This was a really cool extension using reclaimed materials in Hackney. The green roof was a bit tricky to photograph but you can see the effect of the plants blowing in the wind above the skylight.
Category: Using less energy
This came about through problems with the old boiler rather than careful planning. Firstly I replaced the thermostat with a Smart controller, this was about 5 years ago and the choice was limited but I got an Owl controller which allowed us to control the heating with a smart phone.
This allowed us to monitor electricity use as well as program the boiler simply online and turn it off for holidays etc. The controller was easy to fit as you replace the existing thermostat and use the same wiring. Once this was done the heating started coming on only when the temperature in the house fell below the required temperature we set. The previous controller turned on the heating when it was programmed to, regardless of the internal temperature and waited for the thermostat to turn it off again. This fine control and ease of use saved us 10% on our gas bills straight away.
The monitor really helped us concentrate on electricity use around the house and focus on reductions, however it also coincided with having kids and being at home a lot more so our usage actually went up for each successive year, as shown below. Now they are a bit bigger we are out more and using the meter to concentrate their minds too and starting to take our usage down again:
The boiler was an old Worcester and only about 64% efficient. A fault developed with it so it started heating up radiators whenever we used the hot water so we decided to get rid of it. I did plenty of research and luckily enough this coincided with Ecobuild so I was able to go round stalls there to look at a good range of boilers and ask silly questions. Efficiency of most boilers is well over 90% so my main concerns were how it would fit in my kitchen and reliability. I eventually settled on an Intergas boiler, not quite so common in the UK but it came with a 10 year guarantee and has very few moving parts and good reliability.
Very pleased with the boiler and five years later there have been no problems. We are warmer, the shower works better and our gas bills went down.
Very pleased with the boiler and five years later there have been no problems. We are warmer, the shower works better and our gas bills went down.
We also got TRVs installed on all the radiators.
Many of you, like me, will have listened watched or read about a wonderful renovation project where the house has become a wonderful palace of efficiency, costs 10p a year to heat and it’s the most comfortable and relaxing place in the world. You gaze on in envy at the ventilation, triple glazed windows and wonderful insulation. Then comes the tipping point, what did it cost for this the interviewer asks? ‘Oh, only £80,000 on top of the cost of the building work’ and at that moment you realise this is never going to happen in your home.
So, what can you do without breaking the bank? I thought I would share some of my experiences of trying to improve my property on a tight budget, with a low income and the property occupied throughout.
Ideally you would start with a whole house plan for your property, this includes an assessment of the general condition of the place and a list of all the efficiency improvements that it is possible to make to the property. You don’t need to carry them all out and certainly not all at once but it gives you a path for the next 10 years or so, you can also tie this in to any other projects you are planning, redecoration, extensions etc. You can see mine here.
Of course I didn’t start with this, I started when the boiler broke but I have got round to it now and I don’t think I got too far off course. The other thing you should probably do is monitor the conditions in the house so you can get a picture of it’s performance and the effect of the changes you make. I have been even worse at this but have some stats on energy use that the smart meter collected, otherwise it comes down to ‘we felt warmer’ and ‘the mould didn’t reappear on the walls’. Still I am quite happy and it’s slowly getting more comfortable.
So, what did I and what did it cost, here we go in chronological order with the points where it coincided with other works, details to follow over the next couple of weeks
We have nearly finished the extension we have been working on for the last few months in Hackney. The walls, roof and floor are all in place and there is just fit out for the inside and the green roof to go on top.
Last week I completed a ‘green’ green roof. Not only was it a green roof with plants increasing the amount of green space in central London but we also managed to use it to improve the energy efficiency of the house we were building it on.
The customers were really interested in using a small roof area they had to create a wild area of land to increase bio diversity. They are not far from Roots & shoots the environmental education centre and wanted to recreate some of the wildlife areas there. We planned out the roof to include different heights of soil, a wide range of native plants and areas of logs and brick dust to create habitats for invertebrates.
A week or two before the build I was on a CORE retrofit course learning about different types of roof insulation. This included a method where the insulation was placed above the roof’s waterproofing. This was perfect for this job as the roof already had excellent waterproofing and the plan was to lay the green roof on top of this. A quick call to the customer to ask them and they confirmed that the rooms below were cold so we added this to the project.
The project was planned over two days:
On day one we moved all the materials through the house, erected the scaffold tower and began laying the insulation:
There was quite a lot to move but it all went pretty smoothly.
Day two started with us collecting some wood from the previous nights storm to create a log pile for invertebrates on the way to the site, oh and a full English for the guys helping with the work.
