Category Archives: sustainability

My Shabbihaus eco retrofit project part 2 Boiler replacement

This came about through problems with the old boiler rather than careful planning. Firstly I replaced the thermostat with a Smart controller, this was about 5 years ago and the choice was limited but I got an Owl controller which allowed us to control the heating with a smart phone.

This allowed us to monitor electricity use as well as program the boiler simply online and turn it off for holidays etc. The controller was easy to fit as you replace the existing thermostat and use the same wiring. Once this was done the heating started coming on only when the temperature in the house fell below the required temperature we set. The previous controller turned on the heating when it was programmed to, regardless of the internal temperature and waited for the thermostat to turn it off again. This fine control and ease of use saved us 10% on our gas bills straight away.

The monitor really helped us concentrate on electricity use around the house and focus on reductions, however it also coincided with having kids and being at home a lot more so our usage actually went up for each successive year, as shown below. Now they are a bit bigger we are out more and using the meter to concentrate their minds too and starting to take our usage down again:

The boiler was an old Worcester and only about 64% efficient. A fault developed with it so it started heating up radiators whenever we used the hot water so we decided to get rid of it. I did plenty of research and luckily enough this coincided with Ecobuild so I was able to go round stalls there to look at a good range of boilers and ask silly questions. Efficiency of most boilers is well over 90% so my main concerns were how it would fit in my kitchen and reliability. I eventually settled on an Intergas boiler, not quite so common in the UK but it came with a 10 year guarantee and has very few moving parts and good reliability.


Very pleased with the boiler and five years later there have been no problems. We are warmer, the shower works better and our gas bills went down.

Very pleased with the boiler and five years later there have been no problems. We are warmer, the shower works better and our gas bills went down.

We also got TRVs installed on all the radiators.

My Shabbihaus eco retrofit project – part 1 introduction

Many of you, like me, will have listened watched or read about a wonderful renovation project where the house has become a wonderful palace of efficiency, costs 10p a year to heat and it’s the most comfortable and relaxing place in the world. You gaze on in envy at the ventilation, triple glazed windows and wonderful insulation. Then comes the tipping point, what did it cost for this the interviewer asks? ‘Oh, only £80,000 on top of the cost of the building work’ and at that moment you realise this is never going to happen in your home.

So, what can you do without breaking the bank? I thought I would share some of my experiences of trying to improve my property on a tight budget, with a low income and the property occupied throughout.

Ideally you would start with a whole house plan for your property, this includes an assessment of the general condition of the place and a list of all the efficiency improvements that it is possible to make to the property. You don’t need to carry them all out and certainly not all at once but it gives you a path for the next 10 years or so, you can also tie this in to any other projects you are planning, redecoration, extensions etc. You can see mine here.

Of course I didn’t start with this, I started when the boiler broke but I have got round to it now and I don’t think I got too far off course. The other thing you should probably do is monitor the conditions in the house so you can get a picture of it’s performance and the effect of the changes you make. I have been even worse at this but have some stats on energy use  that the smart meter collected, otherwise it comes down to ‘we felt warmer’ and ‘the mould didn’t reappear on the walls’. Still I am quite happy and it’s slowly getting more comfortable.

So, what did I and what did it cost, here we go in chronological order with the points where it coincided with other works, details to follow over the next couple of weeks

Putney roof insulation

The first stage of this project was replacing the insulation in the sloping roof of the dormer and adding storage to the eaves. The loft conversion has been done reasonably well and the flat roof area and rear wall properly insulated. 

#putneyretrofit
Original insulation showing the gaps and missing sections

However the existing sloping roof was not so successful. Polystyrene insulation had been installed between most of the joists, but not all, not sure why but they had missed some areas leaving big gaps in the insulation envelope.

#putneyretrofit
Starting to insert insulation between the rafters. Still some gaps to fill.

We replaced the 50mm of polystyrene with 50mm of KIngspan between the joists to create an airtightness barrier we filled all the gaps with Isocynate free expanding foam and then taped

them with aluminium tape. Then we added a further 50mm of insulated plasterboard below the joists.

