Why Renovation/ Retrofitting Can Be More Sustainable Than Building New

Barn conversion in process…

When you think of sustainable living, it is likely that a number of different solutions spring to mind.

You might think about a tiny home, that really cuts down your impact on the planet.

You might think about a natural building, made of sustainable timber, straw bales, cob or adobe.

Or you might think about a high-tech passivhaus, with all mod cons and hyper energy efficiency.

But one option that you might not have considered for your new sustainable life is renovating an old building. There are a number of reasons why renovating an old building can be a sustainable choice. In certain circumstances, it can be a greener option than building a brand new eco-home. 

Renovating an old building (whether it was originally built for domestic, agricultural or industrial use) can be challenging. (As my husband and I are definitely finding out as we work slow-time on our own self-build eco-renovation of an old stone barn.)

Our windows have gone in, and we are currently working (on weekends and the occasional evening) on stud walls for the two bedrooms and bathroom upstairs.

Renovating an Old Building Cuts Down on Land Use

Land use is a hot topic. Should land be used for food production? Should it be used for renewable energy generation? Or should it be given over to make new homes? There is a strong argument that we should use existing buildings before taking up productive land to build new homes – even when new homes are super sustainable. 

Renovating an Old Building Cuts Down on Materials Use

Of course, one of the main arguments for renovating rather than building new is that you’ll likely use far fewer materials to make your home. This often means less land used, less energy consumed, and less water wasted. And that is before we even take into account the carbon costs of transporting materials to your site. 

And It Can Stop Old Materials From Heading To Landfill

Old derelict or disused buildings, whether they are industrial, agricultural or domestic, can be blights on the landscape. Most contain materials that, sooner or later, will enter the waste stream. Renovating such properties can stop at least some of those materials from heading to landfill. 

Renovation May Use Less Energy Than From-Scratch Construction

When you have an existing building, even when it is in poor repair, less machine work will usually be involved. Foundations likely already exist, and often walls and other structural elements are already in place. Less heavy machinery means burning fewer fossil fuels, and using less energy on your build. 

And May Have Far Less Impact on the Surrounding Natural Environment

It is also worth bearing in mind that any new home (even a tiny one) will have an impact on the natural world around it. Renovating an existing structure can have far less negative impact on ecosystems than building an entirely new one. 

There are plenty of unusual and quirky buildings out there that could be renovated – from old factories or barns, to water towers and silos. These existing structures can often be repurposed to make wonderful homes. Old houses can also be renovated, and potentially retrofitted with insulation and other things to bring them up to modern eco standards. So before you decide to build a new eco home, you might like to consider the potential in an old building. 

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