- Green House
July - August - September 2007
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07 Jul 2007 - NEW ARCHITECTS
Hurrah! We have a new architect. Strangely, the search reminded me of looking at new puppies after our old dog had died: it should have been pleasurable process, but all I wanted was a replacement, and hadn’t got the heart to begin all over again with toilet training and the rest – in this case, going through the whole sketches and discussion stage all over again. In the end, after lengthy deliberations, we settled on Nick England (englandarchitecture.co.uk), a friend of a friend who lives nearby and so is already familiar with our railway carriage project. He does not market himself as a “green architect” as such – but only because he believes all architects should be green. And for a “low-techie” like me, who favours passive solar design over hi-tech wizzardry, and local, recycled materials over the latest “must-have” gadget from abroad, Nick’s down-to-earth approach has a definite appeal. Self-confessed car boot sale addicts, he and his wife Rose, with whom he works on project interiors, have an aesthetic very much in tune with our own. He prefers only to use new materials where old, existing ones won’t do – on schemes ranging from a half-million pound live/work space for artists to a flat in Folkestone being carved slowly, as the owner’s budget allows, from a former public steam baths. Nick hopes to have our revised plans in for approval in just few weeks time. He’s already proposing interesting ideas like using salvaged Victorian iron columns to support the raised rear carriage in the air. So far, so interesting. Here’s hoping he will stick around.
14 JULY 2007 - CLOTHES BAN
One of the areas in which I’ve found it easiest to live a greener life is that of clothes shopping. For whatever reason –the dread of bearing all in communal changing rooms figuring as highly as waste, pollution, and three year olds in third world sweatshops - I hardly ever do it. For the past few years, I’ve got by on hand-me downs from sisters, thrift shop finds, mail order bargains and the odd designer sample sale – people like Margaret Howell whose stuff is classic and well-made enough to last for many years. My favourite clothes are well-loved items that have stood the test of time – vintage silk dresses, linen shirts gone soft and faded with washing, a tucked cotton smock from Egg that saw me through pregnancy. I quite literally wear them out – last week was not the first time a pair of trousers split at the seam, leaving me tugging down my top in embarrassment. But I can’t claim too much high moral ground. Though I’ve so far stuck to my new year’s resolution to buy no new clothes or shoes, a shameful stash of leather gloves, cashmere wristwarmers and expensive scarves has crept into my wardrobe – accessories, I’d decided, being outside the remit. Looking at the latest offering, a one-off scarf made from crumpled silk and embroidered net with which I’m particularly pleased, my husband commented, ‘Don’t you think it’s taking this recycling lark a bit far when you start wearing scarves made from old ladies’ pants?’
21 Jul 2007 - INSTANT VEG PLOT
Encouraged by the success of my raised vegetable beds – a fine crop of broad beans, spinach, strawberries and tiny tomatoes in salvaged apple crates – I’ve devoted more of the seaside garden to growing our own. With all the delays, and the start of major building work still far in the future, I dispelled my disappointment with a weekend’s hard digging. The soil’s pretty poor and stony, so I worked in a good heap of well-rotted sheep manure (courtesy of a kind neighbour), accompanied by three-year-old Mary singing “Baa baa black sheep, have you any poo?” Friends with surplus seedlings provided young runner bean, courgette and cucumber plants – and I found sweet corn and pumpkins at our local nursery. By the time we left for London they were all in place, with a bamboo tepee for the beans to climb up and woven wicker cloches to protect lower-growing plants from the wind. I felt better already. I gave up my London allotments when we took on this project to convert the railway carriage houses into our future full-time eco-home, and have missed the rhythms and rewards of raising my own organic fruit and veg. When we next arrived, I was checking on my plants in the moonlight before the boot was unpacked. Instant gardening it may be, but it’s given instant pleasure. It’s also inspired me to spend the rest of the summer down here with Mary, commuting back to London only when necessary. Growing our food is one thing; inventing another form of food miles by travelling down at weekends to eat it is another.
