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Rant Box

As we’re sure you’ll agree, working with old buildings is not always a bed of roses - there are some thorny issues to grapple with. Here are a few which we feel strongly enough about to voice our opinions:

“Sustainable building/Energy wastage”

“Building Regulations can damage your health.”

“The Great Insulation Swindle”


Sustainable building/Energy wastage

One third of Wales’ housing stock (497,000 homes) was built before 1914 – before the mainstream use of the cavity wall. The vast majority of these homes have been repaired with the wrong materials (cement and plastic-based paints). These materials trap water in the walls which were originally designed to absorb moisture and then release it through the process of evaporation.

This situation is no longer a sustainable option for Wales. If repaired correctly with the traditional materials (mainly lime and local aggregates) that they were built with, this third of our housing stock can function more efficiently than modern housing – using less energy on a daily and a life-time basis. The potential energy savings for relatively small investment are extremely significant – unlike some of the green-field, energy-saving schemes being proposed.

These facts are little known in Wales. As such, we are not only wasting our energy resources and polluting our environment, but also destroying our valuable built heritage. This unique built heritage is the second most cited reason for tourists to visit Wales (after our glorious countryside and beaches). To enjoy a sustainable economy, it is imperative that we look after what we already have.
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Building Regulations can damage your health

The current set of Building Regulations were written with the cavity wall uppermost in mind. The majority of old houses (usually pre-1919) are built with solid walls. These solid walls are designed to function in a completely different way to a cavity wall. Whereas a cavity wall should shed water, a solid wall absorbs it. When the sun shines and a wind blows, this moisture then leaves the wall by evaporation. Just like hanging out the washing.

Should you live in a conservation area or in a listed building, the way the building was originally constructed is taken into account by the authorities. If you live on the other side of the street to a conservation area and yet your house is built in exactly the same way to those opposite, the authorities will force you to damage your own property by using inappropriate materials to “insulate” it. The act of insulating solid walls, which were originally designed to “breathe”, traps water in these walls. This in turn accelerates structural decay, causes mould growth and creates an unhealthy living environment. The water in the walls causes them to be colder in winter which then increases the heating required and the subsequent cost to your pocket and the environment.

A properly conserved old house is an efficient and sustainable living space. The techniques used in their build have been perfected over thousands of years. Research into sustainable new build is rapidly coming to similar conclusions – building “thermal mass” into structural walls is the “next big thing” in architecture at the moment.

There is no doubt that as more sustainable building practices return to mainstream building, the regulations will have to change. It appears that the days of the cavity wall with its deep foundations and use of highly polluting materials are numbered. Even the Government itself is offering grants towards filling these cavities – albeit with more polluting modern insulation materials (usually by-products of the oil industry).

The official line is that the regulations are always under review and it is mooted that the situation with regard to old buildings will be rectified to some extent when the next set of regulations are published in April 2009. This should see a new definition being applied to old buildings. It was reported at the recent ICOMOS-UK conference that this will be something along the lines of all solid walled structures built before 1919 (the date when the use of the cavity wall became more widespread in the construction industry).

If this does come to pass, we in Wales have more to gain than you might think. Over a third of our housing stock – some 497,000 homes – were built before 1919. Only 13,861 of these are listed domestic buildings. There are 482 conservation areas. That means by far the majority of our pre-1919 homes are threatened rather than protected by the current Building Regulations.

Not only is this nonsensical for the environment, but it is also an economic disaster waiting to happen for Wales. We are currently experiencing a shortage of housing stock and yet a third of what we already have is threatened by regulations.
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The Great Insulation Swindle

Rockwool, Celotex, Eco-therm – whatever you want to call it and however you package it – most modern insulation material is polluting in its manufacture and its disposal. It’s also damaging to old buildings. If your building is built of solid walls (stone, mud or brick), it needs to “breathe” i.e. absorb moisture then release it again as vapour by the simple process of evaporation. This applies to both the inner walls and the outer. By insulating the inside walls, as purported by many under the “Green” banner - including our Government – you merely trap moisture in the wall. This water causes the walls to be unnecessarily cold in the winter, increasing your heating bills and rendering any insulation “gains” void.

By allowing your walls to function as they were intended to function, you can return your solid walled structure to a condition which is far more effective at staying warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

The loft space is a different matter. A cool, well ventilated loft is ideal for preserving the timbers which support the roof. It discourages unwanted insects who prefer warm damp conditions. However, by carefully insulating the ceiling (preferably with a natural product such as the various forms of treated sheepswool now available), warm air is kept in your living space in the winter and cool air is prevented from being heated by the roof in the summer.

In Wales, there are 497,000 houses built with solid walls – that’s a third of our housing stock. If we continue to abuse these buildings by using the wrong materials, we will destroy them, forcing us to build new. The energy wastage figures will be huge. However, by returning them to the condition they were built in, using traditional methods and materials, we will make significant energy savings across the country.
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