The London Transport Museum is a trendsetter. Formerly Covent Garden's Flower Market, it has become the first grade II listed building in the UK to install a large-scale solar heating system, generating around 16 per cent of its energy requirements.
The museum has added louvres and double glazing to stop the sun overheating the building in the summer and the roof has been insulated to reduce heat loss in the winter. So it was an appropriate venue for last week's launch of English Heritage's annual report, which stresses the historic environment's vital role in tackling climate change.
Homes built before 1919 emit around five per cent of England's carbon dioxide. Yet historic buildings are part of the solution rather than the problem, the agency argues. Sensitive and responsible reuse and recycling of old buildings will help the UK meet the tough new target for cutting 80 per cent of all emissions by 2050.
However, already tight budgets are shrinking fast. Funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund fell by 28 per cent and English Heritage grants dropped by 27 per cent in real terms between 2002-03 and 2007-08. That amounts to a total reduction of £100 million. Cash from the lottery fund is set to fall by a further 43 per cent in real terms between 2007-08 and 2012-13.
"Climate change poses unparalleled threats and the historic environment is not immune. It will suffer changes and losses," warns English Heritage interim chairman Sir Barry Cunliffe. "The bottom line is that our resources are finite yet we have a responsibility to maintain the historic environment for future generations. Rising to this challenge demands care. We need to develop and share approaches that avoid unnecessary damage to the special value and qualities of the historic environment."
Some, although by no means all, older buildings are poor on energy efficiency. The crucial point is that they work differently to their modern counterparts, which means that special energy solutions have to be devised that do not harm their character. The one million Victorian terraced houses across England serve to illustrate the dilemma.
Loft insulation offers one way forward, although a more effective answer is to install high-efficiency condensing boilers with thermostatic controls on all the radiators. Effective repairs to windows and draught-proofing combined with curtains, shutters and blinds mean that these properties can meet the standards for new homes set by the building regulations.
English Heritage is spearheading Hearth and Home, a research project monitoring the energy consumption of Victorian houses inhabited by ordinary people. This will set out best practice in measuring energy efficiency, assess energy saving options and offer guidance on reducing domestic fuel use and carbon emissions. The aim is to subtly influence people's behaviour, a more general aspiration that the agency is seeking to promote across the historic environment.
The trend is wholeheartedly endorsed by the National Trust. The body is engaged in installing green technology across its historic houses, industrial buildings and ancient castles. One example is the switch to 40,000 low-energy light bulbs across its estate. This has had the effect of cutting 2,223 tonnes of emissions a year and reducing energy and maintenance costs by £431,000.
The installation of wood pellet-fuelled boilers at the 17th century Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire underlines the potential for green measures. The boilers emit around 90 per cent less carbon dioxide than the oil-fuelled system that used to heat the property. "Older buildings can be sensitively adapted to make a positive contribution," argues trust director-general Fiona Reynolds. "They can inspire millions of people who visit historic properties to take action themselves. We can give them the opportunity to see what is going on."
The public's interest in heritage is rising. A whopping 71 per cent of adults in England visited a historic environment site in the past 12 months. Around 55 per cent of adults from black and minority ethnic groups and 61.5 per cent of people with limiting disabilities or illnesses went to a historic place, an experience shared by almost three-quarters of 11 to 15-year-olds.
"The upside of the credit crunch is that people are more likely to take their holidays at home," contends English Heritage chief executive Simon Thurley. "This means that they are more likely to visit historic attractions."
Heritage Counts 2008 is available at PlanningResource.co.uk/doc