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Turning our Victorian terrace into an ecohome: part one

Sue Wheat

29th April, 2010

One family's journey to turn a draughty, turn-of-the-century terrace into a snug paragon of eco efficiency

Ecohome envy. That's what I've had for a very long time. I've visited new houses of every eco type - a new build ecohouse in Clapham, the Angell Town ecohousing estate in Brixton and beautiful designer co-housing (Hockerton in Nottingham  and Springhill in Stroud).

Then I started hearing about 'ecoretrofits'. No, they're not 1950s makeovers - it's the eco refurbishment of old housing stock. Most of the houses in the UK are old, draughty, single brick houses (no cavity walls) that have been around a long time and are likely to be around way past 2050 - the date by which the Government has committed the UK to an 80 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.

What the future holds

Fortunately, there is a quiet eco-revolution in the offing, with Government, energy companies and local councils now gearing up in order to meet our commitments, particularly through new eco-builds and refurbs of social housing that will help reduce fuel poverty as well as climate change.

A £10m Retrofit for the Future competition is to fund the building of 50 prototype refurbs of social housing. London has 33 boroughs involved in its retrofitting programme and intends to have overhauled 1.2m houses by 2015.

The Government's Warm Homes, Greener Homes strategy, released this March, states that by 2015 every household will have loft and cavity wall insulation where it is practical to do so, and seven million homes will have received eco-upgrades by 2020, including improvements such as solid wall insulation or renewable energy generating technologies.

Keeping your house in order

But with 16m owner-occupied houses UK-wide, practical action must be taken by individual homeowners too. And with rising energy prices and talk of a looming energy crisis, fuel independence is also becoming an issue of household security.

As it happened, I bought a draughty Victorian terrace built in 1904 in Walthamstow, East London. I visited a few similar properties that had been ecorefurbed and saw it was possible to transform a cold, expensive, energy-hungry house to a snug highly-insulated, energy-efficient, cheap-to-run one. Penney Poyzer and Gil Schalom's house in Nottingham was one of the first - they reduced the carbon emissions of their house from 18 tonnes a year to one quarter of a tonne and cut their energy bills dramatically.

Several years later, I have finally got myself into gear and saved a bit of money to think about doing an ecorefurb myself. This article is the first of a three part series following my journey and hopefully providing some useful lessons to others.

Know where you're starting from

There is no shortage of organisations that can help you work out your house's energy efficiency (or in our case gross inefficiency!) and decide what to do, from the easy, cheap DIY jobs to the more involved (and more expensive). Start by visiting the Energy Saving Trust, Bioregional, the T-Zero refurbishment site and GreatBritishRefurb.

When I took Bioregional's online survey, I discovered that despite our family of four's best efforts at living an ecofriendly life - including not flying, being car-free, changing to an energy-efficient boiler, carefully switching off lights and standbys, buying as little and as local as possible - that we are still consuming 2.2 times our sustainable share of resources, producing 8.2 tonnes of C02 and have an ecofootprint of 4.1 global hectares (gha) - the amount of biologically productive land needed to meet our household needs.

We are lower than the average household (three times sustainable resource levels, 11.6 tonnes C02 and 5.3gha), but still, we are a long way off the ideal of ‘one planet living', and household energy use makes up 18 per cent of our ecological-footprint.

T-Zero turned out to be a free project advisor. You put in your house details and it gives you specific proposals, tailoring its suggestions according to your precise budget, working out what you can afford based on the average costs of different types of work (in my case, from £96.25 for simple draughtproofing, to £5,500 for solar PV panels and various insulation suggestions in between), as well as giving the best combination for carbon savings, payback time, longterm value (up to 30 years) and energy rating.

