An Energy Efficient Escape to the Country

We have outgrown our little flat in London so it’s time to move out.  Some things we will miss, others less so…..


Along with the logistical headache of living in a small first-floor flat with a baby, the first 8 weeks with our daughter have introduced us to 24/7 heating and round-the-clock illumination.  Step aside doting grand-parents, the people most excited about our new arrival have been our electricity and gas supplier.

We buy our power and gas from Ecotricity so at least some of our cash is funding clean energy development.   And living in a small flat should mean we are not spending too much on bills.  Think again.   The ease with which the heat wafts like Mary Poppins through our Victorian windows, walls and roof (complete with skylight) is enough to bring you out in a (rapidly cooling) sweat.  As temperatures have plummeted our pathetically inadequate insulation makes it feel like we are funding an unscientific attempt to heat the outdoors.Mary

We will have to accept that moving from a high density to a low density environment will increase our carbon footprint.  Even so, we want the move to be as energy efficient as possible.  Our budget knocks out a shiny eco-development so our decision is between:

a) buying an older house and retrofitting to make it more efficient; and

b) buying a new build with efficiency built in.

There are lots of exciting claims made by developers about the efficiency of new homes so the answer seems straightforward.  Yet there is an old mantra that the ‘greenest building is the one already standing’ – emissions and energy are bound up in the construction process so upgrading old stock will always be more sustainable.

Two reports from different sides of the Atlantic seem to settle the matter. The reports by National Trust for Historic Preservation in the US, and my former colleagues at Camco Advisory (now Verco) in the UK both conclude that reuse almost always yields fewer environmental impacts than new construction.

Camco compared the lifetime emissions advanced retrofit, with emissions from the demolition and rebuild of a new house.

The outcome shows that the advanced retrofitted old house had the lowest lifetime emissions (139 tCO2e) over 50 years.  Emissions from retrofit are even 6% less than the most advanced (Zero Carbon Homes 2016) standard of new build using the most sustainable materials (timber frame).

(c) Camco/Radian

(c) Camco/Radian

It is also cheaper: the average cost of the retrofit work was nearly £80k.  Whilst the cost of the new build was £130k.

Over a 75 year life span, the US study showed between 10-17% improved emissions performance for retrofitted single family homes compared to new build.

The report showed that a new house that is 30% more efficient would take between 38-50 years to overcome the negative impact of its construction:

Building Years to Neutral

(c) National Trust for Historic Preservation

This shows that the achilles heel of the new build is the embodied emissions within the construction process.  Yet in the UK, the Camco report shows that over 50 years, even in-use emissions from new build continues to gradually pull away from the retrofit house, even when allowing for the higher embodied emissions that provide the starting point:

(c) Camco/Radian

(c) Camco/Radian

So for policymakers, housing associations and property developers, these studies present a compelling case for choosing for an advanced comprehensive retrofit instead of demolition and rebuilding more efficient housing.   Shiny new housing developments look lovely, but they are more expensive and less efficient.

So what does this mean for our relocation?

Retrofitting an older house is clearly the best environmental choice. The trouble, as always, is the cost.

The financial analysis from Camco assumes ownership of the original house/land.   If the costs of acquiring the house are factored in, the economic case for us moving to an inefficient property to perform a retrofit collapses.

There is welcome support available for retrofitting housing through the government’s Green Deal scheme which should make improvements that reduce energy bills possible without capital outlay.  But if you add the capital cost of purchasing the house itself into the calculations a buy-to-retrofit becomes prohibitively expensive for us.


Also the work done on the retrofit in Camco’s study was substantial – a complete upgrade of internal and external finishings including new bathrooms and kitchens, re-wiring, re-plastering and re-roofing.    In estate agent terms, this goes beyond the ‘needs a little work’ territory into a real ‘project’.

While it appeals to the Bob the Builder in me to undertake an internal re-build of a house, our time-scales and hapless DIY skills make a project (beyond actually moving in) difficult to imagine.   The US study makes it clear that materials matter – the quantity and type of materials used in building retrofit can reduce or even negate the benefits of the retrofit.  Doing an upgrade quickly and cheaply might result in the emissions benefits being significantly reduced.

So for most consumers making decisions about where to move, the case for taking on an old house to perform an advanced retrofit does not appear to stack up.

For us, a new build makes economic, and environmental sense.  The (up to) 30%  improvement in efficiency of the new house will help us keep our daughter snug while reducing the amount we are forking out to the energy companies.  By 2050 the house will have offset the negative  impact of construction.  Who knows, if we install solar panels and a ground heat source pump it is likely to be much sooner.  Our house is also on a good bus route and walking distance to amenities which should help us avoid the travel emissions inherent in some suburban out-of-town developments.

Having paid nearly £500k for it, we can only hope that the new owners of our Victorian greenhouse (or perhaps at that price we should call it a Crystal Palace) will be keen to minimise bills and so should consider improving efficiency.  If they do, the net emissions impact of the move will be reduced.

Overall the new build option works for us and we are excited about entering a futuristic world of cavity wall insulation, uPVC and roofs without windows in them.   The streets of London may be paved with gold, but the houses could do with a bit more Rockwool and double-glazing.

Kate began to regret the choice of a Jumbo Lego Set for Alex's Christmas Present

Kate began to regret the choice of a Jumbo Lego Set for Alex’s Christmas Present

One additional point strikes me from the reports I’ve read: the Green Deal is a good idea for home owners.  If you own an old building, with no need to move, the ability to upgrade the efficiency of your home without having to pay the upfront cost must surely make sense from an economic and environmental perspective.   The Moneysavingexpert seems to agree.  I have a feeling that the Green Deal might be a powerful policy tool that could revolutionise the UK housing stock and emissions profile.

We were renting and could not persuade our landlord to invest in efficiency in our draughty flat.  But even for tenants, help is on the way.  The Green Deal will obligate landlords to install energy efficiency measures  at the behest of the tenant from 2016.  The most inefficient properties will be prohibited from the rental sector from 2018.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: