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Old House Eco Handbook: a review

Posted by Cathy Debenham on 16 May 2013 at 11:15 am

Old houses can be green. This is the title of the first chapter of Old House Eco Handbook: a practical guide to retrofitting for energy-efficiency & sustainability by Marianne Suhr & Roger Hunt. It's an encouraging start, as not everyone believes it's possible, and as a result too many people are cold, uncomfortable and paying over the odds to the energy companies.

This guide, which is published in association with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), is both practical and beautiful. It's almost a coffee table book, with lots of lovely pictures which both inspire and educate. It's written in a clear, easy to read and easy to understand style (which will come as no surprise to anyone who follows Roger Hunt's excellent blog).

The early chapters are an introduction to the hows and whys of retrofit, where to get advice, who to trust, the importance of maintenance, planning, building regs, choosing materials, and getting the work done.

It gets really meaty when we get to the chapter on the building envelope. It explains terms you didn't know you needed to know such as k-values, hygroscopic buffering and interstitial condensation, and essentially what you need to know or ask to avoid problems with moisture when you insulate and reduce heat loss.

While you are wiser after reading this chapter, you still don't have a definitive answer about what does and doesn't work. Instead the authors provide a list of questions to ask would be suppliers:

> Do they have experience in advising on breathable structures?

> Are they able to carry out a condensation risk analysis?

> Is the condensation risk analysis based on Glaser or a hygrothermal simulation such as WUFI? Avoid any analysis based on Glaser, as it is unlikely to provide accurate modelling of an old building.

> Are they able to supply a detailed written specification?

> Is it tried and tested in this particular application?

> If it is advertised as a breathable product, what does this mean - has it been quantified?

This isn't ideal, I'd prefer definitive guidance. But it isn't clearcut. The 'experts' don't always agree about some of the issues, as a quick look at the comments under Mark Brinkley's review of the book demonstrates!

There's a useful guide to all the main types of insulation products available with a table summarising what they are suitable for, and a brief description of each.

This is a gem of a book. Each time I dip into it I learn more. I highly recommend that anyone who is considering getting work done on an old house buys a copy (old is relative - there's plenty here that's useful for my 1950s house). It will save you from making expensive mistakes, as well as guiding you towards a better outcome. And, if you're anything like me, you'll get pleasure from reading it too.

We've negotiated a discount for YouGen readers: to order Old House Eco Handbook at the special offer price of £24.00 inc. UK p&p (RRP: £30.00)  please call Bookpoint on 01235 400400 and quote the code 46OHEH.

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