We made short work of installing the water retention
I am certainly dreaming of one, I enjoy Christmas as much as anyone but I do worry about the waste that goes on at this time of year. Presents are great but sometimes there are rather more than anyone needs, especially in a big family. Like many families we have instituted a one present per adult rule and this has certainly cut down on unnecessary pairs of slippers etc. However cute little nieces still need a present each and we still need to get a few presents for those close to us.
So now we have reduced what can we do to re-use and recycle the presents, along with getting some nice eco friendly presents for everyone. I have tried to find a few things that can help with this.
Eco friendly Christmas paraphenalia
As well as recycling your Christmas wrapping paper make sure yours is made from recycled paper, while your at it get some recycled crackers too. You can make your own Christmas decorations quite easily or buy ones made from recycled materials and all good lights these days use LEDs, saving you energy and reducing fire risk. I have listed a selection in the products section of the website that you can buy online.
Green toys for kids
To be honest kids toys are pretty amazing these days and you aren’t going to distract them entirely from computer games and plastic fun but there are lots of interesting alternatives out there that you can at least supplement them with. Every kid loves to climb in boxes and a cardboard rocket ship could be even better, a wooden racing car is a much healthier alternative to a plastic one for a small child, and with fewer chemicals. Kids also love creatures and creepy crawlies so a pond dipping kit or a bug jar could make them happy. More details of these eco friendly toys here. Thinking further ahead you could get a bat box and an id book and see what bats you can attract when they come out of hibernation.
Gadgets for grown ups
Everyone likes a gadget at any time of the year and Christmas usually brings lots along so why not get a few that help reduce energy use rather than increase it. I have been going on for a while about my Owl monitor and heating control and I still really love it. You can impress people by showing them your houses energy use on your phone and impress yourself by turning the heating on when you are on the bus home.
I recently started looking at products in B&Q as well as NHBS and Nigel’s Eco Store and they have just started to stock Lightwave products. These link up not just to the heating and electricity but also all the sockets and light switches in the house so you can create a real smart home and control the lights and all the appliances from a remote, your pc or your home. They sound great, if you buy some let me know how you get on.
How about saving water? A water pebble makes a cool little gift, put it in your shower and it helps you reduce water usage as well as looking funky. If too much water is a problem for you at times, why not get a green roof to soak some of it up?
If you have a wood burning stove you really must get an eco fan to go with it. These sit on top of the stove and circulate warm air around the house. They are made of two types of metal so it rotates when it gets hot.
I hope these gifts have wetted your appetite for a green Christmas, I have my eye open for some more and will add them in when I find some good ones.
Eco friendly gifts for her
Some choices for the women in your life, mum, sister, wife or partner. I have tried to pick a range of items that any woman would be pleased to receive. Love the rainbow turbine t shirt stylish with with an eco message as well.
Eco friendly gifts for him
Some choices for the men in your life, dad, brother, husband or partner. I have tried to pick a range of items that any man would be pleased to receive. Cufflinks and skin care may seem a bit dull but these are a cut above your average and the skin care is certainly not a generic body shop I don’t know what to buy you box.
A quick update on recent projects.
Green roof on bike shed
I have nearly finished a green roof on a bike shed in Stockwell. It is all ready for planting and the customer has a great plan for herbs and succulents in a geometric pattern.
It looks pretty good at the moment but I will come back with a full update and some details of the build when it is finished.
Even more exciting is the end of the natural insulation project I have been working on all summer. Since I finished the lime plastering the walls have been allowed to dry (it takes a bit longer than normal plaster) and painted with clay paint.
I am pretty pleased with the finished results and the householders are much warmer.
We headed off on our bikes to Olympia for the National Home Improvement Show with mixed feelings. I had bought tickets in a two for one offer a couple of months earlier and every week since they had sent me offers for free tickets so I was a bit annoyed with the organisers but the show sounded interesting and possibly more sustainable than the Ideal Home Show at least.
We got there in time to see Oliver Heath talk about Smart homes and smart living. We were a bit worried that it started off like an advert for British Gas but once he was into his stride it was a really fascinating run through gadgets and devices that can make your house more efficient. Starting with heating he talked about smart meters and the difference they could make to our future heating controls. Then he moved on to discussing The Nest which is a very stylish new thermostat that controls your heating.
So far these are only available in the US but I will keep a look out and feature them when they come to the UK. In the meantime we have our own home grown version The Owl Intuition which I have talked about before and have at home. This gadget also replaces your thermostat and allows you to control your heating from anywhere in the world. The manufacturers are working on software that will help you to reduce consumption further by prompting when you can manage without heating. They’re also looking into a feature to notify friends or family if the hot water hasn’t been used for a long time which could be used as an alarm for the elderly.
