A new report has identified that converting and renovating heritage buildings can reduce their carbon emissions by 60% by 2050. 

  front external straight on credit Rick McCullagh

Image: Zetland house in Manchester was one of the UK's first properties to be responsibly retrofitted to meet Passivhaus Plus certifications. Photography: Rick McCullagh 

Re-purposing and renovating older properties is the only way to meet carbon emission targets and effectively tackle climate change – that's the message from the latest Heritage Counts Report. The report, created annually by Historic England on behalf of the Historic Environment Forum, looks at the role thay historic homes have to play in our built environment, and this year, it has looked at evidence that suggests not enough focus is being given to restoring, reusing and retrofitting these buildings to meet climate change targets. 

The facts and figures 

 rear external b credit Rick McCullagh

 Image: While the front of Zetland House in Manchester has retained a heritage facade, the rear conversion is in a modern style. Photograpy: Rick McCullagh 

The built environment in the UK contributes 42% of total greenhouse gas emissions, but according to new evidence, retrofitting existing buildings with measures to improve efficiency could reduce these emissions by 60% by the 2050 deadline. 

While it may seem like a finite problem, it's interesting to note that in 2018, there were 60,400 more pre-1919 homes than in 2010, down to the conversion of larger properties into multiple homes and reclassification of non-domestic buildings. 

The Committee on Climate Change last year identified that improving emissions of existing homes needed to be in the top 5 priorities for the government in looking to achieve climate change targets. 

Calls for a cut to renovation VAT 

levens hall cumbria has a biomass heating system

Image: In 2011, a biomass district heating scheme was installed at Levens Hall in Cumbria. The retrofit helped to reduce the estate's annual carbon footprint by 70-75 tonnes. 

At present, building a new home is zero-rated for VAT, while renovation works are taxed at 20%, often incentivising owners to knock down old buildings to make way for new builds. However, not only is this a concern for preserving heritage properties that aren't protected by listed status, but it also has consequences for a home's carbon footprint. 

For a new building to qualify as VAT-free, it must be completely demolished all the way down to the ground level, but the report calls for the taxation system to also encourage the repair, retention and recycling of historic buildings in order to meet 2050 carbon emission targets. 

Historic England say that, at present, the housing sector is almost singularly focussing on operational emissions – those generated while the building is in use – while ignoring the contributions that both building and demolishing a building also make. Its research shows that re-using and retrofitting a home will produce less carbon emissions than building a new one in its place, if the whole life of the building is considered, and the materials and processes used to retrofit it are carefully considered.  


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