Notts Goes Green: Challenges and Opportunities For Heritage Buildings

Words: Becky Valentine
Photos: Curtis Powell
Wednesday 09 February 2022
reading time: min, words

Nottingham City Council's Carbon Neutral 2028 plan has spurred many local businesses toward going eco-friendly, but what does that mean for our heritage buildings such as those in the historic Lace Market? Becky Valentine, Co-Owner and sustainability lead at property management company Spenbeck takes a deep dive into the issues


When we take the time to look up from our mobile devices as we walk around our beautiful city, we see Nottingham is blessed with architectural works of art from such Victorian masters as TC Hine, and Watson Fothergill, building on the beauty of its Georgian parades. Yet, there is no question that Nottingham’s skyline is changing. On the outskirts of its central hub, Nottingham is increasingly playing host to brand new buildings, sparkling in their shiny promises of environmental sustainability that is an essential requirement of their new, mostly-student, inhabitants.

In the rush to advertise their use of green roofs (reduced energy use and increased insulation), blue roofs (rainwater retention), air and ground source heat pumps and solar panels, those celebrating their arrival conveniently forget that these new builds will forever remain less environmentally sustainable over the course of their lifetime than their existing counterparts. This is thanks to the presence of ‘embodied carbon’. A technical term which deserves a feature all of its own, it essentially means all the greenhouse gases resulting from the whole life of a building, from construction to possible demolition. In 2019, the Architect’s Journal launched its ‘Retrofirst’ campaign, where it proudly proclaimed that, “the greenest building is one that already exists”. And there’s the rub. In the rush to reach net zero, carbon neutrality and everything in between, what are we actually measuring and (far more importantly for an historic city such as ours) how will we deal with the significant challenges in meeting these targets required of our architectural heritage?

In October, the government published its Heat and Buildings Strategy. It stated that “…non-domestic buildings need to reach EPC (energy performance certificate) band B by 2030, where cost-effective”. This is all well and good, but when you consider that 69% of Nottingham’s c.8,000 such buildings have a rating below band C, the challenge become clear. Heritage is not a barrier to reaching these requirements. However, given that the implementation of required technologies and infrastructure in listed buildings will take longer and likely require significant investment, the magnitude of the issue for the heritage sector and councils pledging carbon neutrality urgently needs addressing.

The Government has confirmed it will set out the details of any policy exemptions, “in the coming months”, but the clock is ticking

While there are no explicit exemptions for listed buildings at present, the key phrase where cost effective provides something of a financial lifeline in the ever-spiralling costs of retro-fitting.  Currently, the seven-year payback test is used to determine cost effectiveness – improvements should be recouped within seven years from the savings in subsequent energy bills. As of yet there is no mention of possible funding pots and if the recent Green Homes Grant scheme is anything to go by, owners of historic buildings could be forgiven for thinking that any access to retrofit funding will be neither a simple nor sufficient process.

At the last count, Nottingham had approximately 50,000 buildings built before 1919, with 801 of these being listed. In real terms this means that these buildings are of such important historical interest that building works are restricted and need to be agreed by the Council’s planning department. Building new, energy-efficient accommodation and offices will get Nottingham city only so-far in meeting its target of becoming carbon neutral by 2028. The real challenge comes with how best to sympathetically ensure Nottingham’s older buildings, and in particular those listed, become sufficiently energy efficient to get it over the line.

In 2015, Nottingham City Council published its Heritage Strategy. Stated as its fifteen-year vision for the city’s historic environment, within its three aims of Understand, Capitalise and Celebrate, there is no mention of the impact on climate change and the specific nuances that historic buildings will require to help meet its carbon neutral target. Nor is environmental sustainability referenced in any of the stated outcomes and key actions. While the proposed Heritage Panel has been formed, delivering widespread regeneration improvements through the co-creation of Heritage Action Zones with Historic England, the promised annual reviews updating NCC’s Heritage Strategy performance against its objectives have not been published since 2017.


The pledged Heritage Partnership, envisioned to provide expert support and advice through forums, delivered a few events to select stakeholders. However, since the departure of the council’s Heritage Strategy Officer last year, there is a lack of specialist knowledge and guidance essential to support Nottingham’s listed and heritage building owners in their quest to sympathetically improve energy efficiency and the Partnership has been paused. That such a crucial job role in the drive to reach carbon neutrality in Nottingham’s heritage sector is not being replaced questions the importance of this as a City Council priority.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Historic England is providing case studies identifying best practise in infrastructure retrofitting to guide and support the sector. While acknowledging the complexities involved in meeting EPC targets, they are at the forefront of evidencing appropriate technologies through wide-ranging research. A key tool in the Government’s domestic armoury, air source heat pumps are emerging as best practise for heritage buildings too.

While construction appears to remain resolutely focused on energy-intensive new builds, voices are getting louder in insisting that retrofitting, and with it a focus on historic buildings, is given equal consideration in achieving net zero. Through the RetroFirst campaign, the Architects’ Journal makes three demands, including cutting VAT on retrofitting and repurposing rather than building new. This is supported by The Developer magazine, which recently highlighted the fallacy of charging 20% tax to mend a roof while allowing developers to demolish or build on a green field site and pay nothing. It made clear that paying 5% VAT across the board is advocated by just about every heritage body and urban planning academic and would make the retrofitting of historic buildings far more viable.

While construction appears to remain resolutely focused on energy-intensive new builds, voices are getting louder in insisting that retrofitting, and with it a focus on historic buildings, is given equal consideration in achieving net zero

Yet not everyone in the heritage sector is in complete agreement. In response to COP26, the non-affiliated group Heritage Declares raised its head above the parapet and included in its manifesto the need to put sustainability ahead of heritage, though it did use the caveat "where justified". Historic England takes a different view, believing firmly that sustainability and heritage have a symbiotic relationship in support of each other rather than mutually exclusive.

There is no doubt that this debate will rage on over the next eight years. For both the owners of Nottingham’s heritage buildings and the City Council, meeting the Carbon Neutral 2028 pledge and the Government’s EPC band B rating is going to be a steep hill to climb, especially when you consider the widespread acknowledgment that the EPCs are an unsuitable measurement tool for buildings pre-1965. The Government has confirmed it will set out the details of any policy exemptions, in the coming months, but the clock is ticking. If the last two years has taught us anything it is that time flies. Historic buildings will need every day of the next eight years to make the required energy efficiency improvements and as much financial support and knowledge sharing as possible along the way.

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