Obviously if you have a cavity wall in an existing house (which became fairly standard after the 1950s) you can have insulation blown into the cavity and there are grants to help with this which you can get through your energy supplier. See the EST web site.
However this is only going to provide 50 mm. of insulation which would not bring you up to present day building regulation standards, never mind any kind of eco house standards. If you want to go further then you may want to consider external wall insulation or internal lining.
Whichever route you take it is important to make sure that you don’t create conditions which could cause interstitial condensation where moisture traveling through the wall condenses out within the thickness of the wall and creates damp patches or rot.
The other important thing is to consider the junctions between elements such as at the eaves. The insulation should carry on continuously at these places and any potential drafts should be sealed. This can get quite complicated if several types of building materials meet at complicated angles and configerations. It is often difficult to get good information on how best to handle this kind of thing and you may need professional help. A nice example of upgrading internal insulation at an eaves and a window on an old stone building can be seen on a study of Gibson Mill
A fairly simple and effective way of cladding the walls of an existing building is with the Larsen Truss. This is basically a timber framework attached to the outside of the building and filled with insulation. It is then covered with an external cladding. Google images has a good set of examples, mainly from North America.
External retrofit insulation
There are several reasons you might consider external insulation on existing walls:
- to avoid losing space internally
- to avoid disturbing internal surfaces
- to use the walls as a heat store/buffer to achieve a decrement delayThis relates to the lag time that insulation itself takes to heat up or cool down. It introduces a delay into the effect of the insulation. This can help level out peaks and troughs of temperature. See the section on Decrement Delay
- to avoid the ‘cooling fin’ effect caused where internal walls connect to external ones.
The above plan shows how an internal wall between two room, connecting with an external solid wall, causes a direct pathway for heat to escape out. External insulation prevents this but internal insulation has little effect. Of course cavity wall insulation isolates internal walls from external ones but 50mm gives a very low level of insulation in the first place.
External wall insulation is not straight forward. You probably need planning permissionthe legal basis for being allowed to do some form of development such as building a house. (not to be confused with Building RegulationsThese are the mass of regulations that cover safety, health, welfare, convenience, energy efficiency etc. in the way buildings are constructed. Not to be confused with Planning consent (which is more to do with whether you can put up the building in the first place). See more on the regulations which are all about whether the building is properly constructed). see more on Planning the legal basis for being allowed to do some form of development such as building a house. (not to be confused with Building Regulations which is all about whether the building is properly constructed). see more on Planning to add insulation to the outside of a building. Contact the local planning department at the council. Considering the work involved in insulating the outside of a building it makes sense to add as much insulation as is feasible while you are doing the job. 100mm would seem like a minimum, 200mm sensible and 300mm would mean you might be able to achieve PassivhausSee more on the Passivhaus standard. The PassivHaus Institute has pioneered a standard for low energy buildings. It includes very low energy usage and ways of achieving this. The word is derived from the idea of buildings which are fundamentally low energy and passive solar heated rather than using extra gadgets to heat them. See Passivhaus for the UK branch of the organisation. standard. Of course the thickness you use depends to some extent on how effective the insulation is. (see insulation properties). This of course will most likely entail the repositioning of gutters, fall pipes and possibly gullies.
It will probably necessitate extending the roof downwards and outwards to cover the extra wall thickness and it may mean some fairly nifty detailing round openings, particularly windows. This may also have implications for the eaves level in relation to the tops of windows. If you are contemplating doing a loft conversion then combining it with external wall insulation might make a lot of sense. You also need to give some design consideration to how the roof or loft insulation meets the new wall insulation to avoid cold bridgingthis is a pathway where heat can easily escape (or get in) through some part of the structure. It is usually caused by some element of structure such as a steel lintel or wooden studwork. Also known as a thermal bridge. see more on cold bridging. Avoiding condensation and allowing traditional walls to breathe are also crucial.
So far very few already existing houses in the UK have been upgraded with external insulation though on the continent there is plenty of activity in this area. One of the few books on the subject is The Complete Guide to External Wall Insulation by Christopher Pearson.
