Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Part 1: Eco From the Past …

Part 1
How Lindsay Porter and his wife, Shan, first became attracted to the eco idea

Shan and I have carried out a wide range of eco improvements to our house over the last few years, starting in earnest around the year 2000 when we both hit the age of 50. But the appeal of ecologically friendly projects goes back long before that. While pursuing a career, first as a school teacher and then as a motoring writer, the almost equally demanding work we've carried out on our house has run in parallel with the writing, the publishing, and all the stuff that 'shows.' But suddenly, all that building research, development and sheer bloody hard work are starting to be of assistance to others, too – and especially in the area of ecological building. So, let's go back to the '70s …

Shan and I were married young. ‘Getting hitched’ was what almost all working class people did in 1969 if they wanted to live together, and we wanted to be together while I trained to be a teacher at what is now Worcester Uni.

We'd been saving hard for three years and bought a house, in Malvern, Worcestershire, for the princely sum of £865 cash (about half the price of any other house we could find at the time), and set about doing it up while we lived in it. The 'doing up' included creating street access and installing a front door where none had been before, and we created a neat, tidy, one-bedroomed house on which we made good money when we sold it three years later – complete with its '70s décor, naturally enough …

We used the money we made to buy a small cottage in Shropshire, close to my first job teaching metalwork. While living in a caravan in the garden, we completely gutted and rebuilt the interior, turning the £3500 cost into £10,000 in the space of 18 hard months.

The Oil Crisis of 1973-1974:
 A Brief History ... 
by Karen R Merrill

At this stage of our lives, we rarely gave a thought to eco-energy, except that we were now into 1973/74, when the price of crude oil trebled, and wise activists began to warn about "the oil running out." There was very little being said about climate change at this time (see http://bit.ly/1le1LHy) but it was clear that the age of profligacy was drawing to a close.

Gas Guzzling Bedford T-series
For instance, the school where I taught owned an old Bedford ex-ambulance which was used as a pupil-carrier, and I was allowed to borrow it occasionally to lug building materials. Its 8mpg must have been painful even in the '60s, but by now, the cost of running the thing was becoming excruciating. Never mind the cost, what about the emissions? I hear you ask. Well, yeah, it did smoke and leak oil a bit. But that’s not really what you meant, is it? And those kind of emissions were only just starting to be tackled in whacky places like California and Switzerland.

After Shropshire, our home life took shape. I gained promotion to a primary school near Worcester – by now very much our home area – and we spent several months looking for the right house. There was still no commitment to living ‘ecologically’ at this stage, but we both adored the rural life.

The self-build movement was starting to become serious and I read books on building and renovating your own house, and a seminal one on finding and buying a tumble-down country cottage. In 1976, we found one – the place where we still live today. It had just two rooms downstairs and two more upstairs, with total inside measurements of 22 feet x 11 feet. We spent everything we had to buy it and moved right in! The chemical toilet, tin baths in the quarry-tiled living room, and single open fire were primitive – okay, we were young! – but we were determined not to rush in, and instead plan everything  carefully for ourselves.

You can’t just build or extend a house without gaining local government planning permission and satisfying some sort of quality and safety controls. And you can’t draw plans without understanding what is and isn't needed and permissible. It was while researching UK Building Regulations in the public library in Dudley in the West Midlands, that I happened to come across the then-current Swedish building regulations. The differences from UK regs were startling!

Obviously, there was (and is) a much more pressing need to conserve energy in a cold Scandinavian climate than in milder regions. But the difference in cost between building houses with high and low standards of insulation was piffling when compared with the benefits. All that was needed was the understanding – and the will. (Coincidentally, standards of insulation required by new-build houses in the UK in around 2014 were almost identical with those required in Sweden some 40 years earlier. Talk about slow progress!) 

The presence on the roof was Shan's sister Carole, then 14 years
old and an intrepid assistant. Bet she wishes she could do 
that now!
The original cottage had galvanised, steel-framed, single-glazed windows. The heat couldn’t wait to get out! The 18 inch thick, rubble-filled stone walls seemed to defy insulation at the time. But 40 years later, we managed it, as described in my book.

Here are some of the steps we took to make the original building ahead of its time in eco terms:

  • Increasing the air gap between wall courses from the then-current 2 inches to 3 inches (50mm to 75mm) meant  you could introduce  50% more insulation into the space.

    The new building consisted of two skins of insulation block.
    Unusually for the time. timber windows were made with
    deep rebates for double-glazing units.
  • The new building consisted of two skins of insulating block. Unusually for the time, timber windows were made with deep rebates for double-glazing units.

  • Using insulating blocks instead of brick or breeze blocks can cost a little more but improves wall insulation still further. 
The outer skin was concrete rendered, providing a neutral
aesthetic match with the sandstone of the original building.
Shan's Uncle Frank provided the trowel work while Ken,
her father, 'supervised.'
  • Foil-backed plasterboard (drywall) mounted on timber laths to provide a narrow air gap provides another insulation boost.

