21 May 2008

‘Insulation measures should cost less than the savings you expect to gain from them,’ begins the argument in ‘A Guide To The Repair of Historic Windows’ published last year by the Department of the Environment to justify why windows in Protected Structures and Conservation Areas should be repaired rather than replaced with energy efficient – even if they look ‘period’ - alternatives. The Guide is off to a shaky start here – with fuel prices soaring, you can never underestimate the savings insulation will realise.

Anyway, it goes on: ‘Although windows are often the first target for home improvement, insulating water heaters, pipework and attics… should always be considered first as this will usually bring immediate and tangible energy savings….’ (yes, but none of these measures will help keep your big old building warm) ‘…check also that the windows are actually causing heat loss...’ (is there a window which doesn’t?) ‘… windows in old buildings may take up a relatively small percentage of the overall external wall area…’ (or else they may take up a relatively large percentage of external wall – a characteristic of Georgian architecture is just how big those windows really were). 

So, we have a problem. Either all the scientific research carried out into energy efficiency in recent years is incorrect OR the Minister is simply turning a blind eye to the facts when it comes to old buildings. Because, as anyone with a professional background in building construction will tell you, windows are to heat as kids are to a secret – they can’t keep it in. The scientists tell us that between a quarter and half of all heat lost in the average house travels through that glass, a reality which has provided massive scope for improvements in glazing technology in recent years. We are fast moving to a situation where the entry level spec for new homes will begin with a triple glazed unit, with spaces between the glass layers filled with an inert gas insulation and the glass surfaces coated with heat reflecting films. The modern window has advanced so astronomically from its early 19th century crown-glass ancestor, they can hardly be considered the same species.

The heat-leaking-window-you-can-do-nothing-about situation affects thousands of Irish building owners. I don’t know what the exact figure is, but let’s presume that there are roughly 30,000 Protected Structures in the country. And, for argument’s sake let’s say there are a further 30,000 buildings located in Architectural Conservation Areas for which, like their ‘Protected’ cousins, installation of energy efficient windows is out of the question because planning authorities routinely insist that period windows are either repaired or replicated and, often, fitted them with extremely expensive and energy-useless historic glass. To take the argument a step further, if the owners of the 60,000 affected buildings spend a conservatively low €1,000 annually on heating bills, the inaccurate but nevertheless ball-parkish figure of €600,000,000 must be accounted for somewhere in the ledger of the cost of heritage protection.

Now, I know that not too many people would object to burning a little extra Brent crude if it meant avoiding putting triple glazed windows into, say, Newgrange, but the  vast majority of old buildings protected by Irish legislation aren’t of sufficient quality to warrant such pickiness. And for John Gormley, the situation represents An Inconvenient Truth: Protected Structures are the built equivalents of the SUV. Except, unlike the SUV, he can’t tax them off the streets.

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