Net Zero Challenges and Solutions for Heritage Sites - DMA Group
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Navigating the Path to Net Zero

Preserving our rich cultural heritage while striving for a sustainable future presents a unique set of challenges for heritage sites. As the world moves towards achieving net-zero emissions, these treasured landmarks face a delicate balance between environmental responsibility and the preservation of their historical integrity. Heritage buildings were not designed and built with modern technologies and working practices in mind, and reducing the carbon footprint of these sites is a complex challenge.

Why do heritage sites matter?

Heritage sites add to our sense of community and shared history. Not only are they the cornerstones of our community, but businesses can benefit from basing their teams within them. A 2018 survey from Historic England found that 85% of businesses operating in historic buildings expressed satisfaction with their premises and nearly two-thirds felt that working in a historic building enhanced their business. Retaining our historic sites leads to the retention of cultural significance. The most appropriate method to achieve this is by undertaking refurbishment on a minimal intervention basis so that none of the building’s character is lost.

Caring for heritage sites

The biggest contribution that real estate can make towards decarbonisation will come from improving existing buildings, representing 80% of the national estate use by 2050.

As Carl Elefante, former president of the American Institute of Architects, once said: “The greenest building is the one that already exists”. Research in 2019 from Historic England’s The Heritage Counts showed that demolishing a historic building and replacing it with a new building can result in greater carbon emissions by 2050. This is due to the associated embodied carbon. So, we must make use of what is already there.

Heritage buildings hold intrinsic value and importance over and above their carbon capture. Yet they pose unique challenges when it comes to sustainability. Internal alterations generally do not require planning permission, but listed building consent is needed to make changes to certain features such as fireplaces, panelling, decorative architraves, or plasterwork. External work is rigorously regulated and requires consent. Retrofit, refurbishment and conversion all generate embodied carbon emissions. Therefore, the number of materials used, the carbon content of these materials, and how any retrofit is carried out, must be carefully considered upon any project.

Energy Efficiency Retrofitting

One of the primary challenges for heritage sites is the retrofitting of energy-efficient systems within their historical structures. Striking a balance between conservation and modernisation is crucial to maintain the site’s integrity while reducing energy consumption. Innovative solutions such as passive design strategies, insulation upgrades, and advanced heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems tailored for heritage buildings can help achieve significant energy savings without compromising their architectural value.

Balancing Conservation and Restoration

Preserving the historical fabric of heritage sites is essential, but it can conflict with sustainability goals. Striking a delicate balance between conservation and restoration practices that honour the past while incorporating eco-friendly materials and techniques is vital. Adopting sustainable restoration practices, such as using locally sourced materials, implementing green building certifications, and employing traditional craftsmanship, ensures the site’s long-term preservation while reducing its environmental impact.

Integration of Renewable Energy Sources

Integrating renewable energy sources within heritage sites also can pose significant challenges. The installation of solar panels, wind turbines, or other renewable technologies may clash with the visual aesthetics or architectural authenticity of the site. Careful planning and design considerations, such as hidden or blended installations, can help preserve the site’s character while harnessing clean energy. Additionally, exploring off-site renewable energy options or collaborations with nearby renewable energy projects can be viable alternatives for heritage sites.

Visitor Management and Sustainable Tourism

Heritage sites often attract a large number of visitors, leading to increased energy consumption and carbon emissions. Managing visitor flows, transportation, and waste effectively is crucial to reduce the site’s ecological footprint. Implementing sustainable tourism practices, such as promoting public transportation, providing bike-sharing options, encouraging waste reduction and recycling, and offering educational programs on sustainable practices, can contribute to a more sustainable visitor experience.

Funding and Financial Constraints

Implementing sustainable measures within heritage sites often requires significant investment. Limited funding and financial constraints can hinder the implementation of energy-efficient technologies and renewable energy systems. Seeking partnerships with public and private entities, accessing government grants or incentives, and exploring crowdfunding initiatives can help overcome financial barriers and secure the necessary resources for sustainable transformations.

Legislative Framework

The legislative framework in the UK for making changes to heritage and listed sites, both internally and externally, is primarily governed by the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 and the associated regulations. It strikes a delicate balance between preserving the historical value of listed sites and allowing for appropriate adaptations to meet modern needs.

Under the Act, any alterations or extensions to these buildings require consent from the local planning authority, commonly known as Listed Building Consent. This applies to both internal and external changes that could affect the special architectural or historic interest of the building. The legislation aims to protect and preserve the historical significance of listed sites while allowing for necessary adaptations and compatible development.

In addition to the Planning Act, other regulations, such as the Building Regulations and the Town and Country Planning Act, may also apply to building changes. These regulations ensure that any alterations meet safety, accessibility, and sustainability standards. However, it is essential to note that listed buildings have additional considerations, and compliance with building regulations does not substitute the need for Listed Building Consent.

Technology in heritage sites

Cutting carbon emissions and meeting net zero targets must be central to all policies moving forwards, with smart technology, renewables and digitalisation playing a central role. Off-the-shelf computerised systems have worked well in the past to support any form of building maintenance. However, agile forward-thinking organisations are turning to cloud-based platforms which provide real-time transparency, data analytics to proactively manage and predict energy use while identifying savings opportunities. The technology exists for heritage building owners to better understand what’s happening in real-time when it comes to service delivery and their energy consumption.

Looking ahead: The future of our heritage sites

Our heritage is one of our greatest national assets. It must be treasured, from rich architectural traditions to pristine, historic objects. Yet now these sites have another important role to play – a role which will impact generations for decades to come; the race to net zero.

Heritage sites will contribute to our low carbon, green future, but it’s vital to recognise the challenges they face in doing so. We have a responsibility to properly conserve, repair and maintain our historic buildings. By doing so we extend their lifespan, preserve our limited natural resources, and reduce greenhouse emissions.