My modest grand design

You may have seen from my social media updates (twitter, facebook, linkedin and google plus) that I went to Grand designs live the other week. After my first visit to the Ideal Home Show I thought I should try this one too.

Quite a strange selection of exhibitors. There were lots of the sort of stylish products you see on Grand designs but also some incredibly hideous sofas and art works that look like the before picture of a home make over show or in one case a living room designed by Elvis and Liberace working together. The Elvis chair

This is me in a giant rotating silver chair, it wasn’t even very comfortable.

I last went to Grand designs 5 or so years ago and it has got a bit smaller since then, a reflection of harder times I guess. But it has definitely also got greener which was very pleasing to see. There were quite a number of water saving devices including my Korean friend from the Ideal home show with his Softrong shower head.

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The architecture section was also excellent with lots of new ideas and interesting companies. I had a good chat with ….. from ….. who was building extremely efficient homes and reducing costs with a standard template. We had a good chat about the houses and materials used, I was particularly interested in the low emission expanding foam he used. This was from Soudal and is Isocynate free so reduces the risk of asthma and other respiratory problems. It wasn’t the cheapest to get hold of but I managed to get some which I used in a project last week and it certainly has a lot less odour than previous foams I have used.

After this we arrived just in time for the debate that interested me most low tech v hi tech materials with Kevin McCloud and Will Stanwix of Hemp Lime Construct There was a very large audience for a debate on materials but maybe some of them just wanted to see Kevin McCloud in the flesh. The host and many of us were expecting Kevin McCloud to come up with lots of exciting hi tech solutions but it seemed he had a bit of a change of heart carrying out his research for the talk and felt that low tech materials had a lot of very useful qualities and could be used in modern developments as well as in restorations. He showed us some of his modern houses built in Swindon

These incorporate low tech ideas liek the wind cowls on the roof which use general airflow to ventilate the building without resorting to mechanical methods and is largely constructed from hemp crete. So in the end Kevin didn’t propose many hi tech materials but just a wider use of low tech solutions in modern situations.

Will Stanwix then came on to talk about his use of low tech materials with everything set up for him. As you would expect he talked a lot about hemp crete and using lime, particular benefits included:

  • Heat storage as well insulation
  • Regulation of humidity
  • Managing water ingress
  • Improved indoor air quality
  • Sequestration of CO2 in materials
  • Renewable, reusable and recyclable

Rather than fighting the atmosphere and setting up barriers you work with it creating buildings that will last and are less likely to fail.

Then the topic was opened up to the audience and we were asked who was currently working on a project, then if we were considering using low tech materials. Before I realised it everyone else had put their hands down so I got the microphone and discussed my wood fibre and lime plaster insulation project. They were both very positive about the idea, my plan is to fill cavities in a wooden house with wood fibre batts and then use wood fibre boards instead of plasterboard to add extra insulation. This will then be plastered with lime so we will create a breathing wall. I had largely reached this conclusion because I wanted to regulate moisture in the house and avoid condensation build up. However after chatting with Will and Kevin they added that using the wood fibre would also add some thermal mass to the building so it will capture heat over the day and release it in the evenings, an added bonus.

So a good end to an enjoyable afternoon out.

Lime pastering course

I have spent the last couple of days on a lime plastering course in Bedford. I am learning this skill so I can deliver more retrofit services to the customers of www.ecoalex.com. One of the key ways to improve the energy performance of older houses is to add internal insulation to walls. There are lots of people offering this service with celotex and other oil based insulation materials. These are very efficient and applicable in many more modern homes, however they do require careful installation of vapour barriers in the walls and have a risk of condensation. I want to be able to offer my customers something a little different, Natural Insulation. This will enable be breathable and allow moisture to pass through it naturally rather than gathering hidden inside the construction of the wall. After talking with a vegan customer I have been looking at wood fibre insulation in batts and boards. To get all this finished properly it needs plastering, modern plaster sets solid and isn’t breathable so I have been learning to work with lime.

There is a resurgence of interest in lime plaster at the moment, partly because of heritage projects like St Pancras station and partly because of a renewed interested in it’s flexibility and breath ability. This meant there was a choice of a few courses, however a lot of them were quite rural and a good distance from London so I chose DIY plastering in Bedford and I am very pleased I did. The course was one to one so I got plenty of help from Paul and could have it tailored to my requirements.

When I got there Paul had prepared two walls, one typical brick one and a second much flatter one to simulate the type of wall I am building using wood fibre insulation. After checking my fitness we agreed to try and plaster both walls so I could tackle any different lime issues. I started with the masonry wall applying two guides across the wall that would cover all the bumps and undulations and produce a flat surface. I then filled in with plaster and used a straight edge to get the plaster flat and even.

