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4 posts from August 2010

25 August 2010

Befores, Building Control and a bit more Biomass Boiling

The Sunday Times are coming down to photograph the house today pre-refurbishment and frankly it could not look less glamorous on this torrentially rainy day. Oh well. We have logs for the fire at least. And some of the lights work - though we've run out of oil - so no heating - and it's pointless buying more when we 're just about to move out. No central heating is very rural anyhow, judging from our house hunting experiences.

For the last couple of days I've been wrestling with Building Control. Not literally, but which route to take with our works: Full Plans or Building Notice With Full Plans you deposit your drawing package and scope of works with the local authority, who then either pass your plans or not, and make recommendations for amendments. With Building Notice you still submit information but the Building Inspector inspects the works as they proceed, and you take the risk of any variations (or any extra work and therefore initially unanticipated costs) required by the Inspector. 

After much evaluation I'm going to go the way of Building Notice, which is what we usually do on our projects: the works are not that complicated - though Building Control will have a lot of interest in what we are doing e.g. windows, roof, wiring, plumbing, minor extension and minimal structural - and so long as we have a really good, experienced contractor on board we should be OK. "Wonderful John", the architect and quantity surveyor in my practice is just finessing my drawing package and Scope of Works and I should be sending these out this week for pricing so we can be on schedule for commencement at the end of September.

Now the summer is clearly over it will be good to not only get the works going but to move into a proper house with heating. In fact any house with heating will do though I really fancy Sidmouth or Seaton - it will be rather fabulous to be by the sea through winter.

The cows on one of our fields broke through a fence this week - I think I drove them mad with desire when I cut the grass on our adjacent lawn the other day - and Brian, who came to the rescue with his rubber mallet and twine, started talking about his log burning boiler which got me thinking again. I really hope the government will clarify their position on the renewable heat incentive (RHI), where the government pays you to generate your own heat from renewable sources, soon as this will make all the difference to whether we go for biomass or oil. I'm sure we're not the only ones in this position and the industry must be going round the bend. The fear is that our poor government have such a bloody mess to clear up after Labour's lousy mismanagement of our country's finances that there simply is not the money to fund this kind of scheme. Let's see. Fingers crossed, buttocks clenched and cardi on.

20 August 2010

Gunfire Directed Along Length of Enemy Battle Line

No, things have not kicked off on the building site.

This is in fact the dictionary explanation of the word "enfilade", which in the world of interior design also means "a suite of rooms formally aligned with each other". 


And this was just what I had in mind between our living room, new dining room and kitchen - creating a dynamic perspective through these spaces, as well as converting the problem of the potentially dangerous step down between dining room and kitchen into a decorative opportunity. For here I had planned to tile the thoroughfare, including step between the rooms, so making the step obvious and creating a stimulating contrast between hard tile and the surrounding soft carpet of the dining room.

While scrutinising the forms from Western Power (TOP TIP ALERT: IF YOU NEED TO MOVE YOUR METERS CONTACT YOUR SUPPLIER AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE AS THEY USUALLY HAVE AT LEAST A 4 WEEK LEAD IN TIME) I realised that it will cost a small fortune in men with spades digging trenches not to mention the unsightly disruption.


Hey ho. Design is about solutions so I've decided to build a dresser around the meter cupboard (what Americans call a "hutch"). 

As I pondered this space this morning (see above - meter cupboard with door open), clutching my Nespresso latte, I realised that this solution will actually brilliantly home all those kitchen bits that can wrinkle the smooth lines of a kitchen countertop e.g. the Nespresso machine, kettle and toaster. I'll then add a drawer beneath as a bread bin and the countertop can be wood and a cutting surface. The drawers you see in the pic are actually for drying apples from the orchards. A nice idea. So maybe I'll add some more to my new dresser just like this.

And as far as access to the meter cupboard is concerned I'll insert a small glass viewing panel into a new meter cupboard door, flush with the wall. And if we want to open the whole cupboard we will just have to remove the adjustable shelves in front and anything on them.

Every cloud has a fabulous lining. Talking of which we do seem to be in the middle of a cloud today - at 600 ft above sea level it seems it doesn't take much.

Just as well it's best to be inside - more wrestling re the roof today, though it's nice to have received samples from Tower Ceramics (www.towerceramics.co.uk) in double quick speed and a sample of cork tile that is not overly drenched in acrylic from Siesta Cork Tiles (www.siestacorktiles.co.uk). I just have to decide between the white cork 300 x 600 (lovely) and soft, unvarnished cork 300 x 300 for my super new home studio. Decisions, decisions...............

17 August 2010

All Things Being Eco: Part II

Last Thursday I had a very enjoyable time debating what the kitchen of the future will look like in an event hosted by Ikea at London's Barbican (my conclusion: not that different to how they look now, just more efficient in terms of recycling systems/resource management and - hopefully - more individual and eclectic).