Many loft conversions leave the eaves storage area uninsulated and the doors can prove a weak

#putneyretrofit
100mm of rockwool going between the rafters in the eaves storage area.

point with the wind whistling through them. We had already added rockwool to the floor area and we took the wall/roof insulation down to meet this and insulated the end walls as well creating a ‘warm’ storage area.

Reclaimed materials in side return extension in Hackney

A side return infill extension with an industrial style. Extensive use of reclaimed materials, high standards of insulation and a wildflower green roof.

We completed this project late on last year working with Clements Design as the architects.

The project aimed to turn a cramped kitchen into a spacious area for cooking, eating and socialising. There is an industrial and sustainability theme to the project, the materials used are often from or designed for factories. Electrics are contained in galvanised metal conduit and the floor is concrete. Walls are exposed brick, both reclaimed glazed brick and the existing London stock bricks revealed to the world. The large glass panels to the roof draw in light to what was once a dark area and bring out the rich colours in the reclaimed wood cladding.

Though the materials could be seen as austere they are softened by the contents of the room that reflect family life, there is space for a large wooden toy stove, a comfy sofa and a gorgeous oak dining table with mismatched chairs.

The large rear doors mean the garden can be seen and accessed easily from the house, the doors can be flung open in the summer for barbecues. The green roof will develop over time but already has wildflowers peeking over the parapet and they can be seen swaying through the glass roof.

The project was also designed in conjunction with the neighbours and they share the party wall and the box gutter.

Sustainability was a key part of the client’s aim for the project. Reclaimed materials were used wherever possible. All the bricks removed in the demolition stage were cleaned and re-used onsite to build the new structure. Internally there are two walls of glazed bricks reclaimed from a lift shaft in Kensington. The other walls are the original brick exposed and insulated on the outside where appropriate. The bi-fold doors are triple glazed with a u-value of 1.09 are factory finished for long life and are made from environmentally sourced timber from sustainable forests. The heating is underfloor and utilises the existing condensing boiler, three Nest controls were added to the system to control this and create two new heating zones in the house.

The wood (for drawer fronts, shelves and cladding) is from a reclaimed wood specialist in Guiseley, Leeds, called Machells and is cut down from Yorkshire Victorian mill joists.

The large pendant lamps are reclaimed from a 1950’s factory in the Stoke area.

The table was made in Leeds from British oak 35 years ago.

All the shelf brackets and drawer handles were made in England in foundries using all traditional methods.

All lighting is LED, even filament style traditional bulbs are actually LED.

The green roof is part plug planted and part seeded with a mixture of wildflowers, meadow plants and some sedums. The roof will flower through most of the year and provide habitat for insects and foraging for birds amongst other biodiversity benefits.

Reclaimed bricks and cladding looking great

We have nearly finished the extension we have been working on for the last few months in Hackney. The walls, roof and floor are all in place and there is just fit out for the inside and the green roof to go on top.

The glass roof had to be lifted into place by hand
The glass roof had to be lifted into place by hand

The yellow London stocks were reclaimed on site. The doors have a u value of 1.09 including the frame
The yellow London stocks were reclaimed on site. The doors have a u value of 1.09 including the frame

All the wiring is in galvanised steel conduit. The exposed bricks will be protected by external wall insulation on the outside.
All the wiring is in galvanised steel conduit. The exposed bricks will be protected by external wall insulation on the outside.

The glass, reclaimed cladding, exposed steel and reclaimed bricks really work well together.
The glass, reclaimed cladding, exposed steel and reclaimed bricks really work well together.

A lightweight industrial screed is making up the floor
A lightweight industrial screed is making up the floor

Green roof in South London

Last week I completed another green roof in Streatham. It is on the rear of a really interesting house, a 1930s semi that is getting a complete eco-makeover from the owner. He has insulated the walls inside and out with wood fibre and remade the roof in solar panels and that is just the start. All Stephen’s neighbours find it hard to believe how warm the house is without loads of heating!

