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Designing a more eco-friendly home

Following the Henley House and Garden Show, we’ve been having regular conversations about improving homes to make them more eco-friendly.

I’ve invited Kate Brown, from Bright Green Studio, the show’s sustainability expert, to give us a quick run-down on some tips to make eco-improvements when you’re next doing some renovation work (perhaps an extension, new garden office or loft conversion).

Kate Brown of Bright Green Studio and Niki Schafer at HHGS19

NIKI: What are the basics in how we can reduce the impact of our homes on the environment? 

KATE: Whilst each project is unique, the basic advice is always the same. There are three basic steps to follow to improve a building’s performance:

  1. Reduce demand
  2. Choose efficient systems and services
  3. Use renewables

NIKI: What are the areas we could look at to ‘reduce demand’?

KATE: In an average home, almost two-thirds of annual energy consumption is used for space heating (keeping you warm in winter), so improving the performance of your home to reduce energy consumption is mainly focussed on reducing the demand for heating.

Make your home into a super-efficient machine by:

  • putting more insulation in the walls and roofs
  • upgrading windows and doors
  • reducing uncontrolled air leakage (for example cracks and gaps around windows and doors, or unused chimneys)
  • making use of ‘passive’ heat gains from sunshine and other internal sources of heat (including appliances, TVs, computers, hot water systems and people!)

Upgrading insulation and reducing air leakage (draughts) can have a dramatic impact on reducing heating energy demand, and also improves how comfortable you are in your home during winter. 

If you can do only one thing, start by upgrading the amount of insulation in your loft; you can have up to 270mm of the ‘blanket’ type insulation to minimise heat loss through your roof.

NIKI: Wall and loft insulation are key, but what about the doors and windows? 

KATE: If you’re planning building work, make sure the orientation and size of windows makes best use of winter sun for free warmth, but also ensure adequate shading to avoid over-heating in summertime.

NIKI: Will these changes cost us more money or will we save?

KATE: Reduce energy demand from other uses by upgrading to more efficient appliances (including the heating system), replacing lightbulbs with LEDs and making sure everything is switched off (at the plug) at night.  All these changes can radically reduce your heating and other energy demands and make your home more comfortable and cheaper to run.

NIKI: What are the bigger changes we could consider?

KATE: Electrify everything!

This is a mantra often repeated by the highly respected blogger Lloyd Alter over at Treehugger.com. Reducing demand for energy isn’t quite enough to have the necessary impact on emissions which affect climate change, we must also start using ‘decarbonised’ energy sources. This means moving away from using gas and oil for heating, and towards electrical services such as heat pumps. 

Policy is starting to move in this direction, and it’s likely that gas boilers will be prohibited in new homes in the next few years (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-47306766).

Although much of our electricity is currently produced in fossil-fuel burning power stations, the rate of change towards renewable energy sources feeding the National Grid is accelerating, and provides a low carbon alternative for future heating demand as heat pumps grow in popularity.

NIKI: What are your views on renewables? Are they all a good choice?

KATE: Once you’ve reduced demand and electrified your heating, your next step is to offset the remaining electricity demand with renewable sources.

There are a few routes you can take, the most common being installing solar PVs on your roof, perhaps solar thermal for water heating, or – if you have space – a wind turbine.

Solar panels have been growing in popularity over the last 20 years, driven by financial incentives from government which made them a very attractive investment. However, there are a number of important issues I’d like to highlight with solar panels, which to my mind makes them a poor choice, namely:

  • With reducing government incentives, the cost vs. paybackargument is getting worse, making them a bad investment
  • They are relatively inefficient(especially on a domestic scale)
  • They have a short lifespan(probably needing to be replaced within 20-25 years)
  • They are not recyclable.There is no global infrastructure for recycling the valuable materials in solar PVs, meaning we’re facing a near-term issue of putting them into landfill on a very large scale!
  • They’re not very pretty (if the front of your house faces south, they’ll be installed on the roof you see most often)

NIKI: Do we need to look into our energy suppliers?

KATE: Yes. My personal preference, and what I recommend to clients, is to move to a 100% renewable electricity tariff. Suppliers include Green Energy UK, Bulb, Good Energy, Tonik, Octopus and Ecotricity. Just switching your electricity supplier can usually save money, so even if you’re not doing building work or upgrading anything, it’s worth exploring the green, renewable options.

NIKI: Thanks Kate. We really appreciate your expertise.

If you want to learn more about Kate’s views on solar panels read her blog here. https://www.brightgreenstudio.co.uk/2019/03/06/the-problem-with-solar-panels/

If you want to know about how Bright Green Studio can help you design a happy, healthy home then get in touch: kate@brightgreen.studio

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