Encouraged by the success of my raised vegetable beds – a fine crop of broad beans, spinach, strawberries and tiny tomatoes in salvaged apple crates – I’ve devoted more of the seaside garden to growing our own. With all the delays, and the start of major building work still far in the future, I dispelled my disappointment with a weekend’s hard digging. The soil’s pretty poor and stony, so I worked in a good heap of well-rotted sheep manure (courtesy of a kind neighbour), accompanied by three-year-old Mary singing “Baa baa black sheep, have you any poo?” Friends with surplus seedlings provided young runner bean, courgette and cucumber plants – and I found sweet corn and pumpkins at our local nursery. By the time we left for London they were all in place, with a bamboo tepee for the beans to climb up and woven wicker cloches to protect lower-growing plants from the wind. I felt better already. I gave up my London allotments when we took on this project to convert the railway carriage houses into our future full-time eco-home, and I’ve missed the rhythms and rewards of raising my own organic fruit and veg. Now, when we arrive down late on Thursday nights, I’m checking on my plants in the moonlight before the boot’s unpacked. Instant gardening it may be, but it’s given instant pleasure. And one shopping trip for plants should save on many more for food in the months to come, which can only be good for us all.
28 Jul 2007 - RISING SEA
Call me an ostrich, but I’ve been trying to ignore the increasing irony of building an eco house on the coast - precisely the place made most vulnerable by our un-eco ways. The latest report published by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), predicts rising temperatures of between 1.1C and 6.4C by the end of this century, with a rise of 4 degrees most likely. And, as Arctic ice melts and disappears, sea levels will rise by half a metre or more, with extreme weather conditions making coastal flooding more frequent and severe. Till now, the possibility of this happening remained remote in my mind. But recently the local rumour-mongering has begun. Greenland’s ice sheet is melting faster than we’d thought, people say; this, combined with localized shifts in the shingle, mean we have 25 years, 50 at most – before this whole area is under water. I’ve also been reading Six Degrees, Mark Lynas’s apocalyptic vision of life on a hotter planet, with its jolly jacket cover of St Paul’s Cathedral just visible above the waves, and its accounts of streams of displaced coastal dwellers invading the cities after storms. Suddenly, I’m inordinately glad our plans for the house include bedrooms upstairs. The initial motive was the sea view, but safety now seems the prerogative. All the scare-mongering in the world won’t stop me wanting to live in this beautiful place. But the sound of the sea as I lie in bed at night is no longer the soothing lullaby it was.
04 Aug 2007 - RECYCLING REVOLUTION
“The Recycling Revolution – It’s Here!” thundered a 20-page booklet that landed on our doorstep the other day. So, more to the point, were a battery of new plastic boxes and bins. Like much of the country, our local council is changing the way in which rubbish is collected. Paper, plastic bottles and cans, which we used to have to take to the recycling centre, will now be collected from home in the big green and black boxes; glass and cardboard, however, is still down to us and has to be stored separately. Everything else ends up in an enormous black wheelie bin, to be emptied on alternate weeks. There’s an optional green wheelie for garden waste, but we’ll continue composting ours, along with kitchen scraps.
Changes such as this can only be good for the environment. Of the average half tonne per person of rubbish that’s collected every year in the UK, a good 60-70 per cent could be recycled, and schemes like ours should make it easier for those who find it hard to get to a recycling centre. Storing all this stuff takes space, however, and I can’t help wondering where those in small flats will keep this new kit, and how the elderly and infirm will cart it about. We’re having to factor storage of this fleet of bins into our plans for the kitchen extension at the railway carriage house, and have sketched in a lean-to outside the back door. I really don’t want a stack of smelly bins to be the first thing that greets visitors, but for many, this will be the only option.
Alarmingly our bins have been fitted with ID chips, and there’s the threat of fines for sneaking the wrong stuff in your bins, or failing to leave them out at the right time. So far, however, they’ve been studiously ignored for three weeks. If this is a revolution, it’s certainly a slow one.
Recycling revolution? Recycling police state, more like. “The Recycling Revolution” thundered a 20-page booklet that turned up on our doorstep the other day, along with a battery of new plastic boxes and bins. Like much of the country, our local council is changing the way in which rubbish is collected. Paper, plastic bottles and cans, which we used to have to take to the recycling centre, will now be collected from home in the big green and black boxes. Everything else goes into an enormous black wheelie bin, which will be emptied on alternate weeks. There’s also an optional green wheelie bin for garden waste, but we’ll continue to compost ours, along with kitchen scraps. No sign of the controversial “slop bins” for food waste that were pioneered in Bristol – but there’s a discount offered on home compost bins.
All this can only be good news for the environment. Of the average half tonne per person of rubbish that is collected every year in the UK, a good 60-70 per cent could be recycled, and schemes such as ours should make it easier for those who find it hard to get to a recycling centre. Storing all this stuff takes space, however, and I can’t help asking where those in small flats will keep this new kit, and how the elderly and infirm will cart it about. Alarmingly our bins have been fitted with ID chips, and there’s the threat of fines for sneaking the wrong stuff in your bins, or failing to leave them out at the right time.