The minimum standards required by the Building Regulations for new dwellings are in Approved DocumentsApproved documents (England) are detailed publications which come under the English Building Regulations. They are based on tried and tested methods of building and if you follow them you are assured of complying with the Regs. The equivalents for Scotland are the Technical HandbookUnder the Scottish Building Regulations, the Technical Handbook gives construction principles, which, if you follow them guarantee compliance with the Regulations, for Wales: the Approved documents (Wales), and for N.I. the Technical BookletsUnder the Northern Ireland Building Regulations, the Technical Booklets give construction principles, which, if you follow them guarantee compliance with the Regulations part L1AThe Approved documents, (England) part L1A, deals with Conservation of fuel and power in new dwellings.
How much insulation?
It is very cheap and easy to build in wall insulation at the beginning compared with the complicated job of adding more later. It is only a few decades ago that insulation was not bothered with at all (cavity walls only had cavities to stop driving rain getting through the wall – they give practically no insulation).
Conventional wisdom does not yet exist on the subject because every few years the advantages of yet thicker insulation become apparent. So at what point does increasing the thickness become silly? As a minimum, to satisfy the current building regulations you will need approximately 125mm of a high grade insulation such as wood cellulose or mineral fibre (or some kind of equivalent to that if you are getting some of the insulation from insulating blockwork). However this looks small beer compared with the 300mm of high grade insulation which is used in Passivhaus buildings providing a ‘U’ value of about 0.1. This is the sort of insulation required to attain zero carbonbit of a slippery fish. It tends to mean that a building uses no carbon (oil, coal, etc) to heat it (meaning in a 'net' way). It usually ignores the carbon which goes into building it (the embodied energy). See the page on Zero Carbon? standards which the EU will require by 2020
Going beyond that sort of level of wall insulation produces diminishing returns and it becomes more important to consider air tightnessA measure of how leaky a building is to air. In other words, how draughty it might be. There are now standard fan pressure tests to check how air tight a house is and the Building Regulations have minimum standards for all new houses (L1A – Conservation of fuel and power in new dwellings (England)). A much higher degree of air tightness is covered by the Passivhaus standard and the insulation values of other elements such as windows and doors.
There are six main factors which have bearing on how much insulation it is sensible to go for –
Global warming – Whatever your views about the dangers of global warming, house building, unlike, say car manufacturing, is a very long term undertaking and therefore it makes sense to think in terms of hundreds of years rather than a decade or two. All extra insulation will contribute to lower fuel use in the future. This would be an argument for very heavy insulation.
Fuel prices – Although fuel prices may well increase substantially over the next few decades there may be a more distant future with cheaper clean fuel from new technologies such as nuclear fusion. But don’t hold your breath. Still an argument for heavy insulation!
Relative cheapness – Compared with the overall price of building materials and the price of energy, insulation is a relatively minor cost so this is an argument for heavy insulation. The view taken with the Passivhaus standard is that a thickness of over about 300mm of a high grade insulation in walls starts giving diminishing returns. Rather than more insulation it is important to look at the form of the building and air tightness.
Loss of space – (this mainly applies to thick wall insulation rather than roofs or floors) If buildable ground area is at a premium, which is the case with an awful lot of UK property then the cost of this space needs weighing against the benefits of extra insulation. This may be a major factor concerning the internal insulation of walls.more
Taking the example of a detached three storey[for the purposes of part B (fire) of the Approved Documents to the Building Regulations] this includes - (a) any gallery[for the purposes of part B of the Approved Documents] - A raised area or platform around the sides or at the back of a room which provides extra space. if its area is more than half that of the space into which it projects; and (b) a roof, unless it is accessible only for maintenance and repair. 150 sq. m. house on a square plan. The loss of internal floor[for the purposes of part E of the Approved Documents] - Any floor that is not a separating floor (see separating floor). space (due to thicker insulation in order to achieve Zero Carbon or Passivhaus or AECBthe Sustainable Building Association gold standard) would be about 7.5 sq. m. or 5%. This would represent wastage of about £7,500 in terms of how much space you end up with. (This is assuming a plot value of £150,000. which might not be untypical for much of the UK but could be much higher in the South East).