The current version already gives great reports on your current usage and your history. Find out more about them on my product pages here.
Oliver moved on to talk about water-saving gadgets including the water pebble which times your shower and helps you reduce it and water saving shower heads which can reduce your water use without changing the feel of your shower. We have one at home and it certainly works. He also discussed a water pedal tap for your kitchen so you can turn the water on and off hands free when cooking, along with a kit for converting your existing toilet to low flush. I have converted my own toilet to low flush using a kit as well, further details in a blog soon.
Other sections of Oliver’s presentation covered ventilation systems and atmospheric changes such as light bulbs and paints. The section that made him most excited though had to be powering his hybrid car with the energy collected from his solar panels! If you are thinking of copying that I have found some good solar panel kits that you can fit yourself or I can arrange for a full scale installation.
If you have ever attended a home show you will know that there are many stalls and many more people! We find therefore that it is best to target a few stalls and escape.
So we visited a couple of stalls which have a wide range of low energy bulbs as I am looking to extend the range I offer on ecoalex.com and also need a few new ones around the house.
We also visited the Chimella stall. This was the launch of this product which is similar to an umbrella but is for putting up your chimney to reduce drafts and catch any dirt. The product has been designed
with great care and offers a real alternative to the chimney balloon as it can be removed if you want to use your fireplace. I hope to strike up a deal with Mr Chimella in the future as I thought it was a pretty cool product but if you want one now you can order one direct from him.
After this we were getting a bit tired so we headed off for tea and cake to chat about the new ideas we had picked up.
The miracle of the Owl
I hadn’t realised quite how good my new Owl thermostat and heating control is until now. I have obviously been showing off to friends about the smartphone app showing how little electricity I am using etc which is all very exciting.
However the cold weather has really bought it into it’s own. When I set it up I programmed in the times I wanted the heating on, start up temperatures etc and left it at that. We had a nice warm summer the heating never came on and I kind of forgot about it. Then, one cold morning last week the heating came on for five minutes or so in the morning warmed the house up and turned off again. A couple of days later it did the same and this evening for the first time it came on in the evening.
With my old set up where I programmed the boiler, it came on at that time and then remained on until the end of the timed period unless it got really really hot and then the thermostat might turn it off. The new Owl system starts with checking the temperature and then only turns the boiler on when it is needed, the thermostat seems much more accurate too. An added bonus is that even when the heating is on the new boiler is so much more efficient I am saving money then too.
I am going to recommend them to all my customers I think, you can find out more about them here.
Open House Weekend
Last week was Open House weekend as the 40,000 or so people that went to Battersea Power Station should know. Having had a quick peek at it recently as part of the improvement zone project I was able to visit a couple of eco homes instead. Having seen quite a number of architect led fantasy eco homes as part of other tours I was eager instead to see some normal houses that had been upgraded at a reasonable cost and with great savings.
The first visit was to The Coach House in Belsize Park a lovely house on the end of a Georgian terrace. Waiting outside we particularly admired the tradesman’s entrance with the big Tradesmen sign above it.
We were welcomed in by the owners along with a couple of other early risers. We began with an introduction to the house and the owners ambitions for the refit. They wanted to achieve somewhere near the 80% reduction in carbon emissions and energy usage that the government has committed to for 2050. They have achieved something near this through insulating the walls and the roof, replacing and refurbishing windows and using low energy bulbs and heating controls.
The walls were particularly impressive, the internal wall insulation added at the front of the house is almost impossible to spot:
And the only way to tell that the outside has been done is to tap the wall and listen to the slightly hollow sound created by the foam underneath:
The roof was mostly flat and had been insulated externally with decking placed on top of that so you can walk on it:
Inside there is a an Owl electricity meter and Passivsystems heat control. I was pleased to learn afterwards that they had used a Parity Home Energy Masterplan to plan out the refurbishment of their house.
You can read lots more about the house and see videos on the Superhomes website. Well worth a look, particularly to see how unobtrusive wall insulation is. A lot of people I speak to seem to think it will make there rooms tiny but this is definitely not the case, and you get great windowsills for plants etc.
This was further illustrated by the next house we visited in a mansion block near King’s Cross. This was also a super home and a cosy flat
on the top floor. The flat had also had internal insulation on the walls and this time the ceiling as well. Again the insulation couldn’t be seen and the owners had also added coving to the ceiling and the same time improving the look of the flat.