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On the sustainability and thermal upgrade of listed buildings

View of rooftops Islington brick buildings representing the London building stock most of us live in a historic building

England, a nation of historic buildings

If you live in London, the chances are you have lived in a historic building at some point. Specifically, Historic England’s 2020 report confirmed we live in a country with one of the world’s highest numbers of historic buildings. Wouldn’t it be better to demolish all these old buildings and build new sustainable ones? How could we then reduce our carbon emissions if we are boosting our heating in leaky old buildings?

View from the interior of a listed building

The countless benefits of historic buildings

The use and maintenance of historic buildings can bring multiple benefits. In the first place, extending the lifespan of a building means you don’t need to spend energy on demolition and new construction. Secondly, there are the aesthetic benefits—the opportunity to enjoy architecture done differently from today. And in the case of listed buildings, there is the added perk of their historic, architectural special interest.

Besides, historic buildings also have cultural benefits. They contribute to the image of our cities, a character that can promote tourism and creates the local identity. Therefore, they offer a source of education and can add an economic interest. Reusing buildings versus abandonment and demolition can help revitalise areas and keep crafts alive.

This is particularly relevant in the case of listed buildings. Listed buildings have been selected for protection for the benefit of future generations. But a balance must be found between their preservation and their environmental impact. Saving Medieval, Georgian, Victorian or even Modern buildings for the future cannot be at all costs.

Historic buildings, and particularly listed buildings, can bring cultural, economic and well-being benefits.

But listed buildings can't be changed!

There’s signs of a shift, as shown by the Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council. They implemented a Local Listed Building Consent Order (a planning tool) that allows most of their Grade II and Grade II* listed buildings to install solar panels without a listed building consent. And it is now considering something similar for secondary and double glazing.

Upgrading a Grade I listed buildings to meet today’s standards would risk the loss of significance and character. The need for substantial change would be incompatible with a significance of national importance. But opportunities shouldn’t be missed for improvement on curtilage buildings or the maintenance of the fabric of the building to minimise the use of energy and resources.

Battersea Power Station is a grade II* listed building

Battersea Power Station shows how positive change is possible for Grade II* listed buildings.

The case for Grade II* listed is slightly different, some might be too restrictive to adapt retrofit measures, but others might allow for a few improvements. As with all listed buildings, bespoke research and study will be required to assess the best solution for each case.

Grade II listed buildings, which outweigh Grade I by 87.5%, are a whole new world. Although the philosophy of a bespoke solution still applies to them, their level of significance allows for greater adaptability to thermal improvements and other measures to improve their energy efficiency. Therefore, making, as a result, a positive impact on the nation’s carbon footprint.

Map showing all listed buildings in Bath, Somerset
Source: Bath & North East Somerset Council
Map showing location of Grade 1 listed buildings in Bath
Grade I listed buildings in the area of Bath
Grade II listed buildings in the area of Bath

For example, even in the area of Bath, which is known for its Grade I listed buildings, Grade II listed buildings outnumber those of national interest.


Historic buildings, and specially listed buildings, translate into social and psychological virtues. They can become landmarks that help our sense of orientation and create a sense of belonging and pride. Ultimately, unlike a building’s carbon footprint, the benefits of listed buildings can’t be easily measured.

But retrofitting our building stock is more relevant than ever. Campaigns like RetroFirst by the Architecture Journal or the Government’s Green Homes Grant highlight the need to promote the reuse of historic buildings and improve their performance. It is apparent demolition is no longer a sensible option. Where possible, we must upgrade our buildings to perform at their best.

Retrofitting offers the possibility to improve the performance of our historic buildings to save energy while keeping our standards of comfort. Independently of the path you chose for retrofitting (LEED-EB, AECB or Enerphit), it is crucial to balance improvements and impact. All alterations should try to enhance, when possible, the significance and character of the listed building.

In conclusion, this is the time for action. Be aware of the relevance of our historic buildings, and make sure you use the right tools to upgrade your listed building. Intervention in historic buildings requires special skills. So, make use of specialist advice when developing your retrofit proposal.