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Excerpts from a PhD Proposal: The Use of Historic Energy Efficiency Methods in New Buildings

Author: Ariana McSweeney

Attempts to mitigate the contributions that the built environment makes to climate change often involve the use of modern technology, while the technology of the past has been largely overlooked. This research will consider how twenty-first century capabilities could enhance the passive energy efficiency designs of vernacular architecture, rather than replace them. Thus far, research on the connections between architectural conservation and climate change has tended to be focused on either protecting historic buildings from the changing environment (Climate for Culture, 2014) or finding ways to improve their energy efficiency without damaging their historic fabric (Troi and Bastien, 2016). In contrast, the proposed research will identify the traditional methods of improving energy efficiency that can be best incorporated into new design. The study will be carried out using an ethnographic or social science methodology to

understand the social barriers that would develop during the implementation of these approaches and techniques. As the conclusions resulting from the proposed project would be highly specific to the region that is studied, the PhD would also aim to serve as a methodological guide for similar research that is focused on other areas the world. Questions related to these topics have been researched only briefly in the past (Piesek, 2017; Azari and Singery, 2014; AlSayyad and Arboleda, 2011), and rarely with an ethnographic or social science approach. In conclusion, the project would be unique in attempting to establish the social feasibility of designing new energy-efficient buildings that are inspired by vernacular architecture.

Definitions of Key Terms

Terms such as “vernacular” and “energy efficient” must be defined at the outset of the research. These terms have been associated with various definitions over several generations, and it is necessary to establish which of them will be used over the course of the PhD. Energy efficiency is a particularly fluid concept, since research on energy use and savings is constantly being updated. Therefore, the definition of “energy efficient” that is in this proposal will likely be different from the one in the final draft of the dissertation. However, for the purposes of the proposal, guidance on a current definition of “energy efficient” can be found in Historic England’s “Energy Efficiency in Historic Buildings”. The document states that after the Climate Change Act was passed in 2008, the UK government became legally committed to an 80% reduction of its 1990 emission levels by 2050.

The term “vernacular” has a more static definition, but it is still nuanced. Perhaps the most traditional way that vernacular buildings have been described is summarized in Brunskill’s book Traditional Buildings of Britain: An Introduction to Vernacular Architecture. Brunskill asserts that vernacular buildings must satisfy “simple demands of family life [and] farming ways”, and that they must be of “traditional design”. He also writes that they tend to be made of local materials in a style that is recognizably regional, and that they must not follow “academic rules” of design. This traditional understanding of the vernacular will generally shape the approach to the term in this study, but Guillery’s much newer and slightly more complex definition will also be incorporated into the PhD. In his introduction to Built from Below: British Architecture and the Vernacular, Guillery echoes Brunksill’s claims that “understanding the importance of the ordinary or everyday remains one important side of vernacular studies”. However, he notes that elements of the “everyday” and the “traditional” can be found in more than pre-industrial homes and farm buildings because all “buildings can provide insights into how people thought”. In this study, vernacular structures will be defined as those which were built with local materials according to functional need rather than design. However, a flexible approach will be taken in reference to the use or purpose associated with the buildings defined as “vernacular.” In addition, the “new vernacular” - or the concurrent use of historic and modern technology for the benefit of

the environment - will also be incorporated into the project.


A large part of the first year of research will be spent establishing an understanding of the ways in which vernacular buildings regulated the environment for their inhabitants. Since the second phase of the project will be more field-based than the first, another goal of the first year would be to identify the most appropriate type of research methodology to use going forward. One option is to adopt a participant-observation approach similar to that of Thomas Yarrow, who analyzed how and why energy efficiency techniques for historic buildings are applied by homeowners and

professionals. Alternatively, a social sciences approach may be more suitable. For example, semi-structured interviews and/or focus groups could be used. In this case, feedback on the social barriers associated with the vernacular approaches would be highly realistic and specific. The final year will be spent analyzing the data and identifying key trends and barriers.

Literature Review and Conclusion

A large volume of existing scholarship is indirectly related to the topic of the proposed PhD, but very little of it addresses the social barriers to the use of vernacular energy efficiency techniques in new builds through any lens, let alone a sociological or ethnographic one. There are a few exceptions, including Yarrow’s study on the practical concerns that hinder homeowners from taking advantage of energy retrofit guides. Another is Pickerill’s acknowledgement of the “human” aspect of sustainable architecture in Eco Homes: People, Place and Politics, and Baird’s evaluation of so called “green buildings” based on the feedback of the people who use them. The proposed PhD will build upon this literature in a much more extensive study, with an added focus on vernacular energy efficiency techniques. In doing so the feasibility of using traditional energy efficiency methods in new builds will be assessed, and a methodological guide

will be created for others who might be interested in exploring the topic somewhere else in the world. The subject of the proposed PhD is original within the range of current academic work, and it has the potential to make a significant impact not only on the conservation field but also in the global fight against climate change.


ALSAYYAD (Nezar), ARBOLEDA, (Gabriel), “The Sustainable Indigenous Vernacular:

Interrogating a Myth”, in Aesthetics of Sustainable Architecture, ed. LEE (Sang), 010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 2011, 134–151 pp.

AZARI (Rahman), SINGERY (Maryam), “Sustainable Buildings and Their Relationship with

Humans and Nature”, in Sustainability, Energy and Architecture: Case Studies in Realizing Green Buildings, ed. SAYIGH (Ali), Academic Press, Waltham, 2014, 387–399 pp.

BAIRD (George), “Key Characteristics of Top Performing Sustainable Buildings from the

Perspective of the Users”, in Sustainability, Energy and Architecture: Case Studies in Realizing Green Buildings, ed. SAYIGH (Ali), Academic Press, Waltham, 2014, 360–386 pp.

BRUNSKILL (R. W.), Traditional Buildings of Britain: An Introduction to Vernacular

Architecture, 3rd ed., Yale University Press, New Haven, 2004. “Climate for Culture”, ClimateForCulture.edu, Climate for Culture, www.climateforculture.eu/,

consulted on January 24, 2019].

GUILLERY (Peter), “Introduction: Vernacular Studies and British Architectural History”, in

Built from Below: British Architecture and the Vernacular, ed. GUILLERY (Peter), Routledge, Abingdon, 2011, 1-9 pp.

MCCAIG (Ian), PICKLES (David), “Energy Efficiency and Historic Buildings: How to Improve

Energy Efficiency”, HistoricEngland.org.uk, Historic England,


efficiency/heag094-how-to-improve-energy-efficiency/, consulted on January 24, 2019.

PICKERILL (Jenny), Eco-Homes: People, Place and Politics, Zed Books Ltd., London, 2016.

PIESIK (Sandra), Habitat: Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Planet, Thames & Hudson, London, 2017.

TROI, (Alexandra), BASTIAN (Zeno), Energy Efficiency Solutions for Historic Buildings: A

Handbook, Birkhäuser Verlag GmbH, Basel, 2016.

YARROW (Thomas), “Negotiating Heritage and Energy Conservation: An Ethnography of

Domestic Renovation”, in The Historic Environment: Policy and Practice, Taylor and Francis, Abingdon-on-Thames, 2016, 340–351 pp.

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Sustainability in Conservation is an online network providing resources and information about environmentally responsible practices  in art conservation and related fields. Within a practice that produces so much waste, we hope to inspire collaboration and awareness to make cultural heritage a more sustainable profession. 

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