Green Dreams – [the never ending story]

After the wettest winter on record the basic barn conversion went to plan- that is it was started at the autumn equinox and was hoping to be in by Christmas. Hoping being the main planning process throughout this venture, in reality 3 months was a challenge and it ended up being 4. [click on pictures for full size]

the land of rainbows

the land of rainbows


The wettest and stormiest winter on record. Abergavenny seafront after a January storm










As the photo’s show the first ‘temporary’ dwelling is the remains of an old cow barn, 3 walls and 2/3rds of the roof- it has planning fo a workshop- studio- garage and storage, so hopefully the planners will not quibble over the super insulation, french windows for ‘garage’ doors, as well as sink and entertainment system.

The building process was fairly straightforward.

The old roof was propped up to remove the slates and install a new facing wall.

The earth floor was dug out to receive a 100mm foam insulation lining with a concrete floor laid on top

When the building was reasonably stable sheet board, followed by 6inches of insulation followed by new roof rafters, and recycled slates [found in various piles] were all laid over the existing purlins and rafters to preserve the interior.


The three stone walls were drylined with lightweight thermolite blocks and bonded with P.U. foam. It is my own technique so it has not passed building regs, however lightweight blocks suck the moisture out of mortar making the joints fragile, also those joints make up 15% of the wall area which is very poor insulation.  Using foam came about after a can burst covering a combination of blocks, wood, board and dust some years ago – separating the blocks rendered them pretty broken as the glue was so strong. I’ve used it on a few tricky jobs in the past with no problems although not on this scale. One can of expanding foam [using a gun] will do about half a pallet of blocks, which at £4 a can works out cheaper than sand and cement.

the cow barn- or rather 3 stone walls with some roof and earth floor.

the cow barn- or rather 3 stone walls with some roof and earth floor.

The windows and doors despite being off the shelf standard sizes from Wickes took and age to come and were the most expensive single item.  Costs have been fairly low with all the labour ‘free’. Although the property was land and derelict farm buildings with planning permission the previous owner had collected together about £5000 worth of building timber, velux windows and insulation. [a local company- Seconds & Co, Presteigne sell Kingspan PU sheet ‘seconds’ at half price, giving a £1000 saving on RRP]. There was also several years of collected junk like old bathroom suites, plumbing fittings, piles of slates from the old farmhouse as well as gas bottles, old doors etc etc. even the oak beams from a boat which were recycled into the floor joists.

The property was sold as a work in progress project although the owner had managed to only install the water tank and cesspit, with electricity coming from the collapsed farmhouse from suspect extension leads.


Given so much recycling and £5000 of inherited materials the total costs –

windows and doors [of a surprisingly high insulation spec from Wickes] – £1200

concrete floor [which also did the workshop] £1200

drylining thermolite blocks- £1100

new electrics including armoured cable- £300

odds ends, nails, some timber sheeting, sand cement etc- £600

hire of excavators, dump trucks [that included building a pond, terracing and fixing the road] £1200

chimney – the stove was here- £500

plumbing- £200

solar + immersion heater boiler- £600

all the things you forgot you needed to buy- £500 [this is a guess]

came to around the £12,000 – which is a surprise but if there had been more new and less recycling the total conversion cost without labour would have only been near the £25,000 mark. There are still things to be done, like build a proper kitchen although the cobbled together one and homemade concrete work top work, as well as install a fullsize bedroom window and some double-glazed panes around the french windows [the top lights are recycled and are temporary]

6 months on and a reasonably functioning home

6 months on and a reasonably functioning home


One of the most frustrating problems has been sealing the building- with maxed out insulation in the roof, floor and walls the building should have stayed warm but it has bee plagued with little drafts that amount to a high turnover of air.

A main culprit was the fact the roof was constructed one side at a time so the ridge leaks [air not water!]- before next winter it will need attention and by which time the windows for the main bedroom and around the french windows will be replaced. It does draw attention to the problems of retrofitting or converting old houses to be energy efficient – the new build will follow passivehaus principles designing out weak points where draughts get in.

the almost finished, living room, dining and kitchen area.

the almost finished, living room, dining and kitchen area.

Despite niggles [or snag list as it is known in the trade] the 90m2 home is quite fun to live in. Work is just a wander across the yard and there is a whole British summer to make hay when the sun shines.




However it has not all been work work work, as that would make jack a very dull beanstalk.