This factor alone (loss of space), may have a considerable bearing on the type of construction to use. A timber frame or SIPsStructural Insulated Panels - prefabricated (usually in a factory) timber panels often forming part of an integrated building system and aimed at fast site erection. see more on SIPs approach ensures the maximum available space for insulation
A really well insulated Passivhaus wall will have about 300mm. of insulation (and consequently no need for a central heating system)
If you work to the latest Building Regulations using a traditional cavity wall you will probably end up with something like the following:
- 112mm outer skin of brick
- 125mm of cavity insulation
- 100mm insulating breeze block inner wall
A total thickness of 350mm if you include plaster. Although this is better insulation than was the case till recent changes to the building regulations it is hardly eco-house standard. To bring this up toPassivhaus standard would require about another 125mm of insulation, giving a total thickness of 475mm. (when plaster is included). This is a very thick wall.
Compare this with a timber framed wall using an outer rain screenthis is a (usually thin) outer cladding on a wall which prevents rain, snow, etc getting at the structure of the wall behind. see more on rain screen .
- Rain screen of about 45mm
- insulation of 300mm
- internal lining 50mm. (allowing for services cavity behind an internal lining board)
A total of 405mm. This is 70mm thinner than a masonry wall to achieve Passivhaus standard. And of course this applies to all the external walls on all storeys so there is a considerable effective increase in useable floor area. There is also the issue of windows being less effective in very thick walls in terms of light and views.
Other savings – With sufficient insulation it is often not necessary to have radiators in certain areas, particularly ‘open plan’ areas and circulation areas such as stairs. The extreme case of this is with Passivhaus design which is so energy efficient that no central heating system is required, with the consequent savings of probably £4000 – £5000. This usually means insulation thicknesses in the range of 300mm of cellulose or mineral fibre or somewhat more if insulating blockwork is used.
Cold areas attract condensation on surfaces which then tend to need constant decoration. Articles like books and fabric become mouldy.
There is an effective saving in the size of a well insulated house. People tend to avoid badly heated areas, especially if they are sitting for long periods and this makes parts of houses less usable. Most of us can think of a big old rambling house that is hardly habitable in winter.
Window problems – Very thick wall (and roof insulation) can considerably cut down on the amount of light which gets in through windows (and the view angle available). Overcoming this problem may involve having splays or reveals to the walls round the windows.
Problems fitting insulation
Poor fitting of insulation is a notorious problem on building sites. There are five main types of situation where poor fitting can happen
- poor jointing
- gaps on the face of the insulation
- areas missing
- slump and settlement
- insulation causing bridging of cavities
Poor jointing and gaps on the face
this is a particular problem where solid sheets of insulation such as polystyrene are used. In some cases it only takes a gap of a few millimetres between sheets to completely spoil the efficacy of the insulation. Take for example a traditional cavity wall which gets insulated using expanded polystyrene sheets and imagine that the sheets fit closely but have slight gaps because they were not cut perfectly or mortar snots hold them away from the inner leaf.
As can be seen, the inner leaf is subjected to a stream of cold outside air and has virtually no insulation. Something similar happens with mineral fibre, especially at joints and edges. If a number of such cavities link up then this can form a huge source of escaping heat.
this tends to happen when there are areas which are inaccessible or where a spray in product such as warmcell is being used and it is physically impossible to reach the area. This can easily happen at the eaves or in complex areas where there are extra noggins. This problem needs addressing at the design stage.
Slump and settlement
this can occasionally happen with insulation such as Warmcell, polystyrene bead and any other poured or pumped insulation. In the case of Warmcell in floors it should be packed in quite tightly so that if it settles slightly then it is still in contact with the lower surface of the floor itself.
Bridging of cavities
if the wall design includes cavities then it is most important that they don’t get accidentally bridged by the insulation. This can happen particularly with mineral wool being badly fitted and the result is that moisture may find its way over from the outer leaf to the inner one.
The Building Regulations on cavity walls are in Approved Documents