Sustainable Buildings Toolkit:
Historic Buildings

Introduction

Working with historic buildings brings special challenges. Green interventions such as insulating windows or walls become much harder if the windows are historic and the walls have cornices and skirtings which would be masked by new linings. It may not be possible to introduce a draft lobby into a historic entrance. Space for new, sustainable plant may be hard to find.

We need to make public buildings fit-for-purpose in the climate emergency. At the same time, some environmental changes can risk compromising the building’s heritage value. 

Making historic buildings as sustainable as possible is therefore a complex process that involves some genuine dilemmas. It needs time, thought, and expertise.

It’s important to stress, first, that the most sustainable thing we can do is go on using existing buildings. To replace a historic building with a new structure, even if it runs far more efficiently, would be completely unsustainable. The new building’s ‘embodied carbon’ (the carbon generated from building materials and construction) would massively exceed any benefit from cleaner operation. The sustainable option will always be to keep using old theatres and make them as efficient as possible.

It’s also important not to destroy irreplaceable heritage to achieve only minimal gains. Historic buildings may never reach the efficiency of newer structures. However, with skill and determination it’s still possible to make very significant improvements, and to make historic theatres fit for purpose in the context of the climate emergency.

Conservation Management Plan

The starting point is thorough understanding of the building’s heritage significance. That’s best achieved through a Conservation Management Plan, commissioned from a heritage consultant. The Conservation Management Plan will identify what’s special about the building, what needs to be treated with the most care, and where changes are easier to introduce.

The Conservation Management Plan should include a section on sustainability. It should identify where improvements can be made, comment on where it may be hard to achieve commonplace upgrades (such as double-glazing), and suggest alternative approaches where possible.

If you have an existing Conservation Management Plan, it should be updated to include this section.

Expert Advice

Working with historic buildings is a specialist field, which requires experience and expertise. Consultants used to working with old buildings will have come across most challenges before. They’ll know what to look out for, and may have tried-and-tested ways of improving sustainability in difficult areas. It’s therefore important to make sure that your consultants have the right background and experience for your theatre.

Expert input can also be obtained from Historic England, and from Conservation Officers. It’s important to see them as partners, rather than as hurdles to be overcome. Historic England have good online advice to follow about many areas of conservation: https://historicengland.org.uk

Difficult Decisions

It’s almost inevitable that at some point you’ll face difficult decisions in weighing sustainability options against heritage value. Will secondary glazing harm the appearance of an old window? Does a proposed draft lobby ruin the historic entrance? Try to keep the following in mind:

• You’re not alone. There is good advice and support to be had from Historic England, conservation officers, specialist architects and heritage consultants.

• How much benefit does the proposed intervention give? If it’s significant, then the intervention may be the right thing to do. But it isn’t worth destroying something irreplaceable for a marginal gain.

• Are there alternatives? Think laterally. You may find a much less damaging option which gives nearly as much benefit.

• At all costs, try to make sure that changes are reversible. That means you aren’t destroying historic fabric once and for all.

• Conservation and sustainability run hand-in-hand. Re-using old buildings is sustainable. Historic building techniques, using natural and recyclable materials, have much to teach us about how to build in more sustainable ways.

The Arts Green Book has brought together culturalorganisations and sustainability experts to create common guidance for making culture sustainable.