And what to do with half a dozen mid century doors, and the need for a garden shed [an ongoing project like everything else- the light, the signage, yale lock, time travel etc to follow when there is time – !?!]P1000291



the dogs are supposed to keep the rabbit population down- there are hundreds- but they have time to play.



And then there is what to do with piles of old gas canisters that every old farm house compulsorily comes with.

becoming more creative with the plasma cutter

becoming more creative with the plasma cutter

the new mail box

the new mail box

gas bottle evolution with the add of a plasma cutter.

gas bottle evolution with the add of a plasma cutter.

Homes, Green Dreams, and the Land of Rainbows pt 1

This is Part 1 of a series of articles and diary of building the green dream, but first the ‘gold standard’ the German ‘Passivhauses’.

Passivhauses is certified standard of house building that can increase the value of your home, reduce insurance but principally  reduce heating to the body warmth of the occupants and appliances. Cooking and hot water are the only big energy consumers with an air heat exchanger [costing around £20-£40 in electricity per year] conditioning the hot air from your bathroom, kitchen and other humid areas and exchanging its heat with clean cool air from outside. The Guardian article on how Passivhauses have changed peoples lives and heating bills has a simple diagram of the principals. It also stimulated plenty of comments of people living in Britain’s energy inefficient houses on how to retrofit the Passivhauses features into theirs.


The cost difference between a standard UK new build [with a build cost of £80,000] and a fully spec Passivhauses is £20,000- that may seem a lot [or little, and the coming blogs will investigate how much it costs to build a house] but given that UK energy prices have doubled since 2005 the savings are potentially huge.

Why don’t people get exponential growth? I wrote about it and it seems obvious now but not before. Fuel or at least good old fashioned fossil fuels are never going to be cheap again [unless we have a major economic collapse and demand crashes but then we won’t have the income to buy it], the alternatives like nuclear isn’t getting cheaper and wind and solar may, but not quite yet [although not to be dismissed]. The latest wave of price increases by the Big 6 UK energy providers is around 10%, it is exceptional but with income only rising at 1% and general inflation at 2.5-3% even modest above inflation energy prices rises has long term implications.

The average UK household energy bill is £1400, but like so many ‘averages’ it hides the reality that poorer households in poor property are spending a higher percentage of income on keeping warm and possibly more than the average middle income family in a better insulated house with the best gas boiler. With a 7% annual energy inflation the average fuel cost will double in 10 years, and double again 10 years later. 7% inflation may be the high end, it may also be a low guess given that we have used up half the oil resources in the world and will consume the rest in decades and global population increase is demanding more energy. Assuming a 7% inflation [and only 1% increase in real income] means that over a 20 year period the average household will spend in the region of £60,000 to keep warm, have hot water and cook.

There is an old axiom that rich people buy once and save money [I can’t remember the actual saying] poor people buy 10 pairs of shoes whilst the wealthy buy a good pair that last. Spending money now to save later is not always possible especially on a low income but it makes sense if you can to reduce energy consumption [and CO2] to do so.  As a builder and eco-enthusiast  I have been consulted on energy efficiency retro fitting as well as doing the tasks, and as I’m currently embarking on building the green dream [see the next blog when I download pictures on the current project] energy efficiency is a priority.

Recently I did the research and plans to renovate a 18th century town house to very high energy efficiency standards. A problem with it was that it is Grade 2 listed which requires a jobsworthy inspector overseeing renovation work to ensure the building’s character is preserved. Unfortunately pretty well everything suggested was considered to be almost vandalism and as a consequence the building remains on the market and unrenovated. It was was an interesting exercise in costing and planning a major retrofit.

Renovating and retrofitting compliment each other- if the roof needs removing and repairing then it is an excellent opportunity to fully insulate at little additional cost. Likewise is the ground floor needs lifting [the house had slate slabs that were damp and laid on to soil] then a new concrete slab can be laid with suitable insulation and then the original floor can be replaced again at minimal additional cost. However a problem in the UK is that builders are not familiar with efficiency measures and will skimp on material costs to keep their quote competitive. Knowledge is power and the homeowner needs to up their understanding of the options, a daunting task given the confusion over U values, R values, and Watts per square metre.

The principle is simple-

have an insulation barrier of 1 foot [270-300mm] of most materials [glassfibre, recycled paper, thermal blocks etc] or half as much of polyurethane envelop the entire building. Ensure there are no leaks – which requires wrapping the building [usually internally] in an air tight membrane before plaster board is installed- and making sure any punctures in the building such as pipes are sealed. Have draft free doors and windows and control the ventilation with a heat exchanger.

the practise is tricker.

