We’ve go to move, 20 years in Hulme but it’s not what it could’ve been. I’ve gone and created a perfect flat for 5 on the 3rd floor, 100m away from the lift and now there’s 6 of us and one can’t walk yet.

So where do we go? Somewhere near a decent bit of park space, somewhere where you can walk to a decent load of shops so we don’t have to use the car. Close enough to decent public transport for getting into town. It’d be quite nice to go without the car altogether and just hire when we’re going away or visiting but I’ve not won that argument yet…

and we need enough space for all of us – as the people and the bike collection get bigger.

July 2004

Pick a skip with a roof on – we can’t afford anything else and we want to do things to it anyway.

So we’ve gone for a house that will be big enough for the children to grow into so they won’t need to leave if they don’t want to. I’ve always wondered about that whole thing that many who had spent their lives in Hulme (rather than incomers like me) had mentioned about extended families – mine is scattered all over the country and only meets up for weddings and funerals – could we establish somewhere that can be a base for the future members of the family? – it’s got to contribute to social sustainability that kind of thing.

October 2004

So we are going to convert a batch of separately let rooms back to a family house. The basement is full of the lives of former residents, the electrics are shot, several of the windows and a few areas of the floors. There’s no damp proof course, no cavity, no felt in the roof, single glazing throughout, and the most arthritic boiler I have ever seen. But in return an almost complete set of fireplaces, all the chimney pots, stripped original woodwork on most of the house

So making this right is going to be interesting. Got a couple of months to plan.

Mortgages hmm, can you do those sustainably? Well in the broadest terms, yes I think you can. The Co-op Bank doesn’t use invest in anything iffy, and doesn’t like its customers doing it either so theirs is probably the only ethical mortgage we can get, not the cheapest but not far off and if we’re going to have to give them money for 25 years it’d be nice if it wasn’t going to provide loans to arms manufacturers.

They still want you have an injected damp proof course though! I thought everyone had cottoned on to the fact that injected damp proof courses in houses like this don’t do much, other than supporting a small industry running around leaving drill hole marks round your house injecting chemical goo into your house.  We’ve told them there’s no need for one; the house has been here for 100 years and while there’s plenty of evidence of moisture, it has soaked through ceilings from roof leaks and through walls from dodgy downpipes and worn out pointing.

November 2004

So we’re rewiring. Not a lot we can do about PVC cabling (poisonous in fire, fossil fuels to make and quite polluting while they’re at it) but we can do something about the lighting. Let’s take the opportunity to do the lighting properly, this wants to be a sustainable house but it wants to be designed and poor lighting has killed too many nice buildings, interestingly good lighting has made a the proverbial pig’s ear look like a silk purse too. I’ll go for the latter.

Problem with a bit of money for refurbishment but unallocated is that the first spend is higher than the subsequent ones as you run out. We went for iGuzzini, not wildly pricey but not cheap either, and when you get to spec up half the house you can get quite carried away. We’ve gone for low energy replacements in all the upstairs rooms except the bathroom, which is a near complete rebuild with the floor having had to be entirely replaced, but downstairs we’ve had a bit more fun. Problem is how to you create accent/spot lighting with low energy fittings – tungsten bulbs are ridiculously inefficient – only 15-20 lumens/watt, even tungsten halogen (low voltage) lightbulbs are not that much better (25 to 35 lumens/watt). So fluorescents (100 l/W) have to be the mainstay, but years ago I bumped into high intensity discharge (HID) lamps, they used to take ages to warm up but you got pure white very bright light once warmed up and recently I’ve bumped into cycle lights using the technology so they must have speeded up a bit, and they’re nearly as efficient as fluorescents.

December 2004

So we’ve paid quite a lot of money for dimmable fluorescent downlighters (18W), quite a few HID spotlights (20W) for task lighting and we’ve allowed ourselves 4 dimmable low voltage tungsten halogen lights 2 each in the lounge and dining room, but getting this done by the electrician while he’s here rewiring has to make a bit of sense.

