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Ever since being a teenager I’ve been interested in the environment and believed that the environment in its broadest sense – climate change, animal welfare and all those biodiversity type things – was important. I campaigned on that politically as a student. I got a job as an engineer and I was always interested in getting into environmental engineering, which was quite difficult in the nineties because there wasn’t too much of it about. I joined a technology consultancy in ‘98 and used a bit of spare time between projects to make sure I was up to speed with existing environmental technologies. I ended up getting hired to run the Carbon Trust Cambridge Clean Tech incubator for start-ups. So at that point I definitely became immersed in what the new technologies were, across the whole spectrum, not just in buildings.
And then I looked at the figures for carbon emissions from the built environment, and found that residential properties in the UK were quite poor compared to other countries. But I had seen lots of new technologies bubbling away, some of them still at prototype stage and needing some test platforms.
At the same time, my politics had sort of advanced and I stood in the 2005 General Election as a Lib-Dem candidate, again very much on a green platform. So when I moved into the constituency all these things came together – concern for the environment, my politics, my work experience and what I had learned about new technologies.
I’ve always believed that the environment is one of the key challenges for our generation. British houses are amongst some of the worst in Europe, if not the world. The challenge is not just to build new houses but actually to show how ordinary people can retrofit their homes to make them better. I wanted to do things that any reasonable person could do without having to be an architect and to show what can be done.
I deliberately bought a house that was a standard old Victorian townhouse with very poor environmental credentials. I then used my own ability to work out what to do, whilst occasionally putting in a few prototype technologies on behalf of somebody else. I wanted to have a test house to demonstrate to people who were interested. The whole point was to tell the story about what I’ve done and the savings I’ve made- to help spread the word.
My home on Amhurst Road is a Victorian semi-detached house, built around 1870. In 2009 I moved in and in 2010 I set about on phase 1 of making it an eco-house. In 2011 I had a year’s rest from building and in 2012 I undertook Phase 2. I don’t know what its energy rating was prior to the retrofit, but another house on Amhurst Road, which is very similar to how mine was before the retrofit, was recently on the market and is rated as Category E for both energy efficiency and environmental impact.
The main energy saving changes I made to my house included comprehensive heat loss prevention measures such as insulating internal and external walls, under floor areas, the loft and loft ceiling. I also had new double glazed timber framed sash windows installed in place of the original windows. Further energy saving instalments included underfloor heating, low energy lighting and photo voltaic panels. I have also added a composter and wormery to the garden as well as various measures aimed at increasing biodiversity including a pond, bird and bat boxes and wildflowers.
You can read all about the measures I installed, the costs and benefits here: www.tinyurl.com/ecohouseguide
The financial benefits are illustrated by significant reductions in my energy bills. My gas bills in 2011 fell by half while my electricity bills have fallen by 30%. The electricity saving is probably much higher though as the 30% does not include savings from my low energy light bulbs, which I installed the moment I moved in, before monitoring my energy use. I am also making money from the solar panels on the roof where between December 2010 and September 2012 they generated 2893 kWh, which is worth about £1300.
My wormery works fantastically well, with thousands of worms munching their way through all my smaller food waste. With the wormery established it takes about a season to turn one tray of food into top quality earth. The worms also produce a liquid, which I mix with water and use as a fertiliser.
The most important thing is I now have a house that’s warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Frankly, I just didn’t have that before because in the winter the heating was on maximum and it all went straight out the windows and the walls. So it’s now a very nice place to live, as well as being energy efficient.
My favourite feature is the LoftZone StoreFloor, which is a really neat idea that allows you to have loft insulation and still use the loft for storage at the same time. But when I’ve done open house events there are two other things that other people really like when they visit. One is low energy lighting, simply because it’s so cheap and it’s easy for anyone to think about doing. And the other is the wormery, believe it or not. There are always crowds who are huddled around the wormery saying ‘isn’t that amazing?’
Actually I used Enviroglass paving only for the garden patio. I used regular floor tiles in the kitchen. However there are lots of recycled glass floor tiles available, just google that and you’ll find several manufacturers. I don’t know anyone who has used them with underfloor heating. Perhaps worth chatting to some of the manufacturers and maybe getting them to send you a sample which you can test out on a radiator?
Aerogel works but it’s expensive, so you’d only use it if you really have to. And if you have timber suspended floors, you probably don’t have to.
The only reason I couldn’t use a more conventional approach someone had unhelpfully filled in my void with concrete. So I had to insulate on top of the floor boards, and then I was forced to pick a thin insulation material as I didn’t want to lose head height. If you’re in the same boat, then definitely consider aerogel. I bought Spacetherm from the Proctor Group; they even sell this on eBay. The one I got was bonded on to chipboard so that it’s easier to handle and fix things to. You can phone them up and ask for a quote for that.
However even better than aerogel (but at the time not easy to buy), are Vacuum Insulated Panels. They’re a better insulator than aerogel but you mustn’t puncture the panels otherwise you lose the vacuum. So usually you place them underneath the floorboards. They come in standard sizes and you can fill in the gaps with aerogel.