I thank the Chairman and members for the invitation. I am a senior lecturer in conservation of cultural heritage at the University of Lincoln in the UK and a senior research consultant with Carrig Conservation International Limited in Ireland. My research focuses on both understanding and responding to the impacts of climate change from a heritage conservation perspective. My colleague, Dr. Caroline Engel Purcell, is the head of research and energy at Carrig Conservation International and her work focuses on climate change mitigation in the historical built environment. Our statement will focus on how the adaptation of built heritage and the inclusion of heritage in wider policies and planning can contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. We will also point out some of the challenges facing the sector in fully realising this potential.
While the cultural heritage sector has in the past primarily been focused on managing monuments and landscapes, it is increasingly turning its attention to the question of sustainability and climate action. In 2019, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, ICOMOS, international working group on climate change published The Future of our Pasts. The 2021 European Cultural Heritage Green Paper builds on this with recommendations for both heritage operators and policymakers.
Cultural resources such as built heritage provide societies with meaningful links to their urban, rural, and natural surroundings and help communicate the impacts of climate change and localise climate action. The consideration of culture therefore has the potential to orient different social practices, such as individual behaviour, and to develop place-based solutions that legitimise climate policies. In the Heritage in Climate Planning, HiCLIP, research project we analysed climate action plans from nine different countries and identified 17 thematic activities where culture had a strategic role, including waste reduction, energy efficiency and planning methodologies. However, despite the acknowledgment of cultural resources in visions for sustainable climate action, specific targets were found to be lacking. This identifies a need for more explicit inclusion of cultural heritage and the parallel identification of relevant stakeholders who can ensure the implementation of actions.
In Ireland’s Climate Change Sectoral Adaptation Plan for Built & Archaeological Heritage 2019, CCSAP, we worked with stakeholders to identify nine priority impacts, one of which is maladaptation, that is, human responses to the changing climate that result in negative, though often unintended, outcomes. One of the main causes of maladaptation for heritage is inappropriate energy retrofit works. This may be due to a lack of awareness of the heritage significance, a lack of technical understanding, or both. While the current emphasis on energy retrofitting is important, the integrity of traditional buildings with cultural heritage value also needs to be respected. The challenge, therefore, is to formulate individual building retrofit strategies that create a balance between the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the preservation of cultural heritage. The specific physical properties and existing thermal performance of traditional buildings must be considered as part of the retrofit strategy. The risks of applying insulation materials and methods designed for use on modern construction to traditional structures include damage both to the building fabric and to the health of the occupants.
The sectoral adaptation plan suggested several research and capacity-building actions which are relevant to the current discussion. These include establishing and demonstrating green ways of working within historic buildings, preparing case studies that demonstrate good practice in energy efficiency and climate resiliency, providing training to fill identified skills shortages and gaps in capacity and the creation of a green heritage or green communities award for sustainable reuse and energy saving within historic buildings and towns.
In 2019, Carrig was commissioned by Historic England to compare the whole-life carbon of retrofit versus new construction meeting the current building regulations and nearly-zero energy building, NZEB, standards. This study found it would take approximately 60 years for a new NZEB to recoup the embodied carbon spent in construction. In other words, the greenest building is the one that is already built. According to the 2016 census,16% of all private homes in Ireland were constructed prior to 1945. A large majority of these buildings were, therefore, likely built using traditional materials and methods. Often, the most appropriate insulation for traditional buildings is of a natural type, such as wood fibre, hemp and so on. However, their use is limited by confusion around Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, grant qualification stipulations, a lack of requirement to account for embodied carbon in the construction industry, and cost. It may be years before we truly understand the impact of retrofitting works being undertaken today.
Hygrothermal analysis and pre- and post-retrofit monitoring are essential to reduce maladaptation. However, their importance is not yet widely understood by the construction industry. We would like to see specific grants introduced to cover the costs of hygrothermal modelling and monitoring on retrofits of traditional buildings. This could come with a requirement for anonymised case studies to be made publicly available. In our experience, private homeowners often do not have the resources to commission such works and this is, in our view, the quickest way to start building up a national resource of actual retrofit case studies. The tools, knowledge and skills required to drive the sustainable adaptation of historic buildings are held by small cohort of building professionals within Ireland and support is required to enable broader knowledge dissemination and the upskilling of specifiers and installers.
Our cultural heritage is a resource that holds many lessons in the context of sustainable, low-energy ways of living. In addition, through its capacity for adaptive reuse, the historic built environment can make a significant contribution to a low-carbon society through compatible, energy-efficiency upgrades and the revitalisation of our historic town and city centres, both of which will lower dependency on fossil fuels. This transformation needs to be based on a sound understanding of heritage values and traditional building physics. It requires research and the development of place-based approaches. It also has great potential for engaging communities in bottom-up climate action.
Professional heritage conservation is centred around the concept of managed change using a negotiated, values-based approach. Increased integration of the sector into wider climate strategies would, therefore, be an advantage as Ireland strives to undertake transformational social change in a short period of time.