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Heritage homes as part of the renovation marathon: spectators or dark horses?

Energy efficient heritage home at the address Garnisoni 10 in Estonia.

Heritage homes as part of the renovation marathon: spectators or dark horses?

17 June 2024
In the article, project manager Kadri Kallast takes a closer look at the barriers homeowners need to overcome when renovating buildings placed under heritage protection and how they should be supported along the way.
Liisa Johanna Lukk

At the end of last year, the LIFE heritageHOME research and development project, led by the Ministry of Culture, was launched in Estonia to seek solutions to improve the energy efficiency of heritage homes.

The pace of the renovation marathon and the number of buildings involved will play an important role in curbing climate change: buildings account for 40% of the energy consumed in the European Union, of which 80% is used for heating and cooling purposes and heating domestic water. We can reduce consumption through renovation efforts to make buildings more energy efficient, including retrofitting or upgrading heating systems. The EU directive on the energy performance of buildings requires Member States to reduce the energy use of residential buildings by at least 20% by 2035, with the majority of this reduction coming at the expense of the least energy-efficient buildings.

Such buildings include most of our historic buildings, both those under protection and those considered to be of cultural and environmental value. Although European and Estonian regulations make concessions for buildings deemed to be of cultural value in terms of energy efficiency requirements, it is still essential to meet climate objectives as well as for the preservation of cultural heritage to improve indoor climate and achieve significant energy savings in heritage homes. Built heritage is better conserved when it is in use, and houses that are pleasant to live in and easy to manage are more likely to remain in use. Most heritage homes, however, have missed the starting signal of the renovation marathon. The LIFE heritageHOME project serves as a guide for the renovation of heritage homes coordinated by the Ministry of Culture to encourage late starters to head for the finish line.

Dream and nightmare

Home renovation is a scary task. This was the opening statement of a recent meeting of coordinators of home renovation service development programmes co-funded by the European Union in Brussels, where the LIFE heritageHOME project was also represented. Reducing energy consumption in residential buildings will play a major role in achieving the climate targets agreed at the EU level. This means that meeting the targets will depend largely on the people whose homes need renovation to be more energy efficient. Anyone who has taken on the challenge of renovation, can probably confirm that this is no easy task.

The Gordian knot of renovation procedures is being untangled for homeowners at both EU and Member State levels - unpicking the threads, making the necessary cuts, forging new connections in the procedures, and neatly wrapping it all up into a coherent ball of yarn. In other words, one-stop shops are being created that bring together the planning, financing, recording and management of renovation work in a single location, and advise homeowners at every step. Estonia is also working on a one-stop-shop, with the ambition to significantly simplify the administrative procedures related to renovation and just as importantly, to harmonise them nationwide.

While EU directives impose obligations on Member States in relation to the energy consumption of buildings, the focus is on the people who use the buildings and the energy, and thus are expected to make the changes. The aforementioned meeting of coordinators also acknowledged that the bulk of the work that lies ahead involves working with people. How can homeowners be motivated to renovate when the whole process is cumbersome, costly and time-consuming? How to renovate houses that are home to low-income households? How to ensure that all owners are on the same page, set the right goals together, stay on course and not jump overboard in apartment buildings that are capable of renovation? There is no shortage of questions that need to be answered, and they all have one thing in common: how can we make sure that we do not have to experience a nightmare in order to fulfil the dream of renovating our home?

Let’s consider an even more nuanced (some would say nightmarish) scenario: the home in need of renovation is in a building placed under heritage protection. In this case, any solutions aimed at creating comfort of use and energy savings must also be compatible with heritage conservation objectives, meaning that the conservation category of the building as well as specific valuable features and details must be taken into account. Tackling such a complex task involves even more actors and stages than planning and carrying out standard renovation. Trying to navigate all this can be a dizzying merry-go-round ride for homeowners. One of the measures included in the LIFE heritageHOME programme is the launch of a new consultancy service for homeowners, which will advise people living in heritage homes on their journey towards making their home more energy efficient, from setting goals to mapping out both construction and financial options, to managing the administrative tasks that come after renovation work.

A fresh look for heritage homes

Renovating heritage homes to make them more energy-efficient cannot be achieved through standardised solutions - each building needs a combination of suitable solutions that provide energy savings and improve the usability of the living spaces without damaging cultural heritage. Figuratively speaking, while most buildings can be made warmer with a one-size-fits-all insulating coat, heritage homes are better suited for a tailored suit that delicately follow the wearer’s shape and express their personality. Given that a figurative suit can hardly provide sufficient insulation in our climate, it makes sense to invest in proper base layers (i.e. insulating inserted ceilings, filling the gaps between logs, repairing windows), a warm hat (traducing heat loss through the roof) and to make sure that the boots are waterproof (repairing the foundation and plinth).

To avoid having to come up with a new tailor-made 'suit' for every heritage home, and to reduce the time and money involved, the LIFE heritageHOME programme will create a catalogue of technical solutions suitable for historic buildings. We must improve the quality and availability of energy efficiency services (energy audits, energy labelling, calculation of energy savings from designed solutions) to give homeowners a better understanding of how the new 'suit' will serve them - in other words, the expected energy savings. This means that we need more experts who are familiar with the structural characteristics of historic buildings and who are prepared to deal with buildings that require tailored solutions in addition to cookie-cutter apartment blocks and standard renovation solutions. Training programmes for experts already working in the field and curriculum upgrades for future practitioners are therefore an important part of the heritage homes programme.

'Giddy up, horsey!'

For the preservation of built heritage, it is important to not leave heritage homes in the role of spectators during the renovation marathon. Of course, they cannot be allowed to blindly follow the masses and sacrifice their personalities and cultural values for the best energy efficiency class. But they also do not benefit from sitting idly by the roadside and arguing that buildings with cultural value do not and indeed cannot make the journey at all. A wise man takes their time, but it would be short-sighted of us not to take significant steps to improve the standard of living in historic homes. That is the key to ensuring that they remain in use and are preserved.

Perhaps an old house is the dark horse that will ultimately carry us beyond the green transition. When we look at the carbon footprint of buildings over their entire lifetime, historic buildings already benefit from old age, which will be further increased by ensuring their extended preservation and optimising their energy use. Heritage conservation helps to ensure that the investments made in a building today make sense in the long term, because while the moral or functional obsolescence of other buildings may lead to their demolition, we preserve buildings with cultural value even when the context changes. Just like a sturdy horse, a well-built house will serve its owner for a long time if it is properly cared for and not worn down by shoddy work practices and overwhelming tasks.

Kadri Kallast
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