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Coal fires, fresh air and the hardy British: A historical view of domestic energy efficiency and thermal comfort in Britain


Fuel poverty has been most commonly researched in the UK although it is experienced in other parts of Europe, to varying degrees. Boardman (1991) showed that energy inefficient buildings and heating systems are the most significant components of fuel poverty and highlighted the legacy of older buildings in this country that remain the majority of those now recognised as hard to treat. This paper considers the historical context for fuel poverty as a particularly British phenomenon. It examines claims that this is due to the mild climate and low indoor temperature expectations. It is concluded that there are significant differences from the European situation. The climate, particularly its characteristic changeability, has influenced building and heating methods, and the low priority given to energy efficiency by legislators. Significantly, economic priorities produced poor quality mass housing during the industrial revolution. The availability of coal encouraged the use of open fires, which demanded high ventilation rates. The British do value warmth but older buildings designed for heating with radiant open fires are difficult to adapt to convective central heating. Lessons can be drawn for newly industrialised economies similarly producing poor quality mass housing with low priorities for energy efficiency.