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Then we left this to dry and I moved on to the flatter surface set up to simulate wood fibre board. Here I applied a much thinner coat of plaster, embedded some mesh in it and then a second thin coat. This was then flattened using the straight edge. Only 10-15mm of plaster are needed as the base wall is so much flatter than an older brick wall. Once these two walls had dried a little I went over them with a float, flattening the surface and adding some roughness for the skim coat. That was day one completed.

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Day two was all about getting things smooth, very satisfying it was too. After drying overnight both walls had developed some cracks, especially the masonry one where we had a much thicker covering of plaster. Many of these could be sealed again with the floats but the larger ones needed a bit more compression from the trowel and some extra plaster adding. Next we added the top coat of plaster, this had more lime and less sand to make it smoother, but went on the same way using a trowel. Once the wall was covered with an even layer of topcoat we left it to dry. During this time Paul gave me a quick tutorial in filling holes in walls, very useful for my bathroom wall. Then I went over the wall with a float to even out the plaster further.

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After this and some more drying I went over it with a trowel to get it even flatter and remove the air bubbles. It was all very pleasing to produce such a flat surface. At this point you can keep going making it flatter and smoother gradually using the trowel and the float. Looking forward to using the skills on an insulation project next month in Hertfordshire, get in touch if you would like me to help you with your house. I am based in Central London but can travel. There are lots more photos on my Google+ page.

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Sustainable India?

On my holidays at the moment having an amazing time in India. Thought I might try and write something about sustainability.

So far I think the natural air conditioning is my favourite.

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Red fort

This is from the Red fort in Agra. Nice carvings but the point too look at is the thick walls. These conceal a huge air gap that provided insulation to maintain a steady temperature.

Then the summer palaces have a brilliant arrangement of screens with holes to draw the wind through.

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These are then supplemented by
water running through the area or over hanging fabrics. This then evaporates in the breeze and creates a cool atmosphere. It needs quite a bit of space to pull it off but the bills are pretty low. Water in this part of the world is fairly limited so will have to work out how too recycle it but will see what I can think of.

So will do an experiment with the
windows and some blankets next summer when it gets warm.

CEEQUAL assessor

Just completed the CEEQUAL assessor course to upgrade to the new CEEQUAL version 5. The course was carried out online which was interesting, it was certainly more compelling than most online courses I have seen before.

The new version 5 has a reduced number of sections from 12 to 9 and the layout of the questions and associated guidance much improved. There is also a new section on project strategy which looks interesting. I look forward to reading through in more detail when I get the new manual.

My use of CEEQUAL so far has been helping with contributions to the ecology section of the assessment when working at The Ecology Consultancy. I hope to expand this in the future to include initial assessments for companies considering CEEQUAL and then full assessments through to the award stage. If you would like to learn more have a look at the new CEEQUAL page on my website.

It’s raining meadows

After last weeks exciting pictures of the roof in Hertfordshire there has been even more growth:

Even the local wildlife is taking a keen interest:

There are also some fungi appearing, will have to get the mushroom book out and see if these are edible ones:

It looks like the roof is fairly comfortable with itself now and should ebb and flow over the next few years developing the right type of plants for the conditions. If you want one on your roof I would be happy to build it, full details of my services and contacts here www.ecoalex.com

Simple ways to improve the efficiency of your home – Part 2

The second and possibly shorter post on improving your home.

Water efficiency

Start with your water companies website and see what you can get for free from them. My local company Thames offer a few here. I suspect that like the energy companies they don’t do this out of the kindness of their hearts but that is no reason not to take advantage of the offers. If you get a choice you can replicate a hippo with that old fashioned solution of a brick in the cistern so the tap and shower heads are probably a better bet.

So once you have your freebies what else can you do?

Toilets

A good way to use loads of water for not very much. If you get a new one make sure it is dual flush. For older ones you can retrofit a low water flush system, mine allows you to choose as much or as little water as you want and has worked fine for over 5 years despite attempts by visitors to pull the handle off the wall. There are a number of systems available in DIY stores to do the same for you and I am sure you can find them in local stores as well as B&Q.

Get a water butt

Simple to install, you may even get a discount through your water company again. Save the water that falls on your roof and use it throughout the garden.

Install a green roof and rain garden

A rain garden is one that saves rain water and makes the best use of it. Typically they are fed by the gutters from your house. They cut the amount of water used on your garden and also contribute to reducing runoff from your garden and help avoid localised flooding. You do need a slope away from your house (however slight) to do this cheaply and easily.

You can also combine one of these with a green roof and drainage chains for a really attractive and water efficient house makeover. If you want to know more have a look at my website and get in touch

Traditional measures

There are many traditions of home decoration that can reduce the energy use of our houses:

Carpets

These provide insulation against draughts from under skirtings and gaps in floorboards, especially with a nice thick recycled underlay. They also provide much better acoustics for a room than harsh wooden floors, you might be able to hear what your friends are saying if pubs brought back a good thick carpet over the wooden boards.

Curtains

Nice lined and fitted curtains reduce draughts and provide some degree of insulation. If you have radiators under your windows (an obsession with British builders) make sure the curtain is behind not in front of them so you reduce heat loss.