Some things need to be done before we move in. I haven’t had carpet for decades, with 4 small children I don’t want any. You have to hoover it, it can promote respiratory problems – especially if you are as scummy as we are when it comes to cleaning! We’ve got a full set of timber floors that have been covered virtually since they were put in.

So sanding throughout it is, but I’ve always had an issue with varnish.  It sits mostly on top of the wood so once it wears off, the floor discolours in the wear patch really quickly. I’ve always liked stuff called Danish oil, problem is that while it uses natural biodegradable oils, they are carried in one of those there volatile organic solvents. Charlie (link here) who’s doing the floors isn’t keen, says it makes him feel ill. My mate Phil Roberts from Gwalia in Wales showed some stuff called Polyx oil so we’re going to try that, really low VOC content and very benign generally – don’t want to poison the children if I can help it.

You know that feeling you get when you’ve just varnished or glossed and you think there’s something else in your head with you – that kind of stuffy feeling, the Polyx oil gives you none of that – I like that!

January 2005

Re-roofing? There’s no felt under the slates, no insulation except a bit of fluff on top of the attic ceiling, the 2 chimney stacks have got a slight lean on them. But we can’t afford it. Also, when we were designing Homes for Change breathing walls were just starting to be built. The idea that you let the building breathe is interesting but in most old houses this breathing is done through the chimneys – as they have been blocked off, gaping holes in windows sealed up with draft strip, once you’ve put felt in the roof, where does the breathing happen? I’m a bit confused because airtightness is now a test for new buildings so have we gone full circle. I don’t know so I’m going to try it out. We can’t afford to re-roof yet, I’ve shoved foam up the chimney’s so that there is still some ventilation but only a trickle and we’ll see what happens. It does get very cold in the attic when the wind blows though.

Moving in soon, 7 skips of crud out of the basement and hardly any treasure, sent as much off to charity shops and into various recycling bins as we could but despite trying to be sustainable we’ve still just shoved a few tons into land fill – oops!

Stripped out the bathroom, there are tendrils of something growing underneath the hardboard that used to have cork tiles on it, the floor is completely rotten half way across the floor. The big dresser in the kitchen below it which I had fancied keeping is quite rotten too. The plaster in both rooms is only held there by the wallpaper. Look on the bright side we can put some insulation up on the bathroom wall now that there’s no original woodwork/plasterwork to retain like there is in the rest of the house

February 2005

It’s cold, ow! You can forget how cold these houses are when you’ve spent 10 living in a well insulated modern building, and my body seems to have forgotten the 10 years I spent on the Crescents. So we need heat.

We’ve got a great collection of nice old fireplaces but Manchester’s a smoke control zone so only coke. Well that’s not happening, there was moment when I romantically thought I could nip down to Wales every now and then and get a bag of worker owned Tower colliery’s high grade Welsh anthracite, but no! While I still have a 23 year old instinct to support the miners, it’s a fossil fuel. Sarah has discovered that you can get woodburners that are allowed in smoke control zones. So we’ve now got a Morso wood burner which at full wack warms most of the house. Does mean we can burn waste wood and some cardboard as long as they’re not painted or varnished etc. and we now dig around in other people’s skips for a ‘nice bit of firewood’.

March 2005

Couple of report backs then. Polyx oil is great under bare feet and upstairs in the bedrooms is doing well but there’a lot of muck being generated by the house, us and the bits of work we’re doing and it’s not wearing well. We’ve had to get Danny back in to cover all the bits of the floors that are wearing out with some hardboard. Hmmmm, we’re going to end up having to redo that bit in the high wear areas – but you live and learn I ‘spose

And HID lamps: the ones I’ve seen for night time bike riding come on immediately – iGUzzini’s don’t, they’re better than they used to be but not by as much as I was lead to believe. They are the kind of lights which once on, you leave on. So actually a bit of a dead loss in a house where you’re trying to economise on energy use! So far we’ve only installed them in the bathroom, kitchen and hallway which are so dingy that actually quite a lot of the time it is best to leave them on. But word of warning if you’re trying to get spotlights at 100 lumens/watt – check the fittings for warm up time before you buy them, and if anyone wants 7 very nice recessed downlight/spotlights get in touch as I’ve not put them in the kitchen yet as it still has no ceiling.

