How to improve the energy efficiency of listed buildings and conservation area homes
Improving the energy efficiency of a listed building or a home within a conservation area could be more complex but it’s not impossible.
If you live in a listed building or within a conservation area, you may be limited in terms of what energy efficiency measures you can make to your home. This can make it challenging and expensive to make your home more comfortable and affordable to live in.
But before you give up hope or consider moving to a new home, read on. Because there may be certain options available to you that you weren’t aware of or hadn’t previously considered.
In this article, we cover:
- What are listed buildings?
- What are conservation areas?
- Is my property listed?
- Is my home in a conservation area?
- What’s an EPC?
- Do you need an EPC on listed buildings?
- Can you have solar panels on listed buildings?
- Can you have solar panels in conservation areas?
- Can you insulate a listed building?
- Can you insulate a home in a conservation area?
- Can you get insulation grants?
- Support for retrofitting historic buildings
- How to make an old home more energy efficient
Understanding listed buildings and conservation areas
What are listed buildings?
Listed buildings are specially designated properties that are of architectural or historic significance.
Listed buildings are protected by law to preserve their unique character and prevent any changes that might harm their historical, architectural or cultural value. There are three main categories of listed buildings in England and Wales:
- Grade I: These are buildings of exceptional interest and importance, making up around 2.5% of all listed buildings in the UK.
- Grade II: These are particularly significant structures with outstanding architectural or historic interest, accounting for approximately 5.5% of listed buildings.
- Grade II: These make up the majority (about 92%) of listed buildings and are of special interest, warranting preservation efforts.
For example, over 2,500 buildings in Cheltenham, England have listed status, mainly because they’re great examples of early-1800s Regency-style architecture. It’s estimated that there are around 500,000 listed buildings in England.1
Scotland uses a different system of labelling listed buildings:
- Category A: Buildings of national or international importance.
- Category B: Buildings of regional importance.
- Category C: Buildings of local importance.
Scotland is home to around 47,000 listed buildings.2
If you own or live in a listed building, you’ll need to seek consent from your local planning authority (search the England and Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland directories) before making any alterations or repairs that could impact the building's special character.
This might include:
- Changing windows and doors
- Altering the internal structure (doesn’t usually apply in Scotland)
Understanding the restrictions and following the proper procedures helps preserve the UK's architectural heritage for future generations.
What are conservation areas?
A conservation area is a designated area that holds special architectural or historic interest. It’s different from listed building protection because it covers an area rather than a building, and doesn’t usually impact the inside of a home.
The purpose of conservation areas is to protect and enhance the character and appearance of these places for the enjoyment of current and future generations. These areas often include groups of buildings, historic town centres, villages and other landscapes that have a distinct and valuable character worth preserving.
For example, the largest conservation area in the UK is Swaledale, Yorkshire Dales National Park. The area protects the identity of dozens of small towns and villages situated within it.
Within a conservation area, certain restrictions and planning controls apply to ensure that any changes made to buildings or landscapes maintain the area's unique qualities.
If you live in a conservation area, you might need to seek permission before:
- altering the exterior of your home
- removing trees
- demolishing any structures
By enforcing these rules, local planning authorities aim to preserve the visual harmony and historic significance of conservation areas across the UK.
The government’s Planning Portal has more information about conservation area rules in England and Wales.
Is my property listed?
Finding out if your home’s a listed building is simple and can be done online.
- England: Visit the Historic England website.
- Scotland: Visit the Historic Environment Scotland website.
- Wales: Visit the Cawd website.
- Northern Ireland: Visit the Department for Communities website.
Is my home in a conservation area?
Finding out if your home’s in a conservation area is nearly as simple as finding a listed building, but you’ll have to do some extra legwork.
Instead of searching a national database, you’ll need to visit your local council’s website. The quickest way to do this is to use a search engine like Google and search for ‘Conservation areas in [your location]'. For example, ‘Conservation areas in Edinburgh’.
Your local council should have a list of areas with an accompanying map so you can quickly see whether your home sits within a conservation area boundary.
Energy performance certificates (EPCs) for listed buildings
What is an EPC?
An energy performance certificate (EPC) is a document showing a home’s energy use and possible savings if it were made more energy efficient. It grades the home’s current and potential energy efficiency on a scale from A (best) to G (worst). An EPC is usually needed when a home is sold or let.
