First Steps of an Eco Renovation

First steps of eco renovation


In the previous post, I looked at essential preparation before embarking on an eco renovation. Once we had a plan, we were ready to start the eco renovation itself. This was exciting and scary! It was a huge undertaking, and it didn’t take long to realise that we needed flexibility in our plans, altering as necessary.

I initially intended to continue living in my house during the renovation, thinking I could just squash into one corner. However, the builder and the architect thought I should move into a rented home for the 6 to 8 months they estimated it would take to do the build.

The builders had to take plaster off some walls, and take a lot of the house apart, to know what was happening behind the scenes before they could finalise the details of the plan. This project was growing, taking on a life of its own. For instance, to accommodate under-floor heating the builders needed to dig up all the lower floors. Squashing in a corner was impossible.

Dug out floor

Budget for unexpected expenses

So now, as well as the build, I needed to budget for rent, removal, and storage of a lot of my belongings. I searched the local papers and online for somewhere to stay, and visited various prospective homes. Ideally, I wanted somewhere in the same village as the cottage. Nothing suitable come up, but an apartment turned up in a nearby town. It’s a bit of a drive to my building site, but I can retreat to peace and quiet when it gets hectic. I stored much of my furniture with my trusty removers, Cotswold Carriers, so that I only needed to rent a small cheap place.


With me out of the way, the builders got to work pulling down bits of my house. One of the first things they needed to do was strengthen the building with rolled steel joists (RSJs.) These beams provide a lot of strength to the first floor of the house and help strengthen the whole building. Putting them in place was a major job in itself. Holes had to be made for two RSJs to go across the house from one side through the middle wall (which was still standing) and into the wall on the opposite side.

The builders told me that they would have to make pads for the RSJs to sit on in the wall. These provide insulation, and without them, cold would come in through the ends of joists from the outside walls. When I heard about these pads, I imagined something soft like a mattress, but they turned out to be made of a special insulating bricks. Not as soft as they sounded!


Once we’d started dismantling the house, we realised that the floor to the attic needed to go. It would also be a good idea to lower the first floor ceilings, to give more height in the attic bedroom.

As there was a couple of inches (5 cm) difference in floor level between the two halves of my cottage, (it used to be two cottages.) The builders were able to even this up, so the whole of the first floor would be one level. They dug out the ground floor by two feet (60 cm), leaving space for the insulation and under floor heating to go in.

At this point some old plaster remained on some of the walls. As we discussed various options of insulation for beneath the under floor heating, Sandy, the architect sketched these out on the walls! It seemed a good use of the plaster and made it easier for me to understand the different levels of the floor.

Writing on wall

Be flexible with your renovation plan

So, as you can see, the process of starting the eco-renovation of an old house requires a plan. However, there is also a need for re-assessing and “thinking on your feet” as you get down to details.

The builders then discovered that there were no lintels or joists across the top of the windows, and they were amazed that the windows hadn’t collapsed. As it was, rotting window frames were all that held them up. Before the builders took out the old windows, they had to prop them up with Acro props (metal props) and put in concrete lintels to hold up the walls. Otherwise, when they took the windows out, the building would have collapsed.

Because the walls were so thick, it took two (and in some cases three) lintels side by side along the depth of the wall to hold the weight of the stonework above.

Lintels over windows

I went into this aware that building work always takes longer and costs more than expected. However I hadn’t anticipated it to become obvious so soon. The building had been renovated in the 1970s, so we had thought that during that builders would have fixed any major structural issues. It turned out we were wrong!

So my advice for you is: with an old building, never take anything for granted. You never know what horrors lie beneath the plaster.

Stop Press – My clever friend Yvonne, who is the Editor (and sometimes Ghost Writer) on Cotswold Eco Build, has won a major blogging award! In 2015, Yvonne started a blogging initiative as a counter to the violence occurring in our world. Her post, 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion has won a BlogHer 2016 Voices of the Year Honorees award in the Impact category.