  • When you’re laying a new floor, whether of timber or concrete, adding insulation is a doddle – so we did! Two-inch (50 mm) thick polystyrene around the external perimeter of all floors.
Footings and first blockwork courses, in 1974, on the main
extension at the rear of our cottage's original building.
Insulated, concrete floor pad came next …

  • Roof insulation, double-glazing, draught-proofing might all sound obvious now, but by installing them, we were riding the wave in those days!

In over 40 years of living in the house – now considerably larger than it was originally – our approach to energy efficiency has never wavered. Next, we'll look at some of the steps we took to live in a reasonably eco-friendly way before around 2010, when we began much more proactively installing renewable energy sources.

Part 2 coming soon…

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Part 2
Burning the candle...

In the early ‘70s, there was no such thing as an ‘eco-house’ – or if there was, Shan and I knew nothing about it. However, in the context of the time – UK houses still being built without insulation and with single-glazed windows – that’s what The Cottage certainly was.

Mid-’70s – our best attempt at an eco-house of the time was taking shape. Recycled roof tiles look more traditional and saved the energy consumed in creating new ones.

The small, original cottage was treated to new, timber-framed, double-glazed windows and a draught-busting front porch using local stone that was just lying around in the area.

By the end of the ‘70s, our house was kind-of finished, or at least was sufficiently completed for me to write a magazine article about it. It was the first work I had had published, and it was done at the instigation of my friend, Paul Skilleter. In fact, Rectory Cottage and Paul Skilleter are to blame for my leaving teaching and becoming a full-time writer. Here’s why…

In around 1976 or ’77, I was a classic car nut and Shan and I hit the heights with £1000-worth of pale blue, Series 1, 4.2 FHC E-type Jaguar, CNC 420C. I was also trying to make a few quid on the side doing up Morris Minors, though with only moderate financial success, it has to be said! I subscribed to Thoroughbred & Classic Cars magazine, where I read that one of their staff writers, the aforesaid Paul Skilleter, had moved from London to a village just down the road from us, and that his E-type, which looked almost identical to ours, had broken down nearby, leaving him stranded. No, children, his mobile phone battery hadn’t gone flat: they hadn’t been invented yet …

So I wrote to Paul – yes, children, a handwritten letter, on paper, with a postage stamp on the envelope – offering our assistance should such a misfortune happen again to Paul and his wife, June. Long story short: we made contact, both we and our wives hit it off – and Paul, with typical generosity, soon suggested I tried tried my hand at writing a magazine article, all about what we had done to The Cottage. Paul, who is a trained photographer, took some photos, I wrote my first article, and DIY Magazine (it was printed on paper, children!) ran it. Mind you, to Paul’s considerable chagrin, DIY Magazine sent its own photographer to take replacement pictures with their impressive Hasselblads. (It may also have had something to do with the fact that, while Paul is a superb photographer, especially of cars, we did ‘blokey’ things like leaving the toilet seat up and not ‘posing’ Shan and myself in the photographs.) The article – cringe-makingly called ‘We Built It Our Way’ – can be seen on my Amazon page at http://goo.gl/YmSRxZ.

Our first staircase was home-made using local oak treads. These were purchased as 'green' planks and were stacked for seasoning (air drying) over a two-year period while the outer shell was constructed. Low transport costs, no energy consumed in seasoning – and very satisfying!
A couple of years later, Paul and his business partners started work on the new Practical Classics magazine, which was launched in 1980, featuring no less an idiot than me as one of its writers. With yet more generosity, Paul Skilleter recommended me as an author to Haynes Publishing, which had recently published his first book, Jaguar Sports Cars. I was immediately signed up for a number of classic car books by Haynes’ then Managing Editor, Rod Grainger, and the man subsequently behind Veloce Publishing. Veloce is, of course, the publisher of my Renewable Energy Handbook (and several other of my titles) and we are also fortunate to be able to count Rod and his business partner, Judith Brooks, as more dear and valued friends.

It has to be said that writing magazine articles, writing books, school teaching (which I enjoyed enormously), plus a growing involvement in politics didn’t leave much time for working on Rectory Cottage, and through the 1980s, it was a matter of trying to complete unfinished jobs whenever time allowed. Taking the tough decision to leave teaching in 1983 freed up a lot of time, of course, but even so, the house was neglected – there wasn’t even proper loft insulation in place beyond a foil, reflective layer and a thin, inadequate sheet of fibreglass insulation. And the softwood window frames were going rotten.

An open fire: attractive – but so wasteful!

We even had an open fire in the early days – glamorous but dirty, draughty and deeply inefficient – and a rebuilt Aga in the kitchen. (Now that’s a real guzzler of dirty-fuel for you!) Heating oil, firewood and coal were cheap, and full awareness of climate change had not fully hit home. We were ‘into’ recycling: of timber and building materials, our restored kitchen stoves, and our rebuilt Morris Minors but, right through the ’80s and ’90s, we made no significant improvements in our consumption of fuel or our creation of harmful CO emissions, from either home or cars, until the stage of our lives that started to be covered by the work shown in my Renewable Energy Handbook.

Part 3 of my blog will skip ahead to all of that…