Despite the rising number of new builds – nearly 23,000 were completed in 2022 alone – there are still around 450,000 traditionally constructed homes in Scotland, representing around 19% of existing houses.

The phrase “traditionally constructed” refers to those houses built using construction methods common pre-1919. There’s a common belief that it’s difficult to improve their thermal performance, but that’s not necessarily the case.

Traditional methods of construction, such as suspended timber floors, solid stone and brick walls, and slate roofs, are durable and long lasting. Masonry walls of this type often allow moisture to enter and escape in a dynamic known as “breathability”.

Of course, these homes were built in a different time, and our environment and personal needs have evolved since then. For example, we like a greater level of thermal comfort now than in the past. Traditional buildings are adaptable and have seen many changes over their century or more of use.

It is important to consider the elements which maintain the historic significance of these buildings.

It sounds like a lot to consider, but enhancing the energy efficiency of older homes without compromising their historic character is achievable through sensitive retrofitting.

In simple terms, retrofitting refers to installing measures designed to increase a building’s energy efficiency and lower its energy consumption. Many people equate this with technology like solar panels or air source heat pumps. While these measures can be part of improving the overall performance of buildings, it’s also

important to consider the fabric of the building.

These buildings were constructed in ways designed to preserve a balance between moisture movement and ventilation. They considered how the entire structure works together rather than just looking at how specific aspects performed: a true example of the sum being greater than the parts.

For example, while fireplaces, flues and chimneys are increasingly replaced as sources of heat, they are an important part of how traditional buildings work. They are often part of ventilating a building which sees fresh air brought in through vents, traveling through the building and removing concentrations of moisture on its way out.

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Ensuring a building is in good shape and free from defects which can lead to water saturating parts of the structure is the first step in improving thermal performance.

Many older homes also have single-glazed windows, but there are ways to improve the performance of a single-glazed window without resorting to replacing them. For example, shutters, blinds and curtains can have an impact on energy efficiency and align well with a traditional house style. In fact, shutters alone can reduce heat loss by 51%; combined with blinds or curtains that number increases even further. Secondary glazing can also make a significant improvement in thermal performance without losing the original window.

Similarly, doors can play an important role in maintaining the traditional feel of a home. Older doors were made with durable materials, which don’t necessarily need to be replaced to improve energy efficiency; it could be as simple as draughtproofing around the door frame.

Other parts of traditional buildings can be made more thermally efficient including roof spaces and floors. Walls can also be insulated, although this can be disruptive and technically challenging. Historic Environment Scotland have produced guidance on all aspects of retrofit of traditional buildings, freely available on our website.

These thoughtful improvement techniques preserve the character of a home while also lowering energy bills and maintaining more comfortable temperatures year-round.

But these aren’t the only benefits you could see from retrofitting. It can also improve health.

The NHS spends £383million annually on people with illnesses specifically related to cold living conditions, which includes asthma and other respiratory problems and infections from damp and mould. Improving the thermal performance of buildings can help reduce this. It is important to ensure that any improvements take condensation risk and adequate ventilation into account to minimise potential problems of dampness and mould.

There are also many environmental benefits to retrofitting, not least to help the country reach its ambitious net zero climate goals. Afterall, homes are responsible for around 15% of the UK’s carbon emissions.

Retrofitting avoids the carbon emissions that come with demolishing a structure and building a new one. Many modern materials such as steel and cement used in construction today also carry a significant carbon footprint. Maintaining the buildings we already have and improving their performance avoids this.

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If you’re planning on selling your home any time soon, it’s also worth noting that energy efficient and sustainable homes are increasingly attractive to buyers. In July 2023, 40% of homebuyers said a property’s energy performance rating was very important to them, up from 33% in 2021.

Of course, there are costs associated with retrofitting, but there are grants and loans available for those planning to retrofit traditional homes to make them more efficient. Home Energy Scotland and the Energy Saving Trust can provide you with advice and solutions, although it’s worth noting that not all measures are funded.

From crofts to tenements and country houses, traditional structures tell a story about our past and are a significant part of our culture. Consider the granite buildings in Aberdeen, the Georgian homes in Edinburgh, and the Victorian structures in Inverness. Whether listed or not, these housing styles contribute to a distinct sense of place felt by both residents and visitors.

Traditional homes have already been around for more than a century. With proper repair and maintenance, there’s no reason why they can’t last for another hundred years.

Improving their thermal performance to align with our environmental goals is important, but their proven durability, and character make retrofitting traditional homes not just a practical choice, but a celebration of our enduring heritage.

Moses Jenkins is sector skills manager at Historic Environment Scotland