Do you need an EPC on listed buildings?
If you own a listed building, you may not need an EPC to sell or rent it out. However, the rules are a little unclear.
The law states that you need to have an EPC to sell or let a home. But there are exemptions, including for listed buildings where “compliance with certain minimum energy performance requirements would unacceptably alter their character or appearance.”5
In this case, “minimum energy performance requirements” refers to the energy efficiency standards outlined in the UK's building regulations. This includes insulation, heating systems, lighting and other energy-related aspects of a building.
The problem is, you’d need to have an EPC to know whether its suggested improvements would “unacceptably alter their character or appearance”. For example, if it suggested improving your home’s lighting, you could likely do that without issue. But if it suggested fitting double-glazed windows, you probably wouldn’t have to comply since it would likely alter the building’s character or appearance. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation.
So, listed buildings may be exempt from the requirement to have an EPC, but this isn’t always the case. It’s therefore important to check the specific rules and requirements for your property with a Local Authority Conservation Officer, a solicitor or perhaps an estate agent.
Installing solar panels on listed buildings and in conservation areas
Can you have solar panels on listed buildings?
Installing solar panels on listed buildings can be more complex than on non-listed buildings due to their special architectural or historical interest. But it’s not impossible.
To install solar panels on a listed building, you’ll need to get Listed Building Consent from your local planning authority, as the installation may be considered an alteration to the building's character or appearance.
When assessing your application for Listed Building Consent, the local planning authority will consider factors such as:
- The visual impact of the solar panels on the building's character and appearance.
- The potential damage or alteration to the historic fabric of the building during installation.
- The reversibility of the installation (i.e. whether it can be removed without causing permanent damage to the building).
- The contribution of the solar panels to the building's sustainability and energy efficiency.
You’ll want to consider speaking with your Local Authority Conservation Officer, an accredited renewable energy installer or an architect with experience in working with listed buildings before applying for Listed Building Consent. They can help you understand the requirements and restrictions, and work with you to develop a proposal that respects the building's historic character while improving its energy efficiency.
Can you have solar panels in a conservation area?
Installing solar panels in conservation areas is often allowed, but you may be subject to stricter planning controls compared to installations outside of conservation areas.
Conservation areas are designated as areas of special architectural or historic interest, and the appearance of these areas is carefully managed to preserve their character.
If you want to have solar panels in a conservation area, you should consider the following:
- In some cases, you may need planning permission for solar panel installation in a conservation area.
- The visual impact of the solar panels on the conservation area will be considered by planning authorities who will assess whether the solar panels would preserve or enhance the character and appearance of the area.
- Roof-mounted solar panels are more likely to be permitted in conservation areas if they’re not visible from the street or public areas, and if they don’t detract from the character of the building or the area.
- Ground-mounted solar panels may be more challenging to gain approval for, as they often have a more significant visual impact on the surrounding area.
You’ll want to consider speaking with your local planning authority and potentially seek professional advice from a renewable energy installer before proceeding with a solar panel installation.
Insulating listed buildings and homes in conservation areas
Can you insulate a listed building?
Yes, insulating listed buildings is often possible. But your options may be more limited than insulating a non-listed building.
As we’ve explained, any changes you make to your listed building must preserve the building's special architectural or historical character. So you’ll need to consider the impact of installing certain types of insulation.
- Loft insulation is likely to be fine as you should be able to access the loft and insulate it with non-permanent materials.
- Floor insulation will depend on the type of flooring you have. Suspended flooring should be fine if you can access the cavity easily. But solid flooring may be more difficult, since fitting insulation may require impacting the internal structure of the building.
- Wall insulation will depend on the approach. Internal wall insulation, where a frame or plasterboards are attached to the internal wall, is likely to be fine. But external wall insulation is unlikely to meet listed building requirements.
There are other ways to improve insulation that are usually fine, such as adding removable insulation strips around windows and doors, and installing secondary glazing.
To be sure, consider speaking with a conservation architect, building surveyor or insulation specialist with experience in listed buildings before deciding on the insulation material or method.
Can you insulate a home in a conservation area?
Yes, you can insulate a home in a conservation area. But there may be stricter planning controls in place to ensure that it doesn’t negatively impact the area's special architectural or historic character.
