Making Existing Structures More Sustainable

Making Existing Structures More Sustainable

According to the Environmental Agency, houses in the UK are responsible for 30% of the country’s total energy use. Greenhouse gases produced by houses lie at 24%, and the release of carbon dioxide is at 27%.

With this in mind, it is unsurprising that both homeowners and the construction industry are choosing more sustainable methods for construction. However, once a house is built, how can we ensure the maintenance and function of a building are sustainable?

In our blog, we offer some areas of consideration when making existing structures more sustainable, but by no means is it exclusive to this list.

What Do We Mean By Sustainable?

When we refer to sustainability in construction, we are assessing how a building has been created and developed in favour of the environment. This means reducing damage to the environment as much as possible in all stages of its construction and existence.

A sustainable building reduces its consumption of:

• Energy
• Water
• Materials

In doing so, it aims to decrease the overall negative impact the building has on the environment and preserves the above resources for future generations.

A bird’s eye view of houses

Existing Structures

As the demand for environmentally-considerate buildings advances, new builds will often encompass sustainable design features.

However, what about buildings that already exist? Fortunately, there are various sustainable options available when renovating an already existing structure.

How ‘green’ a building is will vary throughout the renovation process. It can include everything from design to construction and most importantly, the efficiency of its operation when in use. The operational stage of a building’s existence is when its environmental impact will be at its most significant.

How a building functions and is maintained should be a vital aspect of any renovation project which aims to reduce its environmental impact.

Areas to Consider

Here at Martin Perry Associates, as structural engineers in Cornwall and Plymouth, we have managed some great projects with sustainability at the forefront of its operations.

We explore the various sustainable options to consider if renovating or updating an existing building, with a focus on:

• Insulation
• Windows
• Efficient energy choices
• Heating
• Reduced water usage
• Sustainable building materials

To discover more, we take a more in-depth look at each one below:


Insulation should be high on the agenda when considering the sustainability of a building. Introducing any sustainable measures is a useless feature to a building if it isn’t effectively insulated and heat can easily escape.

Many new builds will most likely be sufficiently insulated. However, older buildings in the UK may need some work to get them to the correct standards. It is predicted that the walls of a standard home will lose approximately 30 to 40% of heat. The roof is accountable for about 25% of a building’s heat loss.

There is a range of materials to choose from when insulating your home sustainably, including natural materials such as:

• Sheep’s wool
• Flax and hemp
• Cellulose
• Wood fibre

A well-insulated building will help to reduce the amount of energy used for heating and will regulate the temperature of a building throughout the year, including keeping it cool during warmer weather.

Not only is insulation a beneficial building feature for the environment, but effective insulation will be advantageous for your wallet too!

Solar panels on a house


The next feature of a building to review are the windows. Around 20% of heat is lost through windows and doors.

Ideally, single glazed windows should be upgraded to double glazed (and in some cases triple-glazed) replacements.

An additional feature to add to windows to increase their sustainability is low-emissivity glass. Also known as Low-E glass, it is essentially a coating placed on the surface which reflects heat back into the room from the window.


Reviewing where the energy used in a building is sourced from is the next step of consideration in sustainable development. There are many options to consider where fossil fuels are no longer the source for running a home, from solar panels to eco-heating. We take a look at the most recognised example, solar power, below.

Solar Panels

Solar panels are, no doubt the first feature we think of when planning a more eco-friendly home.

They are a long-term investment that will require a substantial fee; most experts predict a 20-year turn around before you break even, location permitted.

However, if you’re serious about environmental sustainability, you will no doubt want to look into the advantages of installing solar panels. The electricity created by solar panels is completely clean, derived from the sun’s radiation. It cannot pollute water, nor does it create greenhouse gasses.


The most sustainable way of heating a building is to take the natural approach, including solar thermal.

Other options to consider include:

• Wood-fuelled systems (like biomass boilers)
• Ground-source heat pumps
• Air-source systems

Rainwater running off a roof


Preserving water is an incredibly important aspect of sustainable structures.

The amount of water available on earth is a limitless supply, in terms of its quantity. However, ensuring that the water is fit for human consumption requires a lot of energy to clean. Therefore, it is essential to limit our use where we can, and use other water sources where possible.

For example, rainwater which falls on roofs can be collected to be used as a supply for:

• Flushing toilets
• Water gardens
• Washing machines

A rainwater harvesting system can be installed which collects excess rainwater that falls on and around your home. It uses a drainpipe which filters out dirt and debris from the water supply, to then be stored in a tank.

Another way to reduce wasted water is to install low-flow showerheads and low-flush toilet systems.

Reclaimed Building Materials

We are all familiar with the phrase re-use, reduce and recycle! Re-using materials from demolition sites is an excellent alternative to using newly sourced materials. Buildings are carefully dismantled for re-selling materials.

Tailored Solutions

The most important aspect of renovating a building in the name of sustainability is to ensure all solutions are modified for the building. This is especially relevant for older buildings where you still want to uphold the character of the construction.

To ensure that the building is being altered most sustainably and effectively, always work with an expert who can correctly advise you.

Here at Martin Perry Associates, we provide expert guidance and management for sustainable building projects, supervising projects from start to finish. For more information on what we provide, take a look at our website and discover more about our previous accomplishments.

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