Anyway, last Wednesday he set aside so I could come along and help him build a green roof, here are the photos:

The roof is on top of this single storey extension
The roof is on top of this single storey extension

The first layer of the green roof, a fleece to protect the waterproofing and retain some of the water.
The first layer of the green roof, a fleece to protect the waterproofing and retain some of the water.

Then we added a drainage layer to encourage free draining.
Then we added a drainage layer to encourage free draining.

Next is the root barrier and then special substrate
Next is the root barrier and then special substrate

We planted the roof with sedums, widlflower plugs and sowed a selection of wildflower seeds
We planted the roof with sedums, widlflower plugs and sowed a selection of wildflower seeds

The finished article
The finished article

It should grow and develop over the next few years until it reaches maturity.
It should grow and develop over the next few years until it reaches maturity.

New green extension in Hackney

Just a quick update, we broke ground on a new extension last week. It’s mostly just digging at the moment but still exciting. I got to put up a sign outside the house:

Ecoalex, new project

The project will develop over the next few weeks. The walls incorporate high levels of insulation and will be made using reclaimed materials including a white glazed brick interior and re-used wood cladding.

I spent some time in @thewashcoffee going through the plans from Clements Design with Shaun the project manager on Wednesday, checking the build process and making sure we will avoid thermal bridges. The design looks sound and we are starting on the steel supports over the next few days.

The guys all look smart in the new Ecoalex hi vis vests and are looking for opportunities to save materials on site and re-use as much as they can in the build.

Hi Vis

Biodiverse green roof in London

Last week I completed a ‘green’ green roof. Not only was it a green roof with plants increasing the amount of green space in central London but we also managed to use it to improve the energy efficiency of the house we were building it on.

The customers were really interested in using a small roof area they had to create a wild area of land to increase bio diversity. They are not far from Roots & shoots the environmental education centre and wanted to recreate some of the wildlife areas there. We planned out the roof to include different heights of soil, a wide range of native plants and areas of logs and brick dust to create habitats for invertebrates.

A week or two before the build I was on a CORE retrofit course learning about different types of roof insulation. This included a method where the insulation was placed above the roof’s waterproofing. This was perfect for this job as the roof already had excellent waterproofing and the plan was to lay the green roof on top of this. A quick call to the customer to ask them and they confirmed that the rooms below were cold so we added this to the project.

The project was planned over two days:

On day one we moved all the materials through the house, erected the scaffold tower and began laying the insulation:

There was quite a lot to move but it all went pretty smoothly.

green roof biodiversity
Green roof substrate

Day two started with us collecting some wood from the previous nights storm to create a log pile for invertebrates on the way to the site, oh and a full English for the guys helping with the work.

Installation of fleece and drainage layer
Installation of fleece and drainage layer

We made short work of installing the water retention

 

Continue reading Biodiverse green roof in London

Creating an insulated breathing wall

As you may have noticed from my twitter feed I have been working on creating a breathing wall. This is for a wooden house built with cedar tiles on a timber frame. The house has cavity walls and then lath and plaster inside. I previously built a green roof on this house and we insulated it with rock wool.2012-07-05 12.52.58

For the walls we were wary of using artificial insulation because of worries about condensation. The house was built with all natural materials and it’s own way of ventilating and we didn’t want to interfere with that. With this in mind we decided to use wood fibre insulation.

First we stripped out the laths and started adding in wood fibre batts.IMAG0757

Then we covered these with more robust wood fibre boards.IMAG0767 (2)

Then yesterday I started adding lime plaster to the wall for the finishing touches.IMAG0775

This is the first wall and we have discovered a few things. Firstly we will need more wood fibre boards as the uneven distribution of the timber frames means you have to cut them a lot and some gets wasted. Also took a while getting used to the plastering again but my training from Paul at DIY Plastering paid off and I was soon into the swing of it. The final skim on the plaster should be done on Wednesday providing there isn’t too much moisture in the air. More updates soon.

If you are interested in a similar project on your house drop me a line alex@ecoalex.com and I can give you a quote. More information on other services I offer is at www.ecoalex.com

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.

IMAG0724

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.