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.

Kitchen-April-Cottage
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.

Heat-Pump
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.

PV-Solar-Panels
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

 

How to find an Eco Architect for your build

 

The first job when starting an eco-renovation of an old house is to find an architect. It is best to do this before you have made your purchase, so that you know your house will be suitable for development. When I set out to do this, the first place I looked was the RIBA: the Royal Institute of British Architects. I had hoped to find a list of Eco Architects, but I couldn’t find this information on their website.

I did know about some organizations that could be useful, so I began the research, and here is a run down of what I found…

CAT: the Centre for Alternative Technology  

CAT runs an education center, which innovates and tests new sustainable ideas. CAT was founded in 1973 on the site of an old disused quarry, in Mid Wales. The Centre is constantly changing and adapting, getting involved in exciting new projects, schemes and ideas, building on over three decades of knowledge and experience.

CAT logo
Centre for Alternative Technology

CAT has become one of Europe’s leading eco-centre, receiving tens of thousands of visitors every year, who come to learn about their work.  For information about their courses and visiting, as well as lots of other useful eco information, go to www.cat.org.uk.

 

The Green Register

NEW-GREEN-REGISTER-LOGO-CMYK

www.greenregister.org.uk  This register has lists of architects that could be suitable. However, when I was investigating I couldn’t find any information about what the architects listed had done, on the website, just contact details. I rang three companies to discuss my project, but all were very large organizations, not interested in my little cottage.

Passive House

Passive house (or passivhaus in German) is a term that refers to a standard of energy efficiency within a building that needs little or no energy to run the building. There are various levels of this, and buildings are tested and catagorised depending on how low the levels of energy input. A building that is completely passive is one that has no carbon footprint at all. There is a passivhaus website with information about testing and monitoring buildings, not archtects though. www.passivhaus.org.uk.

 

AECB: the Association for Environment Conscious Buildings

http://www.aecb.net

This is a network of individuals and companies who have the aim of promoting sustainable buildings. It brings everyone together to share and promote best practice in environmentally sustainable building. I became a member of the AECB, attracted by the fact that they sent out two monthly magazines, keeping us up to date with the details of various eco building projects especially passive house projects.

AECB2016[3][24]

When I started investigating this site, I found more individual architects, rather than large firms, and this was what I needed. It was through AECB that I found an architect.

Local Eco Architects

Since making this post I have additional information local to my area. Marcus Simmons, who I know, is part of a cooperative called Community Outreach Building, and one of there directors is also an architect who takes a very sensitive sustainable approach. His practice is called Manifest Design Workshop. Another small but very dynamic and helpful architects firm we work with is called Transition by Design, both are based at Oxford UK. If you wanted a third quote (and it’s good to shop around), they could also advise on other local practices who take a sustainable approach. I’m also sure that Hook Norton Low Carbon group have good contacts with suitable local architects.

How to Buy a House Suitable for Eco Renovation

2nd-Blog-Title-Pic5 Essential Steps Before Buying a Home For Eco-Renovation

I’m not a typical eco-warrior, having worked in the fashion and textile industry, and never worn a fisherman’s smock top in my life. But eco-aware people come in suits as well as flip-flops. I’ve recycled, avoided excess packaging, used public transport. Even though my London apartment had a tiny patio instead of a garden, I had a composter, which – in theory – could take all the kitchen waste. With the compost it produced then being passed on to others. It didn’t work out because the composter leaked – probably my fault, but I tried!

bokashi-composter-new-2015-1

When I decided to move from London to the Country a few years ago, I saw it as a chance to ensure my new home was as environmentally friendly as possible. My search to find the right home took a while because, to be honest, I had a lot to learn! The good thing about that is I can now pass on what I’ve learned.  I cangive you tons of tips for how to choose a house suitable for eco-renovation.

Step 1: Evaluate what works in your current home

Why look for your current home’s good points?

When I started looking into what makes a home environmentally friendly, I sometimes felt overwhelmed. There were lots of options. Knowing what already works gives you a foundation to build on and makes it feel more manageable.

When we approach change from a belief that what we have isn’t good enough, it creates feelings of lack and of struggle. So seeing what works in your current home will help you feel more confident about your search.

