As winter approaches and energy prices soar many heritage organisations are considering their options for keeping the heating on and their buildings dry. 

Maintaining a stable temperature and humidity in an old building is essential, not just for the comfort of visitors, but also to stave off problems such as excess moisture and leaching of salts which can lead to rapid deterioration of a building. 

The UK Government is subsiding energy bills of charities, public sector organisations and businesses to March 2023, but deals procured through buying schemes may not be eligible for relief.  Even with relief, some organisations face eye-wateringly high projections for gas and electricity, as much as four times the previous cost. 

Heritage buildings are often managed and run by small building preservation trusts or charities.  In the case of the Church of England, Parochial Church Councils comprising members of the worshipping community, are given responsibility for the building.  Many of these bodies want the best for the buildings they care for, but they are often heavily reliant on modest grants and community-raised funds to cover overhead costs. As the chasm between operating costs and incomes widens, these bodies have no other option than to revise their way of operating to find savings. This might result in shorter opening hours, moving activities into a shared venue rather than multiple sites, or only opening in warmer months. The overall picture is one of ‘doing less’, with the risk of significantly reduced visitor numbers and core audiences being underserved.  

The stark reality is that the current energy crisis will detrimentally impact access to heritage sites, as organisations are forced turn down the thermostat to a temperature that preserves the building but is not comfortable for people.  This (hopefully) short term crisis also raises questions about investment in renewable energy, reducing reliance on fossil fuels and contributing to the goal of net zero carbon. Many organisations aim to install more efficient systems, but options for renewable energy are challenging in a heritage context: ground source heat pumps require significant archaeological intervention; air source heat pumps can be unsightly and inefficient if the building’s insulation is insufficient.  Solar panels, successfully installed on many church roofs, are more easily accommodated but their visibility, weight and positioning can be problematic. The cost of these technologies, their installation and need for archaeological monitoring can make them prohibitively expensive and ‘high risk’ in terms of their impact on a building’s architectural legibility and significance.  

As I write, the world’s leaders and climate scientists are gathering at COP27. Their predictions for the earth’s climate are bleak unless decisive action is taken immediately to reduce carbon emissions. Global warming is made the UK’s winters wetter and our summers drier. These extremes of temperature and rainfall place unprecedented stress on heritage buildings. If there was ever a time to invest in alternative energy sources, this is it. However, such investment is only feasible if significant financial support is forthcoming to subsidise organisations navigating this very large problem. Let’s hope this winter can offer a period of recovery and preparation, so those caring for the nation’s churches, castles, and country houses are supported in their effort to address these issues and continue to welcome visitors into these unique, wonderful spaces.