So far, however, they’ve been studiously ignored for three weeks. If this is a revolution, it’s certainly a slow one.
11 Aug 2007 - A LITTLE KNOWLEDGE…
While friends discuss the latest novels at book clubs, I have no one with whom to share the finer points of The Green Building Bible (greenbuildingpress.co.uk) and The Whole House Book (cat.org), nor to impress with my newfound mastery of acronyms such as ODP (Ozone Depletion Potential), COP (Coeffiecient of Performance) and SAP (Standard Assessment Procedure). SAP ratings measure the energy efficiency of a building, using a Carbon Index to measure the amount of CO2 created per metre squared of floor area. They are now a legal requirement on all new-build projects - a reading of one is poor and over 100 possible if power is exported to the National Grid via photovoltaic panels. Luckily for us, the SAP takes into account the entire dwelling: size, orientation, solar gain, placement and type of doors and windows, insulation, ventilation and use of sustainable energy. So while we may lag behind in the insulation stakes (1860s railway carriage doors and windows proving hard to make completely airtight), we should make up some ground with our green roof and solar panels.
What the SAP rating does not yet take into account is “embodied energy”, however. Rockwool insulation, for instance, currently has a high (good) carbon index, in spite of the fact it is toxic and uses lots of energy in production. Because it is cheap, it is still widely used compared to pricier greener insulation such as sheep’s wool.
Riveting stuff for me, but hardly party conversation. Or so I thought, until I bumped into an old college friend, now a successful architect in Scotland, at a wedding. As others glazed over and drifted away, we had a lively chat about the carbon index ratings of various green insulation materials. Not bad for a novice green builder, I thought.
18 Aug 2007 - UP AND AWAY….
Central to our plans for the eco house is the idea of raising the rear railway carriage off the ground. What started as a crazy notion is now, to our minds at least, a clever way to create an upper storey and large living area beneath, without an awful lot of extra building. Others are not so sure. Some say it will look out of keeping – including, I had to remind him, the friend who’d suggested at the outset that, rather than build an extension, we buy another old carriage and bung it on the roof. Others doubt it will be possible to lift the carriage intact. Thank goodness the new architect shares our confidence in the plan. I don’t doubt there are risks involved. The carriages are almost 150 years old, more than 40 feet long, and we don’t have much idea of their state underneath. But the procedure is not without precedent. After all, they were winched here in the first place, probably by steam cranes, back in 1919. And Frank, who has developed a worrying habit of searching for anything to do with old railway carriages on the internet (what is it about men and trains?) came up with images of a turn-of-the-century carriage that looked remarkably like ours, being safely craned in off a ship after decades in the States. As he pointed out, if we film the process and it all goes horribly wrong, we can always send the footage in to You’ve Been Framed and claim £250.
01 Sep 2007 - NORWEGIAN WOOD
I knew I could relax when Nick, our new architect, turned up to our first meeting with one of my favourite books - Norwegian Wood: the Thoughtful Architecture of Wenche Selmer - under his arm. Selmer, who died in 1998, combined local building traditions, ecological concerns and modern conveniences in the quietly beautiful wood cabins and houses she built in the forests and along the coasts of rural Norway. I hope he will bring something of her spirit to our project. The only downside is that, inevitably, with a new mind on the job come new ideas that take time to incorporate into our existing plans. For “ease of circulation” – architects love talking about “circulation” – Nick has shifted the stairs from by the front door to the back, and has also moved the log burner from where it stood, as a striking but fairly useless focal point, to mid-way down the sitting room wall, where it will seem far more natural to pull up chairs around it. There will be glass doors out on to the garden on either side, and as Nick painted a picture of us, gathered around the stove on a winter’s day with snow falling silently outside, I could almost believe we were in one of Wenche Selmer’s Norwegian cabins. In an adaptation of a feature often found in rural French farmhouses, flues from the back of the fire will branch off upstairs to heat the bedrooms – an idea with definite Heath Robinson-esque appeal. Now all we need is to get these new drawings past the planners; then I can really relax.