Do some inspiring research

It's very useful (and strangely satisfying) to analyse your bills so you can see at the end of your refurb how much energy and money you've saved. Our gas bill (through Npower) was £565 last year (2347 units) and our electricity (Ecotricity) was £337 (13,305kw). We upgraded our boiler around three years ago to a Potterton 'eco' boiler, which I've now found is B-rated rather than 'A' (we should never have believed the 'eco' title - always check out the real energy rating first) and our electricity usage is actually going up, which I can only put down to increased football laundry, computer and TV games usage.

I also worked out how much we could afford to spend on our refurb in this initial phase (around £10,000 including necessary decorations). We have quite a bit of decorating to do, so now is a good time for us to do any disruptive things like internal wall insulation. I checked out with my council and the Energy Saving Trust if we were eligible for any grants but we weren't. Do check though as it depends on your area and circumstances.

In between the paperwork it's inspiring to see finished ecoretrofits and find that the results are much more eco-chic than eco-shabby. You can search online for a Superhome near you, find out exactly what they did and how, watch video clips and even visit.

Ecobuild is an annual exhibition held in March, full of inspiring stuff. If you missed it, the website has a lot of great info on the exhibitors, information on speakers and downloadable conferences and seminars. The Great British Refurb, organised by WWF with Kevin McCloud of Grand Designs, is also packed with useful ecorefurb case studies and information.

Make a plan

So all researched-out I finally formulated a plan. First, as the Bioregional advisors suggested, I went for picking the 'low-hanging fruit':

Reduce energy use in the home: I thought I'd done this, but I found more was possible. A roam aound Nigel's Ecostore was useful. I'll report back on various energy saving gadgets in the next article. The site also provides a lot of useful energy-saving info that goes beyond the run-of-the-mill.

Radiators: if you don't have individual valves on each radiator get a plumber to change that for you - it beats burning money. But then you have to use them too. We've had them a couple of years but it's only this year we've actually used them, only turning on upstairs radiators before we go to bed. Putting radiator reflectors behind radiators on external walls is definitely the easiest DIY energy saving tip, involving just double-sided sticky tape. You can buy the panels from DIY stores or online, or make them yourselves with foil stuck onto polystyrene tiles. You can also get useful gadgets like an automatic radiator bleeder which makes radiators work more efficiently and a radiator booster (Nigel's ecostore again), which is an energy-efficient fan that distributes the heat from a radiator through the room - very useful in our long lounge where the sofa is a long way from the radiator.

Door draughtproofing: unglamorous it may be, but stopping draughts is the quickest and most significant gain you can make and pays for itself in a year. We put draught brushes on the bottoms of the external doors and a letterbox draught excluder. Then we fitted plastic draught seals around each outside door (easy hammer and nail job). This is definitely a better DIY option rather than the furry thin sticky tape you put in the doorframe. If you are a pensioner or receiving benefits then contact your local energy advice centre as you may be able to get this done for you for free. The National Insulation Association has lots of useful information.

Window draught-proofing: even with double-glazing, a lot of heat is lost through the windows, especially if they are not the more modern, thermally-efficient argon-filled e-glass. I'm looking at various options to reduce window heat loss that I'll explain in the next article.

The bigger jobs

Loft insulation: this is not usually a big job, but our loft is a particularly tricky one, so I will go into our bespoke solution next time.

Solid wall insulation: without cavity walls, internal or external insulation are the only options. I'll reveal the pros and cons of both in future articles and what we do.

Under-floor insulation: with draughty wooden floors this would be sensible, but will we be able to do it without destroying our nice floors?

A multifuel burning stove: so that we can keep the lounge warm without heating the rest of the house and stave off the inevitable rising gas prices.

There are other things we want to do, such as heat recovery ventilation and solar panels to take advantage of the new Feed-in-Tariff that will pay householders for producing electricity, but we will have to see how far the budget will stretch. Sexy they may be, there's only any point in pursuing renewables like solar after you've put your house in order with energy efficiency, draughtproofing and insulation. For old, energy-guzzling houses like ours, the challenge is on - and we intend to rise to it.

Sue Wheat is a freelance journalist. Come back soon to read the second instalment in her eco refurb odyssey...

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