The very expensive dimmable fluorescents are great, you can have them right down to candle brightness, they make no noise, there’s no glare and the quality of light is really nice. So fluorescents 1, HID nil. The allegedly dimmable tungsten task lights had actually had the transformers spec changed, unbeknown to the salesman and they all blew up after being dimmed, so I had to change them –  mildly inconvenient! But now it does mean that we’re only using as much power as we want so most of the time the bulbs are only using 10 watts or so.

Still haven’t solved the problem in the kitchen though, I’ve got boxes of lights not really fit for the job and don’t know what is

April 2005

We got through the winter without the arthritic boiler expiring but it really needs dealing with. It’d be condemned if we ever tried to get it fixed. The heating bills are huge. It’s going to need changing and soon.

Well we’ve been banging on about climate change and carbon footprints for long enough can we put cash where our kissers have been? Let’s see how far we can get making an old Victorian house carbon neutral. We can make a lot of headway with the heating and hot water. We’ve got a bit of the extra cash on the mortgage left, we’re not big on immaculate interiors, we’d prefer to live in a green shed than a gas guzzling dream house.

So how do we do that then? Years ago Nick and I together with Sarah Mander (now Dr. Mander of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change) did some work for the Building Research Establishment on how to make best use of resources landing on a theoretical area, to see if it could be self sufficient. It turned out that heating and hot water were the big ones and the way to make most progress was to have evacuated tubes on the roof and store the heat. The house isn’t now and nor is ever likely to be as well insulated as a modern super-insulated house so we’ll have to use something else to top up the heat.

Biomass –  stuff that we can burn. They used it at Bed Zed, it’s carbon neutral because while you are burning stuff and liberating CO2, it’s not stuff that’s been trapped in the ground, it only recently left the air so is part of the Carbon Cycle. Next step is to find one we can afford. We’ve seen these ones that use wood pellets – big versions of that sawdust based cat litter and you can have it piped into the basement into a hopper the boiler then draws it in when it needs it and lights it on demand.

Dug out the old spreadsheets we used for the Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood Research to see whether I could start building up a more accurate picture of what we needed and how much it would cost

May 2005

Oww. Those boilers cost a fortune, we’ve spent the month ringing round and getting prices, cheapest about £5,000, the cool computer controlled one nearly £8,000, so by the time we’ve got the rest of the pipework in and solar stuff it’s going to be so far outside our budget even with the government’s Clearskies grant so we may as well stop worrying about it.

We checked out other suppliers, looked at wood chip burners instead of wood pellet as the fuel is the stuff left in little piles around parks at pruning time, I had visions of popping down to the park with a wheelbarrow and filling it up. The more affordable ones (for a value of affordable!) were not certified for use in a smoke control zone or were too big.

Then Jan Cliff at Sundance Renewables introduced me to the gasifying log burner from Atmos ( It uses the heat of the fire to warm the logs up from below so that they burn hotter and more completely eliminating most of the pollution and most of the ash. Most importantly they are alot cheaper and so is the fuel. They’re not automatic though – someone’s got to fill it once a day. It then burns at full whack warming up a big tank of hot water which is then circulated round the house when needed.

It’s not the clever piece of kit we were after but does have the advantage of burning a readily available fuel supply – wood pellet is still a new product, not as widely available as ideal – ironically for a carbon neutral fuel much of it is driven over from Germany.

So one of those with the big tank to go with it was going to cost about £2,500 – not far off the price of a condensing boiler

June 2005

The boiler is not exempt for use in a smoke control zone though. Hmmmm. Nick had already prepared the ground with the smoke control officer before we discovered that we could not afford 3g Energi’s pellet burner proposal. It turns out that for wood burning boiler to be legal in a smoke control zone (most of Manchester) the manufacturer has to have applied for an exemption from Defra but none of the European manufacturer are bothering as the rest of Europe is covered by different legislation and others are waiting for the UK to synchronise with Europe. So currently we can’t use this boiler. However a local authority has the power to grant exemptions, so we get the emissions data for this boiler turns out one of these boilers emits a tenth of the emissions threshold to qualify under the Clean Air Act. So this should be easy shouldn’t it?


