Reducing Carbon while Retaining Heritage: retrofitting approaches for vernacular buildings and their residents

Wise, Freya Georgina (2022). Reducing Carbon while Retaining Heritage: retrofitting approaches for vernacular buildings and their residents. PhD thesis The Open University.



Retrofitting the built environment is critical for mitigating devastating climate change. Operational energy from buildings is responsible for 27% of global carbon emissions. However, standard retrofitting approaches are often not appropriate for the 20-30% of UK homes with heritage value. This research examines the potential for realistic carbon reduction from these buildings while retaining their heritage values.

The county of Cumbria was the overarching case for this research which involved a resident survey, 16 individual building-resident case studies with both quantitative and qualitative data, and lifecycle modelling of retrofit options.
The study found that most residents of vernacular buildings, whether with official heritage designation or not, invest heritage values in their buildings and that these values affect the retrofits they consider acceptable and will therefore enact. Meanwhile, most residents already engage in energy conscious behaviour. In contrast to common assumptions, most residents find their buildings comfortable, emphasising excellent summer performance, although previous maladaptions can present challenges. The study further showed that standard modelling tools poorly reflect both vernacular buildings’ energy performance and residents’ behaviours and preferences, thus frequently recommending inappropriate alterations.

When the embodied carbon of the retrofits was calculated alongside the operational savings it frequently influenced which measures had the lowest lifecycle carbon. There were also positive synergies between measures with low embodied carbon and those acceptable to residents’ heritage values; these measures tend to be non-invasive and less technical but are harder to model and quantify and therefore often overlooked.

This research shows that we should acknowledge residents’ values and behaviours, consider residents and their buildings as interrelated and interdependent, and include the embodied impacts of retrofit, if we are to realistically make desperately needed carbon reductions from our buildings. This study has implications for retrofitting approaches and policies for vernacular buildings with applicability far beyond Cumbria.

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