Conserving our Urban Heritage and Energy – Can We Do Both?
With major growth in the years before the First World War, treat the region’s towns have a large number of terraced and other traditional solid wall houses. Built when coal was cheap and its use unrestricted, find they relied on coal fires with ventilation through leaky sash windows and gaps between the boards in suspended floors.
In Liverpool, unhealthy we appreciate the charm of our Victorian and Edwardian heritage so much we have designated 36 Conservation Areas comprising nearly 10% of the city’s dwellings.
Unfortunately, people who live in these homes have to heat them. Those who own them have to maintain them. And providing modern standards of comfort and health generates levels of carbon emissions much higher than for more modern houses.
As a nation, we are committed to an 80% reduction in our CO2 emissions by 2050. With 36% of the UK’s housing stock solid wall and housing at 27% the biggest single contributor of CO2, we know mathematically we can’t exempt them from major energy saving if we are serious about achieving this target.
Over the years, house owners and landlords alike have steadily adopted energy saving measures, using floor coverings to reduce draughts, blocking up chimneys and, particularly contentious for those in Conservation Areas, replacing sliding sash windows with more affordable and energy efficient double glazed casements. In many Conservation Areas, the majority of front windows are already casements. Energy and cost saving have prevailed over what city planning departments and some residents have deemed essential to preserve our heritage.
The case for revisiting the issue of energy saving vs. heritage was first raised in 2012 by a residents association, The Avenues Neighbourhood Network www.tann.org.uk, following a survey of its own residents. Whilst supportive of their Conservation Area designation, residents favoured a relaxation of the windows rules. Only 10% of its residents supported the Council policy of insisting on sash windows. 70% were in favour of replacing sash windows with casements provided the windows were similarly proportioned.
The facts on the ground reinforced their position. A recent survey showed nearly 56% of houses in their area no longer have sash windows.
Liverpool City Council’s response to this conundrum is, rather than adapting the rules in line with resident wishes, to shrink the Conservation Areas. They are proposing to de-designate streets of smaller terraces where most sash windows have already been replaced, and have named three adjacent avenues in one of the Conservation Areas represented by TANN.
The proposed review of Conservation Area boundaries within the city is likely to prove time consuming, complicated and socially divisive. There are streets of larger houses in the TANN area as well as elsewhere in the city where most sash windows have been replaced. There is inconsistency between areas, and planning appeals over permitted window replacements have gone both ways.
Enforcing the windows policy in the remaining, smaller Conservation Areas also raises the spectre of expensive and bitterly resisted enforcement actions that the city can ill afford. Rather than use an already stretched City Planning Department on this ultimately futile exercise, it would be a better use of resources to plan how each traditional area, Conservation Area or other, can stop unsympathetic development and best maintain its heritage, whilst simultaneously undertaking serious retrofit to save energy and reduce carbon emissions.
This involves working constructively with resident groups, housing associations and cooperatives, private landlords, building control and low carbon building professionals to make recommendations for each area, preferably taking a whole building approach.
The plan for each area needs to take account of the current status of original features and building repair, local income levels and other economic factors. For example, historical authenticity in Canning Street, used for filming historical dramas, will be more important than for many other areas.
By focussing on windows, the current debate runs the danger of downplaying other energy saving measures. Solid wall houses lose 45% of their heat through external walls (compared to 15% for windows), and internal, external and ‘hybrid’ (typically internal at front, external at back) insulation should all be evaluated.
Similarly, there is insufficient debate on heating systems, air-tightness measures, ventilation or on the integration of renewable energy sources. There are a great many good examples to learn from, locally from the Ullet Road Eco Offices and Plus Dane’s Broxton Street retrofits together with all 193 national projects that were included in the ‘Retrofit for the Future’ programme documented in http://www.lowenergybuildings.org.uk/
In the author’s view, it is possible to reconcile the two forms of conservation – heritage and energy. However, it will involve compromise, deciding what is essential for both. Rather than tackled in the generality, it needs to look at each area separately, considering their unique structures, materials and ornamentation. Done in this way, the process will lead to innovation, regeneration of many neglected districts as well as the Conservation Areas and give a huge boost to building and manufacturing, especially to local specialist companies. It will be a major stimulus for jobs and new skills. Hopefully, a more ambitious and rounded view will emerge from the City Council, who need to lead on these issues.
Transition Towns Liverpool