Of course it’s going to be an eco-house! Isn’t it pretty much compulsory for all self-builds to be eco-homes?
We want an environmental, ecological, toasted wheatgerm and hand-knitted jumper kind of house; of course we do. Who wouldn’t?
However, if I’m blogging the design and build of our house then I suppose it would be useful to explore what we are aiming for in the design and the motivations and reasoning behind it in a bit more depth, so here goes….
Since we have lived in it, we have been trying to make our (Edwardian terrace) home’s carbon footprint as low as possible. Admittedly we have gone for the relatively low-hanging fruit – we haven’t stripped the entire house back to bare walls and started from scratch. But I checked the meters, then turned down thermostats, insulated, draft-proofed, re-checked the meters, hung duvets under curtains, installed a woodburner that heats the water, and solar thermal too, and kept on checking he meters. I even founded my own NGO about 8 years ago to encourage others to make their own homes more sustainable. It was called eco-renovation network and was established of a frustration of policy makers focusing effort on lowering energy use of new buildings while ignoring the millions of existing new homes.
These efforts have left me with a house that does, admittedly have very low gas and electricity bills, but it isn’t really properly warm, has irritating residual drafts, and where you are only really guaranteed a steaming hot bath on a hot summer’s day, when you least need or desire one. The disadvantages and challenges of retrofit have become very evident to me during the years of my (admittedly relaxed) mission to greenify my house. Older houses are not designed to be sealed units, and will become damp if you seal them too much, solid walls have a high heat capacity but are hard and expensive to insulate, and our hot water tank is in the attic where the heat that leaks from it and the pipework is useless to warm our home.
So I have come to the conclusion that you can only go so far with an old house and this is my opportunity to see what can be achieved when you start from scratch.
The next question hanging on everyone lips now is ‘Well what exactly is an eco-house then?’
Is it a house which has very low energy use? Or perhaps it’s a house with renewable energy made on site, or a house whose materials have a low embodied energy – being made with recycled materials or those that take only low energy to make. It could be a naturally-breathing house made with traditional materials and techniques, or perhaps one made with modern and technological ecological materials manufactured from natural products and minimising chemicals and petroleum products. What about a home that makes space for nature, with swift and house sparrow next boxes, bats in the attic and a wildflower meadow in the garden?
Confused? You bet I am.
In the end, though, it comes down to what you are trying to achieve and what your priorities are. Having measured my own carbon footprint for years I know that our current lifestyle in the city does have a low carbon footprint. Work, school, activities, friends and leisure are all a walk, cycle or, at most, a bus-ride away. And we live in a small terraced house, sharing two walls with neighbours, and having a relatively small volume of air to heat within the house. Moving to the country, where everything (except the countryside) is a car-ride away is only going to increase our carbon footprint in total.
It is clear that building ourselves a house on the west coast of Scotland is not going to decrease our carbon footprint, so what do we want it to do? Our priorities are that it is as sustainable as it can be, in materials choice and in energy consumption. We want to use wood from a friend’s sawmill just across Loch Linnhe in Morven, we want to take advantage of the boggy plot to make a little stream, pond and wildlife-friendly garden. We sought out and found a south facing plot so that we can take advantage of solar gain in the design. We would like to use ecological and recycled materials where possible and build a masonry stove, like my in-laws had in Switzerland to heat the house very efficiently.
That is a long wish-list. We will have to see how far we get with it. So in the meantime we’ll just call it the House at Cuil Bay. But if anyone asks – it is an eco-house – of course it is!