A guide to sustainable heating

Low-carbon heating solutions to future-proof your home and reduce energy use

By Caroline Rodrigues | 12 November 2021

We are facing a challenge. Climate change demands that we adapt many of our habits to live more sustainably, while at the same time the financial and environmental costs of heating our homes increases every year.

The government’s response is the proposed Future Homes Standard, to be introduced by 2025, which will require new-build homes to be future-proofed with low-carbon heating and improved levels of energy efficiency. Meanwhile, there is plenty that we can do now to cut back or even eliminate our home’s reliance on fossil fuels. 

Self-build house with sustainable heating solutions

The building envelope of this self-build is insulated with recycled newspaper and heating is provided by a Daikin air-source heat pump

Self-build solutions

When building a new home, all the energy-saving elements must be considered and balanced from the beginning of the project. The gold standard for this is the Passivhaus method, in which high levels of insulation and airtightness result in a home that will need little or no space heating at all. But buildings that do not have Passivhaus accreditation can still be highly efficient.

Making financial decisions on whether it’s worth spending more on high levels of airtightness and upgrading from double to triple-glazed windows to achieve lower running costs can be done by comparing prices and performance details from suppliers, and taking advice from your architect or an energy consultant. When considering pay-back times, assess both the projected lifespan of the building and how long you intend to live there.

Photovoltaic solar panels and an air-source heat pump supply the energy and heating for this timber-framed and insulated family home in Scotland. Photo: Darren Chung

Build efficiency 

Achieving a building that’s as airtight as possible is down to the quality of workmanship as much as the materials chosen. Prefabricated build systems have an advantage in that the main components are put together under rigorous factory conditions. When good levels of airtightness are achieved, the project could include a mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) system. This maintains a flow of filtered air through the house, recovering heat from the moist, stale air inside and transferring the warmth to air drawn in from outside.

This farmhouse in south Derbyshire was designed to Passivhaus Plus standard by Justin Smith Architects. Photo: Skyline Pictures

We are facing a challenge. Climate change demands that we adapt many of our habits to live more sustainably, while at the same time the financial and environmental costs of heating our homes increases every year.

The government’s response is the proposed Future Homes Standard, to be introduced by 2025, which will require new-build homes to be future-proofed with low-carbon heating and improved levels of energy efficiency. Meanwhile, there is plenty that we can do now to cut back or even eliminate our home’s reliance on fossil fuels. 

Self-build house with sustainable heating solutions

The building envelope of this self-build is insulated with recycled newspaper and heating is provided by a Daikin air-source heat pump

Self-build solutions

When building a new home, all the energy-saving elements must be considered and balanced from the beginning of the project. The gold standard for this is the Passivhaus method, in which high levels of insulation and airtightness result in a home that will need little or no space heating at all. But buildings that do not have Passivhaus accreditation can still be highly efficient.

Making financial decisions on whether it’s worth spending more on high levels of airtightness and upgrading from double to triple-glazed windows to achieve lower running costs can be done by comparing prices and performance details from suppliers, and taking advice from your architect or an energy consultant. When considering pay-back times, assess both the projected lifespan of the building and how long you intend to live there.

Photovoltaic solar panels and an air-source heat pump supply the energy and heating for this timber-framed and insulated family home in Scotland. Photo: Darren Chung

Build efficiency 

Achieving a building that’s as airtight as possible is down to the quality of workmanship as much as the materials chosen. Prefabricated build systems have an advantage in that the main components are put together under rigorous factory conditions. When good levels of airtightness are achieved, the project could include a mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) system. This maintains a flow of filtered air through the house, recovering heat from the moist, stale air inside and transferring the warmth to air drawn in from outside.

This farmhouse in south Derbyshire was designed to Passivhaus Plus standard by Justin Smith Architects. Photo: Skyline Pictures

Retrofit success

For anyone taking on a refurbishment, whether or not this includes an extension or loft conversion, energy efficiency is of great importance. ‘Period properties represent a huge portion of the UK’s housing stock, so it’s critical that planners, architects and builders define appropriate methods to tackle them,’ says Kit Knowles, director of Ecospheric. Just as with a new-build, insulation, airtightness and renewables all come into consideration. The ultimate standard is Enerphit, issued by the Passive House Institute for retrofit projects.

400 year old home in Surrey retrofitted with sustainable heating

This 400-year-old home in Surrey has been retrofitted with a Danfoss ground-source heat pump

Spread the warmth

Conventional radiators rely on convection currents to warm the air, but there are more efficient ways of distributing heat, such as underfloor heating or infrared panels. Infrared warms you, and other objects, using radiant heat. The panels heat quickly and some types can be hidden behind a plaster skim. If you are drawn to the traditional appeal of a wood burning stove, choose one that is SIA Ecodesign Ready, which will meet the new regulations for lower emissions, coming into effect in 2022.

This bathroom has a wall-mounted mirror-finish infrared panel that directly warms the walls, floor and ceiling, effectively turning a room into a radiator. Photo: Herschel

Seeking further advice

These organisations offer useful guidance on low-carbon energy and eco-friendly building practices:

  • The Energy Saving Trust gives impartial advice on renewables, insulation and efficiency.
  • The Glass and Glazing Federation has a spin-off website, myglazing.com, with advice and an energy-saving calculator.
  • Green Building Store offers products and support for energy-efficient homes and buildings.
  • GreenSpec is a useful source of information and design ideas curated by architects.
  • The Heat Pump Association is a source of technical information and case studies, with details of manufacturers and installers.
  • Hetas has a competent person scheme for installers of biomass and solid-fuel heating.
  • The National Insulation Association has information, lists of installers and examples of energy-saving costs.
  • Ofgem explains the government’s energy schemes.
  • The Passivhaus Trust offers information and guidance on building to ultra-efficient standards.
  • Solar Energy UK is a specialist in solar heat, solar power and battery storage.
  • The Wood Heat Association explains biomass heating and lists reputable biomass boiler and stove installers.
  • YouGen has advice on energy saving and renewables.

Discover more about sustainable heating in the Grand Designs x Good Homes Eco Heating digital supplement. For all the latest self-build and renovation news, sign up for the Grand Designs weekly newsletter

Additional photography: David Barbour

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