SPS believes strongly that our county’s outstanding traditional building stock must adapt to climate change and the challenge of achieving net zero.

Everyone who is responsible for a part of our magnificent heritage, however small, needs to understand how to make buildings more resilient as the climate changes. Keeping old buildings warm in the winter and cool in the summer has never been more relevant as we all struggle with the cost of living crisis.

“The greenest building is the one that already exists”

The message from Carl Elefante, former President of the American Institute of Architects, couldn’t be clearer: ‘Don’t demolish it – retrofit it’.

A clear and true message which we need to take on board with regards to Suffolk’s very many historic but unlisted buildings.

These hundreds upon hundreds of houses, former places of worship and sometimes public buildings form a significant part of what we at the Suffolk Preservation Society term our county’s ‘humble heritage’.

Although, not listed buildings, and therefore not accorded the same level of protection given to those that have been added to the statutory list, they are very frequently much-loved elements of the local townscape, streetscape and landscape. They give meaning and colour to many people’s experiences of particular places.

Yet they are all too frequently the objects of neglect – both intentional and unintentional.

Some examples, all of which the Society has been campaigning to avoid demolition, include a large Victorian Gothic house at Nowton; The 18th century weatherboarded White Cottage at Framlingham; an early 20th century weatherboarded bungalow in Felixstowe and a 17th century cottage in Wortham.

A key argument put forward by some applicants, is that the replacement buildings will be much more environmentally sustainable than the existing ones.  This argument, however, is a negative collateral consequence of the essential and praiseworthy efforts of Suffolk to achieve carbon neutral status by 2030.  The Society believes, that such an attitude can often be self-interest masquerading in green clothes!

It is well understood that emissions from the built environment must be reduced if the UK is to meet net zero by 2050, and a proper policy framework for assessing the embodied carbon within our built environment is long overdue.

A House of Commons Committee report Building to net zero: costing carbon in construction, to the Environmental Audit Committee in May 2022, stated that:

Finding the appropriate balance between demolition and new build versus reuse and retrofitting of existing buildings is crucial to a built environment policy which delivers sustainable outcomes. ….. Considerable emissions are involved in demolition and rebuilding of properties, especially when measured under a whole-life carbon approach: under this approach, it becomes more debatable whether the replacement of properties is a sustainable approach to take.

Last year, Marks & Spencer’s plans to bulldoze its flagship 1929 store on London’s Oxford Street sparked a public row over the role of embodied carbon in construction and the case for an alternative retrofit-first approach highlighted the environmental and heritage costs of demolition. Along with many other heritage groups, SPS was delighted when the appeal was dismissed and Marks & Spencer were not granted planning permission for demolition.

So, instead of knocking down and building new, we must adopt a more sustainable approach and embrace retrofitting wherever possible

Basically, retrofitting involves improving the energy efficiency of windows and doors, insulating roofs and floors, and above all making sure that a building is well maintained. It is clear that a dry and draught proofed house is infinitely easier and cheaper to keep warm than one with holes in the roof, blocked or damaged gutters or downpipes, and cracks in the render letting in moisture.

As retrofitting techniques improve and costs come down, more and more homeowners are looking at this as a way of balancing care for heritage with a sustainable response to the climate emergency.  It was clearly a favoured option in reducing energy consumption during our community energy visioning workshops held in Debenham in 2022.

But there remains a lack of access to good, clear and authoritative information. That is why the Society is taking a lead.

Partnering with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and Historic England, and supported by the Suffolk Climate Change Partnership, we organised a day-long course in November focused on how to avoid potential problems through a holistic approach to retrofitting, while presenting a background to the latest building science with practical advice and examples of best practice.

The course – called Energy Efficiency and Old Buildings -was led by two national experts in this field: Marianne Suhr and Roger Hunt, authors of the Old House Eco Handbook.

We recognise that the loss or harm to both listed and non-listed properties lies partly in the inconsistency of the advice offered. We therefore encouraged built environment professionals: architects, conservation officers, housing officers as well as students and homeowners to attend the event.

Together, we are confident that through a better appreciation of the options offered by retrofitting, we can square the circle in Suffolk making older buildings more energy efficient, contribute to our net zero ambitions and avoid any more unnecessary demolitions!