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…

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