You may need to seek planning permission if you plan on installing external wall insulation since this would impact the character of the building.
To be sure, consider speaking with a conservation architect, building surveyor or insulation specialist before deciding on external wall insulation.
Can you get insulation grants for listed buildings?
Depending on your circumstances, you may be able to get a grant to help fund the cost of improving the energy efficiency of a listed building.
Read our home energy efficiency grant guide for more details.
Support for retrofitting historic buildings
Historic buildings are a valuable part of the UK’s heritage. But they’re not the easiest of properties to make more energy efficient, since preservation requirements limit the type of modifications that can be made to them. This can make retrofitting historic buildings such as listed buildings and those in conservation areas more expensive than many other homes.
While nearly half of non-historic buildings in England have an EPC rating of C or better (up from 14% in 2010), historic buildings still lag far behind.6 And with estimates of half a million listed buildings in England alone,7 there’s plenty of untapped potential to reduce energy bills and carbon emissions.
As a result, on 3 January 2024, the UK Government announced a significant initiative to improve the energy efficiency of historic homes while preserving their unique historical features.
The initiative proposes the following commitments:
- Policy changes to simplify planning consent, including a standardised approach across the UK.
- Streamlining Listed Building Consent Orders, reducing the need for individual applications and speeding up the retrofitting process.
- Developing clearer guidelines for owners of historic buildings to identify potential energy efficiency improvements.
- Reforming Energy Performance Certificates to make them more accurate and reliable for historic buildings.
Additionally, the government plans to address the skill shortage in the planning and construction sectors by providing training programmes and resources. This should speed up the pace at which historic buildings can be upgraded.
Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, supported the initiative. He said, “Historic buildings can and must accommodate change if they are to play a crucial role in helping the UK to transition to Net Zero.”
The government hasn’t provided timelines as to when any of these initiatives will come into play. You can read the government’s full report here.
How to make an old home more energy efficient
If you live in an older or traditional building, there’s a higher chance that it may be a listed building or within a conservation area.
We’ve listed some of the ways you can improve your home’s energy efficiency, below. But if you’re looking for more locally-tailored advice, you can find more information on the Historic England (England), Historic Environment Scotland (Scotland) and Cadw (Wales) websites.
You can consider improving its energy efficiency by following these tips:
- Insulation: Proper insulation is crucial for improving the energy efficiency of an older home. Loft, floor and internal wall insulation are suitable options for older homes since these are less likely to alter the home’s special architectural or historic fabric.
- Draught-proofing: Older homes often have gaps around windows, doors and floorboards. There are plenty of professional and DIY approaches that can reduce drafts and heat loss without damaging the building's fabric.
- Secondary glazing: Installing secondary glazing could improve insulation and reduce heat loss without altering the appearance of the original windows.
- Upgraded heating system: If your home has an old or inefficient heating system, consider upgrading it to a modern, energy-efficient alternative such as a condensing boiler or biomass boiler. You could also consider installing thermostatic radiator valves (TRVs) and a smart thermostat to better control the temperature in your home.
- Hot water system: Insulate hot water pipes and tanks to reduce heat loss, and consider installing a more efficient hot water system if the existing one is outdated.
- Energy-efficient lighting: Consider replacing traditional incandescent bulbs with energy-efficient LED or CFL bulbs, which consume less energy and have a longer lifespan.
- Solar panels: If your home is suitable and you’re able to get Listed Building Consent from your local planning authority, consider installing solar panels to generate renewable energy and reduce your reliance on fossil fuels.
- Ventilation: Make sure there’s adequate ventilation to avoid dampness and condensation issues, especially if you install insulation or draught-proofing measures.
- Behaviour changes: Adopt energy-saving habits, such as turning off lights when not in use, using energy-efficient appliances and setting your thermostat to a lower temperature during winter months.
- Professional advice: Consult with a conservation architect, building surveyor or energy efficiency expert to assess your property and provide tailored advice on the best ways to improve its energy efficiency while preserving its historic character.
To find out the type of energy efficiency measures are best for you, and to discover which grants and payment options you’re eligible for, get your free energy improvement plan from Snugg.
Get your free personalised home energy efficiency plan
Get a free personalised plan to help reduce your energy bills and prepare for a greener future.