08 Sep 2007 - PLANNING BLUES
It’s been a bad few weeks. First the basement of our London house was flooded in the July deluge (these columns are written many weeks in advance). Nothing compared to what many poor people have been suffering, but a drag nonetheless. Then came the news that the planners are still not happy with our plans for the eco-house. It’s that word “massing” again. Apparently they feel that the new upper storey – the raised railway carriage reconfigured to contain two bedrooms and a bathroom – is too large. Obviously, you can’t just hoik the carriage up in the air; a connecting corridor is needed to provide access to the rooms – and being on the seaward and windward side, this fulfils an additional function of protecting the Victorian woodwork, too, while contributing, via substantial areas of glazing, to passive solar gain. But, rather than a narrow passage like those in an old-fashioned sleeper car, we’d decided to go for something wider, which would also work as a library, with bookshelves beneath window-seats along its length and space for a couple of armchairs looking out to sea. On paper, it was already one of my favourite parts of the house – and a refuge from the fray if the lower floor were full of guests. We can either fight the decision or re-submit. Both will delay progress still further. So long as we can start building as early next year as possible, we still have a hope of finishing in time for when Mary starts school here in September. But it’s already looking tight.
15 Sep 2007 - ELECTRIC GREEN
Why have I taken so long to swap to a green energy supplier? Laziness and procrastination played a part, but the main barrier was bafflement in the face of all the options. With some so-called “green” tarrifs, only a small fraction of the energy supplied actually comes from renewable sources, or is “traded” with other suppliers (allowing the latter to meet the statutory Renewables Obligations so that while “green” customers receive more renewable electricity, others on standard tarrifs get less). Good Energy has a 100 per cent renewable guarantee but off-putting standard charge; Green Energy is offering its first 100,000 customers the option to receive shares. Or how about EquiPower, a not-for-profit enterprise offering a flat rate for everyone and no standing charge? Of course, signing up with any of the above would have been preferable to staying put, but still I dithered. Shame, it turned out, was the spur. Recently, a crowded dinner table fell silent as someone turned and asked me: “So which energy supplier are you with?” One red face and half an hour’s googling later and I’d signed with Ecotricity (New Energy Plus), won over by their commitment to invest in new renewable schemes throughout the UK. It may not be the absolute greenest option, but it’s got to be better than Npower, who were recently trying to entice new customers with vouchers for lastminute.com…. And all it took was a telephone call.
www.greenelectricity.org gives impartial information on all green tarrifs.
22 Sep 2007 - DIGGING FOR VICTORY
Against the estimated 2.1 tons of C02 emissions per person per year related to food consumption, the pickings from my kitchen garden this cold wet summer would hardly make a dent. And yet, as I gathered the last runner beans and tomatoes, I felt pleased out of all proportion with our produce. This was the patch I dug and planted up the weekend I realized we weren’t to begin building this summer. And if out of that disappointment has come even a few meals sourced no further than 40 feet away, fed with nothing more than rainwater and the rotted-down poo of some local sheep, then that’s some consolation. When 1kg chemical fertilizer takes 6kg C02 emissions to produce and distribute, and1kg Dutch tomatoes generates 2.1kg C02, every little helps. Factor in the enjoyment and education my three-year-old gained from the project, and its value increases still further. It also felt good to be part of a groundswell movement. Last year, sales of fruit and vegetable plants and seed superseded those of flowers, and the demand for allotments has never been higher. The last time the British grew their own on this scale was during World War II, when gardens, parks and playing fields were turned over to cabbages and potatoes. And we’re still digging for victory, whether for health or economic reasons, to help combat global warming, break the stranglehold of the supermarkets on the food supply - or for the simple satisfaction of seeing something grow from a seed to a plant that feeds our body, mind and soul.
29 Sep 2007 - WALK-IN LARDER
A sauna, home cinema, or simply a second bathroom: everyone has a “dream room” they’d long for in a new home or include in a new-build. Mine’s a walk-in larder. Pre-war houses, from cottages to stately homes, were all equipped with naturally cool rooms in which food could be stored at low temperatures, safe from flies and vermin, but the widespread manufacture of fridges was the death of the old-fashioned larder. Now, with awareness of the environmental costs of running huge American-style fridges, not to mention advice to put by essential supplies in case of flooding or other disaster, seems a good time to revive it. Ours will be on the cool north side of the house, just off the kitchen, with a stone floor, tiled walls, and the lower shelves made from salvaged marble slabs to keep perishable foods at optimum temperature. Many foods commonly kept in fridges, such as fruit, eggs and many cheeses, can be safely (and in many cases more satisfactorily) kept in a cool room. While I can’t imagine doing without a fridge all together, especially in summer when the house is full of visitors, we aim to get by with a small one, at least over winter. A high meshed window will let air in to the larder but keep flies out, and there’ll be hooks in the ceiling for hanging garlic and onions. Last, but not least, there will be plenty of room for homemade produce. As I snap the Le Parfait lids shut on the latest batch of blackberry jam and piccalilli, I feel like a squirrel, storing up good things for the winter.
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