Sustainability was a significant theme and it occurred to me how all things "eco" are being somewhat dominated by the lads - I think we know who Kevin McCloud we're Charlie Luxton talking Oliver Heath about here, not that I'm complaining in the least. It's just an observation. 

Could this be the maths-wonk factor? Or the possibilities for Mechano-type mechanics e.g. heat recovery extraction, biomass boilers? Or just that boys do buildings and girls do the other stuff, at least in unreconstructed households. Hubby suggested a Pinker-type hypothesis that males are wired to husband resources for the future; females are wired to deal with the here and now. Maybe?

The danger in these matters becoming gender-centric is that we all live in homes and we all need our homes to be efficient, effective and beautiful. Boys dominating such an important debate with their carbon fractions and weather reports are at risk of turning us all off and probably why Germaine Greer got her knickers in a twist about eco being ugly a year or so ago, though I think a lot of "eco" architecture is in fact rather beautiful these days - it's just the "eco" products that are so obviously made out of old bits of rubbish which are a bit worrying. 

The gender politics of the building site has taken prominence recently as I interview various tradesmen. I was talking to a "roofing man" the other day when my husband appeared and the "roofing man", instead of talking in words of one syllable as he was to me, suddenly started talking technical. What's amusing is husband doesn't know the first thing about building work.

I am also working with the architect who works in my practice to produce some drainage details for me...and he is wonderful. But what's amusing again is another "roofing man" simply can not understand that I am the lead designer, not my architect...for no other reason than my gender. Maybe I'm being paranoid but it's true that some things never change. The key, girls, is to use this age old phenomenon to our advantage!

07 August 2010

Home Freakonomics

I'm not actually reading Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner's "Freakonomics" right now. 

In fact I've never read it. 

But I am currently reading their sequel "Superfreakonomics" (having heard one of the very lovely sounding authors on Radio 4's "Saturday Live"). I've just got to the part about global warming, the unbelievably controversial part (have a quick Google into what bloggy blokes call the "blogosphere") and which perfectly co-incides with part of "Stage 1" of my new home's redesign. That is "utilities" - or in other words how best to power and water where we are going to live - bearing in mind that we are not quite tree huggers - but hopefully a better dressed equivalent - something like tree fondlers - but we want to do "the right thing" for reasons which I will come on to, and which are perhaps not quite as predictable as they might seem.


Right now, like most rural properties, we have an oil fired boiler: minus "green" points. And a private water source: plus "green" points. And a solar thermal panel: plus "green" points. Which is really ugly: minus beauty points. 


We also have that crazy-ass space-age Thermalon insulation I've written about that gives us u-values - if a single page of yellowing, onion-skin Remington-typed paper is to be trusted (and it does feel quite warm with no heating on cool days) - of 0.057. Like I said, crazy-ass - when you consider that the current Building Regs. still only require a u-value (in cavity walls) of 0.55 or ten times LESS! So super "green" points here.

I've done quite a lot of work with the Energy Saving Trust - and always refer to their useful website (www.est.org.uk) when developing schemes for clients, good design for me always having been about the efficient use of resources. This philosophy has become much easier to implement in recent years as society and the market place begin to embrace the idea of ecological architecture and design -  in which I include the concepts of beauty, usefulness and build quality, characteristics that are the surest insurance policy against ecologically unsustainable short-termism.

Making your home ecologically sustainable can represent a very complex equation however, especially when you take on an unusual house like ours. So I engaged Parity Projects www.parityprojects.com, sourced through Kevin McCloud's eco-posse - who gave me a document full of very complex equations. Well they are boys after all. And what I realised is that when it comes to a single home things really do not have to be very complicated at all. (Which, to be fair, once I had worked through all the complex equations this was Parity's conclusion.)

In fact in our case they are really simple. 

To begin with all the windows and glass doors here need replacing anyhow. And the new regulation-compliant windows we will install will ensure much improved u-values in this area.


The roof also needs repairing and the numerous cox dome roof lights have definitely seen better days. Given the amount of glazing throughout the elevations I have decided that the roof lights are superfluous, not to mention areas of "thermal break", or gaps in the cosy eiderdown that is the roof, and expensive to replace (though I do rather love those from www.therooflightcompany.co.uk). 

Again Building Regs. are, to some extent, the guardians of eco-build as they have standards that must be complied with in terms of u values. So when we repair we will add lots of extra insulation. And because the roof is such a prominent feature, our gateway located on a rise above the house, we will fit an extensive green roof on top to make it look gorgeous instead of really ugly, like most flat roofs - as well as even more insulated.

So that's all the "passive" things taken care of. Now we are on to the "active": how do we generate the power we need for heat, light, cooking?

Our building survey indicated that both the oil-fired boiler and the oil tank were on their last legs, so surely a perfect opportunity to look at alternative sources of energy? You would think so. 

I first investigated air source heat pumps. 

