visibility is key and if a solar panel for example is on the main aspect of a listed building and can be seen from a road then it could be show stopper. Installing on the roof of an extension maybe a better solution as explored in one of our recent case studies.

Interpretations are changing however and we will be looking again at particular technologies that are effective at getting through the planning system. One option for solar panels for example has been to ‘garden mount’ them away from the roof of the house getting round the sticky visibility issue.

Other considerations are rarer but if you live in an Air Quality Management Area this could be a factor for installing a biomass system in Scotland, while if your home is fortunate enough to be in a World Heritage Site, Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or a Scheduled Monument there maybe additional considerations that your planning officer will advise you on.

With some of our older properties being the hardest to heat in the country, the benefits of installing renewables will hopefully make the extra hassle of the planning system worthwhile. We are keen to hear your views and experiences though good and bad. For a more in depth guide, a helpful report from Changeworks gives you more detail on renewables installations, while they also provide a matching guide to energy efficiency retrofitting work in historic buildings.