My apartment had its good points. Being insulated by others on both sides and above meant heating bills were low. The composter hadn’t worked well. On the up side I now knew a lot about composting and that could put my knowledge to use in a new home.

  • Exercise for you: make a list of what’s good about where you live now.

 

Step 2: Decide what type of property best suits your lifestyle and personality

Be realistic. If you don’t have time or the desire to maintain a garden then you might be better off in an apartment. If you currently live two minutes walk from your office, buying an energy-efficient house and then driving fifty miles to work will not do much to reduce your carbon footprint!

I loved the bustle of city life, so I initially looked for energy efficient properties in London. There were few of these on the market, and I felt discouraged. Then I looked at a house in Camden, in North London, that had been “ecoed-up,” and realised the best option was to buy an ordinary apartment in need of renovation.

  • Exercise for you: consider what about your lifestyle you want to keep.

Various-Locations

Step 3: Be Flexible

Finding the right apartment proved tricky, and gradually my search moved into the suburbs. I realised that the cheaper prices in the surrounding countryside meant I could buy a house instead of an apartment. I work from home, so I wasn’t tied to a job in the city.

  • Exercise for you: Decide what you need to retain from your current lifestyle, and what could change.

Step 4: Make a list of desirable points your new home should have

Once I had decided to look for a house in the countryside, instead of an apartment in town, I began researching in earnest, learning as much as I could about the best type of property for eco-renovation. It needed retain the insulating benefits my apartment had, and be suitable for alternative forms of energy. To avoid too much car usage, it needed to be in a small town or village with the easy access to shops and amenities. Living in a lonely detached cottage on a wild moor was not on the agenda!

After considering both environmental concerns and my own needs, I made a checklist of desirable points. This was my list:

  1. Terraced house – for warmth on both sides
  2. South facing garden (yard) – this means solar panels can be on the back, and so do not detract from the house’s appearance
  3. Suitable for alternative energy
  4. With a garage
  5. In a village
  6. Near shops
  • Exercise for you: List what desirable points your new home should have.

 

Step 5: Be open to all possibilities and use your imagination

Even after I widened my search nothing I saw seemed right, and was beginning to feel despondent.

A friend came round, and as I made a tea I told him about the struggle I was having. “It’s getting ridiculous,” I said. “I’ve been looking in Buckinghamshire and that’s just about equal distance from everyone I know, and near absolutely nobody I know.

My friend said, “I don’t know why you don’t just move back to the Cotswolds.”

I almost dropped the teapot I was holding.

That was it! I’d grown up in the Cotswolds and loved the rolling hills, beautiful views, and the quiet and slower pace of life.

2nd-Blog-4PicI’d love to say that once I’d made this decision, everything fell into place. But it took a while.

Then one day a friend and I went on another expedition into the Cotswolds. This cottage we visited was early Victorian, or possibly a little older. As we stood outside with the estate agent, I remembered my family driving past the house when I was a child. It felt as if I almost knew it. I had a good feeling!

A little old lady answered the door and we stepped into a formal dining room. She led us into the living room, full of little-old-lady things. It was hard to imagine my stuff in it. Looking at the bricked up fire-place with its electric fire, I had a sinking feeling. Maybe it wasn’t the right house after all.

2nd-Blog-BShe led us into the kitchen. Outside the large window was a raised garden. Although it was winter and few plants growing, I could visualise it filled with herbs, vegetables and flowers. I could almost smell sweet peas, lavender and rosemary. A little table and chair suggested it was possible to eat in the kitchen. With our coats on, we didn’t notice the temperature.

As we went upstairs, I felt happier again. One of the bedrooms had a set of stairs leading to an attic room. The estate agent stayed to chat to the owner, while my friend and I went upstairs. Although it seemed as if we had stepped back into the 1970s, the room was spacious and I could imagine setting up my design table and working in this airy space. A large dormer window looked out over traditional Victorian houses towards hills in the distance.
2nd-Blog-AMy friend stood at the window. She turned to me and said, “Well, this ticks all the boxes.”

I knew then it was decision time. Either I bought this house or gave up looking and stayed where I was in London.

 

 

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