Elspeth Thompson


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January - February - March 2007

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One of my new year’s resolutions this year was to get the composting under control. Saving garden and kitchen itself is not the problem: I’m such a compost fanatic that I’ve been known to scrape up the artichoke or asparagus remains at dinner parties and take them home in a plastic bag – even checking them into a night club cloakroom en route on one occasion. No, what lets me down is the array of malodorous, overflowing containers that litter our kitchen because I am too lazy/tired/it’s too dark/wet to go outside to empty them. We used to have one large old enamel bucket with a lid in the kitchen that was the half-way house to the wormery and compost heap in the garden. But Frank put his foot down one summer when a plague of tiny, infuriating fruit flies descended on our kitchen and refused to leave. So the bucket moved just outside the door, to be supplemented by various smaller tubs and Tupperwares that have proved sadly inadequate to the task. All this has now changed, thanks to a spanking new – and surprisingly attractive – ceramic “compost crock” from The Organic Gardening Catalogue (0845 1301304/ www.OrganicCatalogue.com), price £16.95. A carbon filter in the lid keeps bad smells at bay, and I’ve even invested in a pack of biodegradable liners (£5.65 for 25) so the whole slimy lot can slide straight out of the caddy and onto the heap with the minimum of mess and fuss. Happy composting!


27 Jan 2007 - ECO BED-LINEN

It was only with the birth of my daughter two years ago that I seriously started thinking about eco cotton and bedlinen. Instinctively, I felt I’d rather have that tiny new body tucked up in natural fabrics that had not been chemically treated, and spent a small fortune on mattresses, sheets and blankets from Green Baby (0870 240 6894 greenbaby.co.uk) and Greenfibres (0845 3303440 greenfibres.com). I turned out to be right – recent research suggests that fire retardants, moth repellants, “easy care” and anti-pilling finishes routinely applied to bedlinen may contribute to childhood asthma, eczma and even cot deaths. And it’s not just a matter of personal health. Even the fashion industry is waking up to the fact that conventionally grown and bleached cotton is one of the most polluting products on the planet – GMO seeds are used for around 70 per cent of US-grown cotton, with highly toxic pesticides causing untold damage to workers, wildlife and neighbouring communities. And that’s before the bleaching and dyeing begins. I’ve started, slowly, to replace our bedlinen and towels with ethically produced cotton – Greenfibre’s sheets start at £24.50, while for the occasional luxury there is Gayle Warwick Fine Linen (020 7493 5567), whose organic linen sheets start at £150. Buying second hand is cheaper – and of course has involved no additional industrial processes at all. Ebay and second-hand markets are good sources – some of my favourites are heavy cotton hospital sheets with colour-coded size indicators woven into the selvedge.


03 Feb 2007 - GREEN ROOFS

One of my long-held dreams for the eco-renovation of our railway carriage house by the sea is a “green roof” covered in plants. My vision is highly decorative, with bees and butterflies hovering among a tapestry of flowers with maybe the odd bird’s nest, but green roofs do not only provide useful habitats for wildlife; they can also provide relatively cheap and effective insulation against heat and cold, while also reducing pollution and flash flooding. Traditional turf roofs need a fair degree of upkeep (rural Scandinavians use goats as mowing machines), not to mention a sturdy roof structure to support the necessary depth of soil and water-proofing. But sedums – drought-resistant, slow-growing succulent plants with shallow root systems that lend themselves to rooftop planting – are proving increasingly popular as an eco-friendly, low-maintenance option for flat or slightly slanting roofs on anything from sheds and garages to children’s playhouses, kennels and beehives. Maddy Harland, editor of Permaculture magazine, raised plants from cuttings and offsets to re-roof the garage of her house in Hampshire, but I shall be cheating with ready-made, roll-out sedum matting such as Enviromat (01842 828266 enviromat.co.uk) which is supplied on its own growing membrane from £33 per sq metre. This project is taking long enough to get off the ground without me trying to grow our own roof from scratch. Information on the construction of sedum roofs is available from the Centre for Alternative Technology (0845 330 8373), www.cat.org.uk along with a list of green roofing suppliers.


10 Feb 2007 - A BIT OF A SETBACK

A telephone call from Mike, our architect. The planning office is advising us to withdraw our application as the first round of consultations – with worthies of the local parish – has not gone well. The problem is apparently “massing” – too much new building concentrated in one place. Our kitchen extension with bedroom, study and balconies above is deemed too bulky in relation to the house next door – despite the fact that the neighbours themselves have not complained. The planners are in favour of “upgrading” the quaint old houses along our track, and I suspect we’d be given an easier ride if we wanted to rip the railway carriages up and start again.

