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Insulating an old terrace house

Updated: Jan 7

I've just bought an edwardian terrace house in east manchester, built in 1909. In many ways it's typical of the old homes in the UK that were built without any kind of nod to insulation or retaining heat. Back when coal fires were the main heat source, the priority was to have lots of ventilation to rid your home of those nasty noxious fumes. Solid brick walls and suspended timber floors with cold air circulating underneath them, are not a recipe for an efficient house so this house leaks heat like a sieve.


Having renovated several houses of my own and having worked on quite a few owned by other people, I'm very aware of the challenges in retrofitting old houses to be cleaner, greener and more efficient.

Looking back at the last house I renovated, I had insulation and airtightness on my radar. I insulated the kitchen and bathroom walls, floors and the loft but didn't put it at the forefront of my plans. I have yet to renovate a house with the primary aim of creating a highly efficient low carbon home that is warm, comfortable and cheap to run.

The plan is to keep the house indefinitely as a rental with the bills included so it's in my interest to make it as efficient as possible as over the long term this will make sense.

With that in mind, I've listed below what I want this project to achieve.

1 - To Refurbish the house with a Fabric First approach

Fabric first means prioritising the thermal efficiency and airtightness in the planning of the work. This means thinking about every surface and every way that the house can conserve heat. I'm going to be ripping out the kitchen, bathroom and all the carpets and flooring, so it makes sense to add insulation as there is relatively little inconvenience, time and cost.

I want to plug and seal as many air gaps as possible and focus the insulation on the areas of the house that lose the most heat.

2 - To refurbish to a realistic budget.

Fabric first doesn't mean spending thousands to achieve the ultimate standard. Any house can be retrofitted to a high standard but this will involve vastly different sums of money depending on the existing structure. I want to show that retrofitting a house to modern standards doesn't have to just be for the well heeled.

The budget for retrofitting is a tricky one to determine. Based on the value of your property it's clear that the higher the value home, the more likely you are to retrofit it. The cheaper housing is most likely to be the poorest performing because the cost of retrofitting a £100k terrace in Manchester is proportionatly much more than a £400k house in London.

We all have a budget and I have to be realistic in how much its worth spending especially on a house that to be frank, isn't worth a great deal. I will be doing the vast majority of the work myself but will need to factor in a labour cost that many in similar position will have to pay for.

For these reasons I will be focussing on the measures that have the biggest impact in performance for the smallest outlay. I will focus on the cost savings in energy usage and given that the property is of lower value, if it makes sense for this house, then it will make more sense for those homes of greater value.

3 - To Achieve a "Modern" standard of performance

I have partnered with build test solutions who have developed a very thorough method of measuring whole house heat loss. This involves taking smart meter data on gas and electricity usage and pairs it with temperature and humidity sensors that will be placed around the house. I have monitored various homes and found the information invaluable.

A leaky home may have a space heating requirement of 200kW per m2 per year. At 72.3m2 this would give a yearly demand of 14,460 kWh. A new build will have a heat loss of around 100kW per m2 which would give a 7,230 kWh usage and at 6.57p per kWh potentially a £475 saving per year. Being able to ditch gas altogether would save a further £100.

4 - To use an "insulate then generate" philosophy

There are may options available to heat your home and I will review low carbon sources as well as more traditional options. The ultimate aim is to reduce our carbon emissions so in an ideal world we all need to ditch our gas/oil boilers. I will do the sums in looking at the alternatives.

5 - To finish to a high standard

A top finish often isn't anything to do with high quality materials, it's just the skills and knowledge in applying them. For me, the finish of a £150,000 house should be just as good as a multi million pound house. Fixtures and fittings are relatively inexpensive so with a bit of attention to detail, I hope to create a quality feel and vibe.

6 - Recycle, repurpose and reuse everything in the house I can. This makes so much sense for the budget and the environment. I'm already familiar with reclamation yards and antique shops where second hand furniture can be great value for money and be as good as new with a bit of TLC. Luckily the previous owners are leaving pieces of furniture so hopefully I can make use of them.

7 - Document and list all the products and methods I have used.

This is a learning process for me where I am trying to fundamentally shift the focus of my refurbishment towards building performance. We all want beautiful homes but by scrutinising and researching every element of the process I hope to create a home that is as efficient and green as it is good to look at and live in.

The insulation and retrofit industry is booming and there will be products out there that I'm not aware of that will have a positive impact so i'll detail and the tip and tricks to improve performance.

This will be a really interesting challenge, I have done all the parts of insulating a home like this but haven't put all those methods into one retrofit. Just what kind of performance can be achieved and can I get close to those new build standards?

Old homes and terraces in particular are often seen as poor quality housing, inferior to houses built today but from my experience, there are poor quality new and old homes.

More than a few tradesmen I've used have blasted the quality of various new builds. Buildings standards may have been set, but they aren't always being met.

The Positives

Part of the beauty of doing a project from start to finish means that I know no corners have been cut, there will be no bodges (not intentional ones anyway) and products will be installed how they were intended.

I'm also going to measure the performance before and after the retrofit work has been completed to get a good idea of actual heat loss and what the real benefits are.

Barring the solid brick, a terrace is actually a very efficient form of housing. Unless you're on the end, you have the 2 longest walls shared with your neighbours which also means there are fewer external walls to lose heat to. I'm just going to insulate the 2 external walls which will minimise costs.

Terraces are affordable, compact (cosy) and really low maintenance with no garden or driveway to tend to. You can still park outside and there is a more of a community feel to the road as long as you get on with your neighbouts that is!

I'm putting progress of the renovation onto social media so if you want, you can see where I'm up to with it.

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