Warm winter: 10 ways to insulate old properties

Modern technology may provide sustainable, cost-effective heat sources, but the best value unit of energy is one that is not lost through the roof, floors, walls and windows. Tim Molding, an eighth-generation builder, suggests ways to keep the old building warm. Illustration by Adam Larcom.

Owners of older homes do not have the same opportunity to achieve thermal efficiency as owners of newer homes. However, there are ways you can conserve much-needed energy, from upgrading insulation and draft-proof windows, to sheepskin insulation and installing a chimney flue. In each case, explore the following options with a building surveyor or architect with experience in historic construction.

1 Insulate but make sure to ventilate

Although historic homes have a poor thermal fabric by modern standards, insulation improvements must be balanced with proper ventilation to avoid condensation and dampness, which ultimately leads to decay. Blocking drafts can cause the building to ‘sweat’, so seek the advice of a building surveyor or architect, if in doubt. It is also worth noting that listed buildings may require approval for thermal improvements.

2 Upgrade roof insulation

This is a relatively straightforward task over a flat roof, where the insulation is simply placed between the roof joists, leaving a cool space on the roof above. Insulation materials include sheep’s wool, mineral wool and glass wool. Insulating over pitched roofs that encroach on roof space can be more complicated, so consult a professional for advice.

3 draft-proof windows

Draft tape can be applied to casement windows. Modern tape solutions are very effective, discreet and ensure smooth operation of the window, making them easy to use. There are more challenges with metal casement windows, such as those inside stone moldings. It is best to focus on ensuring that the windows are properly restored by an expert craftsman, so that the windows fit as closely as possible to reduce drafts. Another option is to install secondary glazing, but this can represent a significant compromise to the appearance of the building and will require consent if the property is listed. If you are lucky enough to have Georgian shutters, renew them as necessary so that they fit well and are closed at night.

4 Use a flue balloon in the fireplace

An open fireplace is like an open exterior door – allowing expensive generated heat to simply disappear up the chimney. Many Victorian fireplaces include a damper, which is a device that can be opened or closed to control airflow into the chimney, so be sure to use it if you have one. If not, installing metal dampers can be complicated, so you may want to consider a modern, easy-to-use chimney balloon instead. They are blown into the chimney to prevent warm air from escaping and cold air from sinking into the chimney.

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5 chimney flue line

Fireplaces are perhaps the best way to heat a historic home, warming the core of the building. However, many old chimney flues are fragmented and defective, making them dangerous, so consider chimney lining. This can be expensive, but may be important for safety reasons.

6 Replace the radiators

Often, a set of heavy curtains are hung in front of the radiator, so that the heat is prevented from reaching the interior of the room. To be more thermally efficient, it is worth considering installing free-standing vertical radiators in front of the curtains in question, so that the heat source is not blocked when the curtains are closed at night.

7 Improving the thermal performance of walls

Lining the inside of exterior walls with insulating panels can significantly improve thermal performance. However, be aware that the panel will add depth to the wall and may encroach on the window exposure. An alternative is to remove the old plaster and replace it with a cork-based insulating lime plaster, such as ecoCORK. Although this will not add depth to the wall, it can be an expensive option.

8 Floor insulation

If you have a wood floor over an unheated basement, make sure the floor is well insulated; As always, consult a building professional for advice on the best product for your property. Insulating an old stone floor over a dirt base may be significantly more time consuming and expensive, but it may be possible. Generally, the process involves lifting stones, numbering each stone so it can be replaced in its original position, before excavating to make room for limestone (a breathable alternative to concrete), an insulating layer and possibly underfloor heating.

9 space area

If there are rooms that are only used occasionally, close them so heat is not lost to empty spaces. If you have a recently built, thermally efficient extension, outdoor studio or garden room, make sure it is an area you spend as much time as possible during the winter months.

10 Keep the temperature between 17°C and 19°C

If you set your thermostat to a relatively low temperature and run the heating continuously throughout the winter, there is an argument that this can be more efficient than setting it to turn on and off at specific times during the day. The theory is that heating builds up in the fabric of the home, creating a thermal mass that stores heat and protects against temperature fluctuations.

Although “continuous heating” is disputed, the indisputable fact is that historic homes were not designed to withstand high temperatures. Some people expect a house to be 22°C, so they can walk around in t-shirts and shorts when it’s -1°C outside, but that means you’re cooking and drying the fabric of the house, including wall panels, doors and lathed and plastered ceilings. And stone walls. My advice is to keep the temperature between 17°C and 19°C, wear an extra jacket and comfortable slippers, and start a fire when it’s very cold outside.


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