Mike has argued and cajoled, had meetings on site, and submitted a report on the history of the carriages and our eco-home intentions. But all to no avail. So the endless round of discussions and sketches has begun all over again. Cantilevering the upper storey forward and over the carriages involves complex engineering and costly (and un-eco) steel girders, and reduces natural light downstairs. Moving it anywhere else is uneconomical and shades out the garden. One scheme encased the carriages beneath a modernist, flat-roof structure resembling Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion of 1932. Another hoisted them up in the air with a new floor beneath. We’ve finally hatched a plan for a smaller signal-box style tower with further ground-floor rooms beyond the kitchen. The tower looked familiar. We were back to where we’d started three years ago.


“Geo-thermal” and “ground source” heat pumps seem to be the eco buzzwords of the moment, and the idea of extracting heat from below the ground and using it for domestic heating and hot water, is certainly appealing. The heat source is free, totally sustainable and the technology relatively simple – temperatures increase the deeper you go, and as we all learned in Physics, heat travels automatically from hot areas to cold. Sounds too good to be true? Well, until recently, it probably was.

The heat in the ground may be there for the taking, but a lot of extra energy is needed to shift it and convert it for use. Installation involves costly excavation work and pipe laying. And to run the heat pump and compressor consumes on average one unit of electricity to every three units moved. Though this makes sense in Scandinavia, with its cheaper and greener hydro-power-dominated grid, one can see why, in the UK, with gas until recently relatively cheap, the systems have been slow to gain ground.

Thanks to new technology developed in the Orkneys
(iceheating.com 0845 600 10 20), it is now possible to use solar panels not only to run the pump but also to raise ground temperatures (via hot water pumped into the earth), thus reducing the extra energy needed. Geo-thermal systems have been installed in several hundred UK projects, ranging from state-of-the-art eco homes to sheltered housing and the invertebrate house at London Zoo.

For further information, contact Ice Energy (01865 882202 iceenergy.co.uk) or Ice Heating (see above).



The old boat-fitter who lived in our seaside house before us used to have fun winding up double-glazing cold-callers. He’d get them excited by telling them the property had 69 windows, only to reveal, at the end of their hard sell, that it was made from Victorian train carriages and clearly unsuitable. The new parts of our eco-conversion project, however, will be another matter – the plans include a wall of french windows opening on to the garden. Efficient insulation is obviously a priority, and as we’re only 200 yards from the sea in an area prone to gale-force winds, double glazing would make good sense. White u-PVC is out of bounds on aesthetic grounds as well as the toxic waste involved in its creation and disposal. So I was delighted when our architect showed us the windows he has installed in his own offices – timber-framed, made from sustainable wood and with a high-spec paint finish guaranteed for ten years. It’s no surprise to learn they were custom-made in Sweden (morupstra.se), where DOUBLE-glazing is a legal requirement. The only down-sides I can see are the price (though this would be countered by on-site painting and maintenance costs) and the fact they will have to be transported a long way by sea and road. But it seems an acceptable price to pay for beautiful, energy-efficient windows that should last the lifetime of the property. And I’ll know how to see off the u-PVC salesmen next time they call.


03 Mar 2007 - HI-TECH v. LO-TECH

When did I ever find time to read novels? These days, my every free waking moment is spent with my nose buried in tomes such as The Green Building Bible: All You Need to Know about Eco-Building (Green Building Press £17 for two volumes) and The Whole House Book: Ecological Building Design and Materials (Centre for Alternative Technology £35) - both available from cat.org.uk.

One of the many things they’ve been teaching me is that there is something of a divide in green circles between “high-tech” and “low-tech” building methods. On the high-tech side are state-of-the-art homes and offices bristling with complex green gadgets and gizmos including heat pumps, heat exchangers, mechanical ventilation units, pholtovoltaic inverters and the metres of pipes and wires they entail. “Low-techies” favour simpler, passive solar-designed buildings made from timber, cob or straw bales, where walls and windows absorb the heat of the sun, ventilation is a matter of opening well-placed and insulated windows and hot water is provided by basic solar panels. Being of the “less there is the less there is to go wrong” school of thought (not for nothing did a reader’s letter scorn me as a “Luddite”), I nearly had a panic attack when I saw all the pipes, wires, flashing meters and appliances inside the “Engine Room” of an eco-house I visited during London Open House last September, and favour a simpler approach for our train carriage conversion. Anyway, that’s all I have time for now – I can’t wait to get back to that chapter on eco-insulation.


