The subject of the existing housing stock and whether it holds the key to helping the Government achieving its energy targets came to the fore when we purchased land in Exeter with a number of period properties on it – do we demolish and build new homes in their place, or do we renovate and make them energy efficient? 

We opted for the latter. 

It’s estimated that currently 15% of all UK greenhouse gas emissions are caused by the existing 29 million homes spread across the country. It’s also estimated that 85% of these homes are expected to still be standing in 2050, meaning there’s a real need for property developers – as and when the opportunity arises – to consider ways to help address this problem. If the Government is to succeed in it’s target of lowering emissions by a whopping 68% by 2030, tackling the existing housing stock has to form part of the overall strategy.

We wanted to share our experiences in the hope it might encourage other developers to renovate existing stock instead of demolishing and building new properties. We’ve also called on the experiences of Mark Thomas, founder of Acorn Homes SW, to give his views on this topic as he has vast experience renovating period and listed properties across Devon, Somerset and Dorset.

“We all have a commitment to try and do ‘our bit’ to help tackle climate change within the parameters of what is deliverable. As property developers, not only does renovating homes achieve this but it can create just as much value (if not more in some cases) as building new homes,” comments John Schuttkacker, co-founder of Westcountry Land & Homes.

A common misconception that many developers fall into is that renovation is a more complex, challenging and financially prohibitive path than building new homes. Yet, in theory, as the property already has its foundations and services in place, this should not be the case at all. 

Drone shot of our Alphington site

“Take our project in Alphington as a prime example – when we took the land on we knew it had a small cluster of existing properties including some cottages dating back to 1911. Structurally, we knew the dwellings had quality brick walls and fully working services – it seemed a waste to knock them down and build new properties in their place when so much was already there for us to work with. We also knew that by installing more energy efficient features, the end result would be just as appealing as a new build home. Team this with potentially quicker construction times as so much was there already, we knew there could be cost savings too,” says John.

Mark wholly agrees with this sentiment too, adding: “In our experience, land value is typically lower because a lot of developers consider it to be a more complicated site, so this has its benefits for SME developers like us (Acorn Homes SW and Westcountry Land & Homes) that are willing to think more creatively. 

We have found that purchasers are prepared to pay a premium for a gorgeous old barn or red brick property – with all of its character and heritage – especially when it is going to perform to the same standards as a new build from an energy and performance point of view.”

John adds: “As Westcountry Land & Homes continues to grow, our portfolio expands too – where we once only dealt with land exchange, we now look to build new homes, create a portfolio of buy-to-lets and we will certainly consider land purchases where there is an opportunity to renovate existing homes. 

As we move into these new territories we consider the responsibilities that come with them and for us, that means great consideration into defining what a “socially responsible landlord and property developer is”. We not only want to create homes that are functional and beautiful, but we want to create homes that provide a great environment for people to live in and as we grow and learn, we realise this need can be achieved through the combination of building new and renovating existing homes.

By taking the properties in Alphington and installing more eco friendly features such as an energy efficient heating systems, improving its insulation, installing new glazing and adding energy efficient lighting throughout, we have not only created a great new home for people to live in, but have reduced energy bills for the tenants by up to 50%. Creating a property that is very well insulated means we dramatically reduce its CO2 emissions.”

CGI of Manor Court Barns, a collection of barn conversions by Acorn Homes

Mark explains: “Many existing properties have just as much potential as building a new home, it’s a case of navigating the building and all of its peculiarities and making sure the walls and floors are adequately insulted. We try wherever possible to incorporate as many energy efficient products as possible such as underfloor heating, air source heat pumps, smart home technology and replace old draughty windows for wooden heritage double glazed windows.” 

Aside from the practical value that comes from renovating, for us and developers like Mark, there’s something special about being able to take an existing building back to its former glory, giving it a new lease of life to be enjoyed for future generations. 

“Westcountry Land & Homes and Acorn Homes SW share a philosophy: it’s not just about the enjoyment of building stunning homes, it’s about knowing you’re creating something you’ll be forever proud of,” concludes John.