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Our Heating Bills; going through the roof? Or JUST….reaching the ceiling?

We [ whether here in Scotland or throughout the UK] have some of the oldest and coldest houses in Europe . We can see that in the heat leakage data that is published – for example

As will see, Belgium and Denmark are close on our heels for property age , but whilst we and Belgium also top the ‘heat leakage’ charts , Denmark is grouped far closer on leakage to its Scandinavian neighbours.

We need to do something , as domestic heating accounts for some 15-20 % of carbon emissions in the UK ; we also definitely need  to make the lives of citizens more comfortable and protect health and well-being, particularly for lower income households  .

There are a number of problems involved if we are to make an impact  upon this heating /heat loss phenomenon , none of them insuperable, but some requiring  a big shift in public attitudes. Other aspects of this require us to  review some long established  – and widely supported regulatory practice in conservation.

The first issue is how easily – or not so easily –buildings can be better insulated . A major retro-fitting scheme is no longer able to rely on the quite easily done ‘draft proofing ‘ of doors and windows that was a popular Manpower Services /Job Creation Programme of the 1980s.

We have to think more about cavity wall insulation for some homes which in past decades was sometimes installed poorly; along with heat pumps,  and perhaps  the re-piping and new radiators that they may require. External cladding for some buildings is more problematic , and  all are skilled installation projects that can tot up to a fairly substantial cost. Solar energy requires the house to have the right orientation to all year sun [ and probably better domestic storage technology than is generally on offer at present ].

One press report [ £ Sunday Times 15 January, ‘The Ultimate Guide to Insulation’] on retrofitting a 3 bedroom house very thoroughly   was invoiced in at almost £60,000. That’s a substantial amount of money, although with much improved comfort, reduced costs and a positive environmental impact .   Such work can be done, as Dylan Ryan of Heriot Watt describes in The Scotsman of 20th January .  

Sadly , energy conservation also probably doesn’t yet have the buyer appeal that would elevate it over fancy lighting, a glossy kitchen and 3 or 4  bathrooms . It’s worth scanning the  expensive houses in the quality paper property supplements. Almost every week you will see  £1 or £2M homes that have been really zizzed up. Look at the photographs and then the detail  to check what the EPC rating is after the expensive refurb: C appears rarely , D is far more common , one recent paper had a converted Borders farm house with an EPC of F with oil fired heating and wood burning stoves . It also seems that retro fitting and re-purposing old buildings may not always be easy or cheap.

This is not just because of their mode of construction and the materials used but also because their built form is often protected by regulations that often seem inflexible –  regulations introduced over past decades as housing modernisation & conversion erratically developed . A recent article in the Edinburgh papers described the circumstances of a home owner required to remove UPVC windows installed in a Marchmont tenement . ‘Scottish Government backs council in windows row’.

Such a conservation based set of requirements  has a lot to recommend it , particularly when you see some of the truly dreadful windows installed in some houses . You can see some truly poor design , even in some conservation areas.

Such regulation does however make improving house energy usage and costs,   and the reduction of heat leakage potentially more difficult . Professor Thiemo Fetzer of Warwick has just published research on this reported by John Burn Murdoch [@jburnmurdoch] in the FT of 10th February .

The research shows where properties studied can be reasonably well matched for comparison , those inside conservation areas have greater energy consumption and greater CO2 omissions than similar properties outside the conservation areas.

And there’s another factor , overlooked by most organisations and certainly by most people who discuss the topic and write advice on home energy retrofitting . It’s also clearly overlooked [ or more likely not mentioned ] by developers converting old schools, churches , and hospitals to residential use , with rooms that have spectacular views through huge original windows  [none of your UPV windows  of course ] along with  equally spectacular high ceilings, often with attractive original features.

To test out this really tricky heating  versus conservation problem you’ll need a [very ] basic knowledge of physics and an extendable tape measure .

First, check how tall you are – let’s say 170cm .

If you  live in a typical better quality Victorian tenement in any of the bigger cities and many of the Scottish towns that developed in the Victorian /Edwardian  era, use your measure and check  the height floor to ceiling . It’s probably between 2.75 and 3.00 metres. In many such properties there will be a nice cornice running round the room , perhaps with an elaborate ceiling rose .

Now think  back to recall your O grade or  Standard Grade Physics, even your Secondary 1 or 2 Science .

Heat rises, yes?  There is no argument on that.

So how much of your/our heating bills is actually devoted to keeping the top half of your room really toasty? Of course , at  the same time  it is somewhat cooler down where most of us sit .

So…next time you lean back in your chair and gaze up at that nice cornice and ceiling rose , think how much warmer it is than you are just above floor level.

… And think about what we might do about that.

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