There are many annoying things about building regulations, but one of the most frustrating is the obligation to install electric extractor fans in new bathrooms. While this is fine in small windowless bathrooms, I resented having to include one when we converted a large top-floor bedroom, complete with perfectly-functioning sash window. Rather than simply open the window a few inches when we had a bath, which would air the room and allow the steam to disperse, we had to shell out on a device that was a) ugly b) energy-wasting and c) woke the person in the next room with an awful whirring sound whenever the light was switched on. Like many others, we simply disconnected it once our building work had been passed, but I still look on such requirements with a mixture of suspicion and resentment.

Since April last year thermal insulation falls within the remit of building control – and on renovations of existing properties as well as new-builds. While this is commendable on many grounds – around 40 per cent of heat used to warm our homes escapes through uninsulated walls and roof-spaces – it should surely go hand in hand with a reduction in toxic materials. All houses need to breathe – but none more so than developments created with an eye for profit over quality, where a cocktail of questionable chemicals is built into the insulated walls themselves, not to mention paint finishes and furnishings. Without adequate – and appropriate – ventilation, we can all too easily turn our homes into toxic tombs.

17 Mar 2007 - SOLAR SHOWER
A friend who worked in Africa remembers taking showers beneath a plastic sack of water, suspended from the roof of her hut, which became hot after a few hours in the sun. While I’m hardly recommending we all string up refuse sacks in our back yards, there’s a lot to learn from the simplicity and resourcefulness of such devices in the developing world. It’s easy to be blinded by the latest in photovoltaic science, but early solar panels were little more than old radiators painted black (to absorb heat) and attached to a south-sloping roof. When we bought our London house ten years ago, it had the wrong sort of boiler for a solar system, even had we been able to afford one. But when we added a shower to the top bathroom, we employed simple passive solar principles to give it a helping hand. Rather than pump mains water directly into the shower, we installed an extra tank on the flat roof above. Encased in dark heat-absorbant cladding, the tank not only increases the water pressure, but also boosts the temperature on all but the coldest days. In high summer, I could return home after an afternoon at the allotment, and be able to turn the heating dial right down while still enjoying steaming hot water. Down here by the sea, an outdoor shower is a must, and we hope that, on days hot enough for swimming, the sun will again give us all the hot water we need.



Mention that you are involved in any major building project at the moment, and in minutes the name of Kevin McCloud will come up. Much though I enjoy watching Grand Designs, and admire the way it has awakened the British public’s building ambitions, I personally have no desire to appear on such a programme. Some people find this strange – not least due to Kevin’s popularity with women of a certain age. But, quite apart from the hassle and hideous embarrassment of having a TV crew on site, we are under enough pressure of our own to get our eco-build off the ground without any extra badgering from Kevin.
Coming up with a suitable revised scheme to re-submit for planning approval has been holding us up for weeks. How can we accommodate our own needs (kitchen-dining room extension plus a couple of extra bedrooms) while a) not falling foul of the planners’ fears of overdevelopment and b) fulfilling the Environment Agency’s requirement that all new bedrooms be on the upper storey – the latter, rather ominously, for protection in the face of flooding and rising sea levels?
As we scrunch up yet another sketch and throw it on the fire, I can hear a grim-faced Kevin McCloud, face to camera, complaining: “I’m seriously worried about Frank and Elspeth’s project. They say they want to be in by the end of the year, and yet they still haven’t got a scheme in for planning. I don’t know about you, but I can’t see it happening.”


31 Mar 2007 - GOING UP IN THE WORLD…
Several aborted sketches down the line, and our attempts to get the revised planning application for our railway carriage house back on track were stuck. Until a throw-away remark by an architect friend came back to me. “You could always raise one of the carriages up in the air and build underneath,” he’d said. There it was in a flash: the resolution to those seemingly conflicting requirements. Raising the rear carriage gives us the upstairs bedrooms required by the Environment Agency - a larger knocked-through one for us, a smaller one for our daughter, and a bathroom in between. That rotten old corner compartment disappears into a stairwell and landing, and the entire seaward exterior is encased in a protective access corridor. Down below, the kitchen extension should raise no further objections, being single-storey and protruding no further than the neighbours’ back wall. Best of all, that long narrow room between the carriages is replaced by a glorious open-plan space with a wall of French windows looking over the garden. Apart from being damned clever, this new scheme has the added advantage of involving less actual building work – which has got to be better from an eco-point of view.
Of course, there are some small technicalities to be addressed: for instance, how – and indeed can - one raise a Victorian railway carriage eight feet up in the air? And, assuming it survives the trip, how would one secure it there? Time to call in a structural engineer…

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Green House

Introducing Elspeth Thompson’s diary of the transformation of two dilapidated former railway carriages into a state-of-the-art eco-home/ the eco-home of her dreams.
Jan - Feb - Mar

Oct - Nov - Dec
Jul - Aug - Sep
Apr - May - Jun
Jan - Feb - Mar

Oct - Nov - Dec

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