Apparently they are not what they are cracked up to be and can be quite noisy. And if they are any good they are really only effective with wet underfloor heating. We, funnily enough, have electric underfloor heating which, while it was very advanced for its time back in the 60's, unsurprisingly does not work now. Along with the 60's u/f heating we also have very nice 60's parquet flooring - so the cost and disruption and associated carbon footprint alone of lifting this up, excavating the floor slab, fitting wet u/f heating is not something to be desired.

The same applies for a ground source heat pump. It is true that we have the space to lay the coils outside but see above re floors!

How about a biomass boiler? We have a bit of woodland after all where we could generate our own fuel.

However, the starting price for a biomass boiler, whether one uses chips, pellets or logs (ask me anything on this!) - is on average around £20,000. Plus the cost of the fuel / woodland management. And the enlarged area required for fuel storage. And if you go with the cheapest option - at least if you generate your own logs - you then have to fill the boiler every day. Hmmmm. Maybe in a very large house, or a very inefficiently built house, or a household consisting of more than two not very energy hungry people this might be a lot more viable but in our not large house with just us two, with walls made of space blankets and more space blanket type stuff to come I just don't think this is financially viable, in either the short or long term, though the Heat Feed In Tariff yet to be confirmed by the government will inevitably influence our decision. 

I am keeping an open mind. 

We are still talking to suppliers. And there is also the possibility of Solar PVs (I am getting rid of the existing solar thermal panel: ugly simply will not do.) And we have yet to get costs in for a high efficiency oil-fired boiler and new oil tank - so if you like watching paint dry, watch this space. 

Bottom line though: the best most sensible thing anyone can do is a) insulate, insulate, insulate, b) comply with buildings regulations as much as is reasonable and c), and this is what all of us can do, have a little think about how you can easily change your everyday rituals so you can save more and waste less. Take a look at www.futurefriendly.co.uk.

(By the way, as I work through the initial stages of this project I have been meaning to advise any readers in a similar position i.e. just moved into a new home that needs work "not to do any building work that trades people advise you to do without seeking at least a second opinion and until you do your own research, at least if you are working without the help of a "design professional"." 

It seems whenever I have moved into a new property, whether in the UK or abroad, and in spite of my credentials, though sadly probably because of my gender, there is always a willing phalanx of building trade experts who have notionally spent thousands of my money before I can ask "do you want sugar in that?" on, say, connecting to mains water, when I don't really need to. Or installing a new water pump, when all it needed was a bit of repair? Or spending 15% of my refurbishment budget on the sort of wood chip boiler that would provide enough hot water and heating for the local cottage hospital. And one where they wash their hands frequently at that.

As an addendum to this thought I would add that it's easy to give in to a kind of "peeing in the corners" instinct when you first move into a home which manifests itself in planning to renew everything. But it is an instinct worth resisting. As I live in this home I think of more and more ways in which I can recycle existing features to what I think will be a very beautiful not to mention thrifty effect. We bought this house for a reason after all: because we love it.)

And now we are back to paddling on the shores of "Superfreakonomics", the great big global warming controversy, and why our reasons for being tree fondlers may not be as predictable as you might think.

In a meeting recently while discussing the concept of "upcycling" (posh recycling) I was asked if I was a climate change sceptic. I am not a climate change sceptic. I believe our climate is changing, is warming. 

Perhaps a better question is "am I an anthropogenic climate change sceptic?". Possibly. And perhaps a better description would be an eco equivalent of agnostic. An eco-agnostic? I know it's out there but I don't know what or why?

Though now I feel a bit like Naomi Campbell in the witness box worrying about the safety of her family, even though I have not and have never accepted rough diamonds from rough guys in the middle of an African night, though perhaps the less said about what I have accepted the better. 

I also happen to a) know where Liberia is, sort of, b) can reasonably deduce that any African leader that has been involved in a civil war won't exactly be a poster boy for the Geneva Convention and c) know not to take sweeties from strangers.

Why do I feel so threatened (not really). 

Well this (anthropogenic) climate change lark gets a lot of people, specifically the "fundamentalists", very hot under the collar, especially if you describe yourself as an eco-agnostic let alone an eco-atheist, which is not very helpful. No wonder the globe is warming!

And this is simply confusing if you are trying to work out what the best thing is for your home when it comes to energy and water. It's all very well thinking globally but it's much easier to just have a nice cup of tea and a biscuit. No sugar for me thanks.

In the end what matters, in addition to as much insulation as you can manage and ticking all the building regs. boxes, is a genuine respect for nature, of which we are part - in all its benevolence and its tyranny; a curiosity for and sensitivity to where everything comes from and where it all goes. What could be called good science.......instead of man bags at dawn.

If each of us can apply this kind of code of common sense to our lives and encourage, in a jolly way, others to do so too, then I don't quite see the need for all the furiously rotating leather goods - though wind power is one option I have yet to research.

P.S. Instead of a Forbes or Times Rich List wouldn't it be fun to see a Carbon Rich List? Husband's idea - and a very good one! Gagging to know Al Bandwagon Bore's rating.