The best advise is to DIY, or at the least fit your own loft insulation- glass fibre is cheap and laying another roll in the roof space will do no harm, particularly pay attention to the hard to reach eaves: drafts that come up around floor boards have there origins at the point the wall meets the roof.

If you are up for a challenge learn to plaster [and be able to remove skirting boards]. External walls can be insulated by removing skirting, window trim [pictures etc] – gluing either 100-150  of PU foam board or twice as much polystyrene sheets on to the walls, then gluing [there is a plasterboard sticky plaster for the job] plasterboard on top and then finishing the board with plaster. You can glue the skirting back on but it serves no purpose. To really do a good job, insulation [glass fibre] needs to be placed in the void between ceiling and floor along the external wall. The rooms will be smaller but much warmer- and you can do one room[ one wall] at a time.

A DIY project that is cheap[er] and effective is to insulate the ground floor. If it is a floating timber floor the boards can be lifted and insulation stuffed inbetween the joists- either staple fruit netting to the underneath of the joists and fill with glass fibre or use PU foam rigid boards. Whilst you are down there use PU foam in a can to seal any cracks in the walls. Buy the foam gun rather than the cans with their own applicator- they can also be used to fill gaps around pipes in external walls.

Concrete floors are more of a challenge- you could get a breaker, dig up the floor to a depth of foot, lay membrane- 6inches [150mm] of polystyrene, or 75-100 mm of PU foam board, include 50 mm upstand along external wall to avoid cold bridging, and replace the 125mm of concrete. If all of that sounds like a lot of trouble then laying 50 mm of foam board directly on the floor and then laying floor boards on top is the alternative. You will have to cut the doors down, remove the skirting and hope the electrical sockets are not too close to the floor.

Double glazing is pretty ubiquitous in most UK homes even old ones, as long as they are sound there is little economic reason to replace them. If they are up for replacement then it is questionable if triple glazing is worth the energy savings. A passive house- rather than a Passivhauses utilises the sun rays [in winter months] to enter the house through south facing windows and heat the interior- by installing triple glazing that heat is deflected to a degree so in latitudes of 50o it is questionable to install triple glazing in south facing windows. What I would recommend is removing the plastic trim around double glazed windows [it is stuck on with silicone that can be cut with a knife] and in the void between the walls and frame fill with expanding PU foam. when cured trim and replace the plastic strips with white silicone.

If you have been really diligent in insulating and draft proofing your house you will find mould growing everywhere. Bulk ventilation removes warm air which contains more water from breathing, boiling the kettle and having a shower- reduce the ventilation [or draft] and the water will condense and provide a home for mould. Even in a poorly insulated house the benefits of an air heat exchange unit have been proven in studies. A number of housing associations have done basic draft proofing, replaced the boiler for a new condensing gas boiler and installed heat exchangers- 70% of heat is recovered [less the moist air] and returned to living spaces. The biggest problem was changing peoples habits- windows need to remain closed- but not during warm periods- and the machine needs to remain on- and not switched off at night. In summer they are switched to a non heating mode and running costs are £20- £40 a year. With a fan[s] being the only moving part there is little to go wrong.

At around £700- £1000 the heat exchange unit is a simple machine that is easy to fit- the ducting is more problematic but if you like the industrial look it can be on show- I would chose galvanised duct. Otherwise it has to be installed through walls and between floors. Kitchen and bathroom extractors are removed and replaced with input ducts- you would also want to have a means to seal chimneys- at least whilst they weren’t used. You also have to install carbon monoxide detectors- by law. They’re cheap so buy 2 or 3.  If £1000 is too much to out lay in one go there are individual room heat exchangers that require a hole in the wall and cost around £300.

Personally, I have rented old leaky houses that were almost impossible to keep warm and that was when energy was pretty cheap. One of the simplest tricks was to open up the old fireplace and fuel it with skip diving activities. In the heady days of the 1980s and 90s the skips of towns and cities were brimming with furniture, parquet flooring, and builders timber- either furnishings, renovation material or fuel for humble rented accommodation. Living should be comfortable and a reason beyond saving money and reducing CO2- we mortgage our lives to live in a better [as in a pleasing] house, in a better environment, in a better neighbourhood and comfort including air quality shouldn’t be an afterthought. Smug and snug.

Next Part 2- building the dream in the land of rainbows.