How to Prepare for an Eco-Renovation

This is the house before any Eco Renovation
My 17th Century Cottage, before any Eco Renovation

Soon after I moved into my seventeenth century Cotswold cottage, I needed to decide what to do, how I wanted to alter the cottage. I threw around various ideas, and spoke with Sandy Hickey, the architect.

A cold and small cottage

The cottage had a living room, dining room, kitchen and four small bedrooms, one of which had a stairway off it. Up this stairway was the room I intended to use as a studio, but that soon proved impossible. As summer changed to autumn, I discovered how poorly insulated and cold that room was. I had to work in a lower room.

How-poorly-insulated and cold the cottage was
My poor cottage in the snow before the Eco Renovation

The cottage’s kitchen wasn’t very big, and before I moved in, I had thought about extending it. When I looked into the costs of what I’d planned, I began to rethink. Besides, now that I was living in the house, I realised that I liked having the patio area just outside the back door. The rest of the garden was on a higher level than the patio, and to get to it you went up some steps. It felt a bit more public, so I liked a tucked away private space near the back door. If I extended the kitchen, I would lose that lovely outdoor space.

A kitchen made of real wood

Before I made a final decision about the kitchen, I met with designers from Pineland Ltd. This kitchen company make their kitchens in real wood, which is better for the environment than the MDF particleboard used for most kitchen furniture. Pineland Ltd surprised me with the imaginative and practical layout suggestions they came up with. By utilizing the space really well, I could get almost everything I wanted into the kitchen, and not having to extend would keep costs down.

Pineland real wood kitchen

I kept hearing from people who have done building projects that it would cost more and take longer than you expect. So I thought the best thing to do is to expect it to, then no nasty surprises.

Sandy and I had several meetings to discuss what we were going to do and how far we wanted to take this – if I wanted to gut the place and start from four walls, or if I wanted to tinker around altering a few things. I decided to take a middle ground, and do quite a lot, but not tear everything out.

Plans for my Eco Home

Sandy drew up plans detailing what type of insulation we would need in which part of the cottage. At this point I realised what a very complicated build I was embarking on. It was almost as if having an existing building was a disadvantage: the cottage has very thick outside walls, and at that stage we didn’t know if these were hollow and not very insulating, or if they were fairly solid. For all we knew, they might even have been a bit of both. There was so much we didn’t know.

Air Source Heat Pump from Ice Energy

Another thing to consider was how airtight and warm the building would be when finished – we needed to work out how much heating the building would need before we started. This is not easy to know with an old building. We decided to go for an air source heat pump to heat the hot water and the radiators. So long as a building is well insulated, this is highly efficient: for every 1kW of electricity it uses it makes 3.2kW of heat output. With the cottage being so highly insulated we would use less energy for heating the house and hot water anyway.

This would be backed up by a small wood-burning stove in the living room. It is possible that when finished, the cottage will never need the wood burning stove. However, it is much easier and cheaper to fit it during the build, than it would be to fit one afterwards if it turned out to be necessary.

Another issue concerned solar panels. There are two kinds of solar panel: thermal (which make hot water) and photo voltaic (which make electricity). Originally I planned to have both sorts, but with the solar thermal panels lots of hot water would be wasted in the summer, when there is more sun shine to produce it and just me having showers.

Photo Voltaic Panels from Ikarus Ltd

It would be much more sensible to have just PV panels. There is a program in the United Kingdom where you can sell excess electricity back to the National Grid. Not only that, I can have my PV panels linked up to the highly insulated large tank of hot water, and I will be able to heat that with my own power. So I can get free hot water anyway!


Preparation Checklist for Eco Renovating Your Home

  • Decide on a budget – and be prepared for it to increase
  • Decide a realistic timescale and prepare to be flexible
  • Consider any additional extensions you may want to do and factor them in
  • Decide which renovations are essential, and which can be dropped or changed if costs or timescale increases beyond your budget
  • Consider types of heating/air conditioning, to find out which would be most suitable for your house and for your particular needs