Blinds

Because they are tighter to the window these can be even more efficient that curtains. Studies by Scottish Heritage have shown that thermal blinds can lower heat loss through windows almost as much as insulated shutters.

Doors

Doors are excellent insulators and shutting them is a good start to reducing draughts in the house and annoying any indigenous teenagers. Draught snakes are always nice to have and allow you to control the ventilation in your room.

Renewables

Whilst these won’t make your home any more efficient they will reduce the amount of power and heat you need to bring in to the home. There are a wide number of options which are suitable for different houses.

If you want to know more about possibilities for improving your house do get in touch.

Simple ways to improve the efficiency of your home Part 1

This is based on my recent talk at the London Green Fair and includes links to extra information and websites that may be useful.

The ideas here are deliberately simple and hopefully easy for most people to follow at home. There are no numbers, U values and technical terms, just ways for you to make your house warmer and cut your bills. Based on my experience working on people’s house s through Ecoalex ltd, I estimate a cut in bills of 10-15% is possible just by implementing a few of these changes.

Insulation

There are three main areas where you can add insulation to your house, the roof, walls and floor:

Roof

Currently you can get your loft insulated for free by many energy companies as part of the Carbon Emission Reduction Targets set for them by government. So if your loft isn’t insulated get it done now, latest deals on the Money Saving Expert site here. The offers won’t last forever and this will save you money.

Walls

Again, cavity wall can be free at the moment so get it done if you can.If you have solid walls it is more complicated and expensive but consider solid wall insulation.

Floor

If you have a cellar it can be quite easy to put insulation under your floor. If not it is probably only worth considering if you have the floors up for another reason or there is a major draught problem with the floor. Carpets can help tremendously.

Energy

You have probably replaced most of your old fashioned energy guzzling bulbs now. However, evil bulbs may well still lurk in your house, particularly the kitchen. Halogen spots are the scourge of anyone trying to reduce their electricity bills. Inefficient producers of light that heat up so much they need fire protection these bulbs are usually used as down lighters restricting their light to a small area of the room. I don’t expect people to change their lighting entirely but changing these bulbs can make a huge difference to your energy use. On a recent survey I worked out that replacing 7 50 watt bulbs with low energy LED bulbs would save £40 a year (based on 3 hours use a day) and cost about £60 so the bulbs pay for themselves in 18 months. They also last longer and aren’t a fire hazard.

Turn things off

You have probably done this already in your house but remember to turn off the TV properly and unplug mobile phone chargers etc. They don’t use a lot of electricity individually but collectively it builds up and they don’t do anything when you aren’t using them.

Get an energy monitor

These can help you work out where you are using energy and also quite fun. The list on money saving expert is getting a little old but a good place to start.

Heating

Check your boiler on the boiler efficiency website and see if it is worth replacing with a more efficient model. This can be quite expensive but save quite a lot.

Put panels behind radiators on outside walls. If your radiators are under windows make sure they aren’t covered by curtains and consider a shel above them to reflect heat back into the room.

Loft insulation with clutter part 2

So a slow update, didn’t take long to get the stilts in but got caught up in other projects and only just returned to writing this up.

The stilts arrived in a timely manner, they are made of recycled plastic and feel very tough. We then spent most of the day preparing the loft and clearing out the boards that were already there. Once this was done putting in the stilts was relatively easy. So the loft is prepared and waiting for the insulation guys to come in and lay it out. Looks a bit sinister in the photo though: Image

Find out more about insulation in your home at my website

Loft insulation with clutter

I have just started working on a little project to insulate a loft without losing the storage space in the loft for my company Ecoalex Ltd. Like most people in London my customer has a lot of junk in the loft and doesn’t want to lose it as a storage space.

We are planning to use loft stilts to raise the existing boards up 175mm so we can get in the recommended 270mm of insulation. As you can get the insulation done for free from various companies that is being arranged separately. In the meantime we worked out the number of boards needed to create two areas of 2m2 and then the number of stilts to order to support them. All due to happen at the weekend, I will let you know how it goes and update with some photos.

Update 1: The stilts have arrived and we are all ready to install tomorrow.

If you want to find out more about the services I can offer visit my website www.ecoalex.com

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Energy savings from insulation project

I have just got the energy bills from my first insulation and draught proofing project for www.ecoalex.com and they are excellent:

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This was for a four bedroom detached house in Hertfordshire and we carried out the following measures in November/December last year:

Since then we have added 200mm of insulation in the flat roof of the house whilst building a green roof and also in other hard to access roof areas with the help of a local builder. This should mean we see a reduction in energy over next year as well.

In 2012 we plan to start installing internal insulation in the empty cavities in the walls of the house.

Apart from the energy savings, carbon reductions and money saving the most important thing to the occupants of the house is that the living room is warm and comfortable.

Have a look at my website and let me know if you would like me to do the same for your house.