This has never been done before in Manchester, other councils yes but not here.

August 2005

After bit of hassling we’re told the Council will turn a blind eye, we point out that this is such a pricey piece of kit we can’t rely on that, we need something it in writing. So we get all the data translated from the German, have a meeting, it looks hopeful.

Discovered this clever piece of kit from Consolar in Germany sold by Greenshop-Solar in Bisley, it’s a stratifying thermal store. We came across this stuff when we were looking at how thermal storage can work, if you leave a hot water tank alone it won’t all become the same temperature – it’s a fluid so the hotter lighter water rises so if you don’t disturb this process you get much hotter water at the top and the heat losses are much less. Consolar have brought out this clever thing that has syphons in it  that make sure that heat put in or taken out doesn’t cause the tank to churn with currents caused by different temperatures of water moving around. This then means that hot water can be done like a combi boiler – as in cold water flows in one end and out of the other hot when someone turns on a hot tap, even when the bottom of the tank is cool. Given that there’s 6 of us that feels more flexible than just a big 250ltr hot water tank, and this store will work with the heating too. The problem is I haven’t come across anyone who knows how to integrate this system with a log burner. We can’t afford Consolar’s solar tubes either.

September 2005

Getting a bit concerned that I am ending up working out my own system while hopelessly unqualified to do so. I haven’t ben through the whole list but we’ve tried the local ones of the Clearskies approved installers list and those that have answered have either just done solar or want to sell us stuff we just can’t afford to buy. Jan at Sundance has given us the contact details for Richard Drover, someone she has sold the Atmos boilers to to do full installations.

October 2005

Still nothing from the smoke control officer. Strike up an e-mail exchange with Richard, the systems he has designed don’t use the Consolar stores he’s done the more obvious system of a separate hot water tank heated by the solar tubes when possible and warmed by coils from the boiler when not. We are warned that Clearskies grants are coming to an end so we need to get an application in as quickly as possible.

January 2006

Travel; there’s a big one, we’ve finally managed to get a tank of bio-diesel into the car, we’re advised to only do 50:50 so there’s still half a tank of fossil fuel in there. We only do about 10-12,000 miles a year now but at 21mpg that’s  6 or 7 tonnes of CO2 .That’s too much, may as well own up, we drive a Landrover. Mainly because I wouldn’t be seen dead in  people carrier and besides they’re nearly as bad on fuel consumption. At least a Landrover will carry all the kids, a back full of luggage, toys, tools, equipment or their mates and whatever else on top. I try the argument about doing without a car altogether and just hiring when we need one – it doesn’t get very far as the kids get older and their extra-curricular activities grow the driving is a lot to do with that and how else would we do it. Bikes I say. No, it’s too dangerous I’m told.

I’ve personally managed an almost complete transition to cycling and/or trains as my primary means of travel now. I’ll go several weeks without driving at all. I only re-started the cycling a few years ago when the back specialist offered me surgery if I didn’t get fit and I’ve gradually morphed my wardrobe into clothes you can bike in and not drip with sweat when you get to a meeting, at the same time I’ve got steadily fitter so that the range I can sensibly do has extended. With the figures above it has to happen really. If you really want to reduce emissions then cycling is the only way to do it. The great thing is that I can predict almost to the minute how long it will take me to get to places as traffic is irrelevant so I can get from Chorlton to town in exactly 13 minutes, wind is usually behind so it is getting home that is the only variable time.

I’ve got the kids all on bikes but Sarah;’s unconvinced and very nervous about road safety, Alice (2) on the other hand loves her seat – it’s on the front of the bike as Sam refused to accept that riding without stabilisers is possible so I have to tow him on a trailer bike. The great thing about old houses is a lot of them have basements so at least I’ve somewhere to put this mode of transport.

The thing is though we’re still lobbing out 7 tonnes of CO2 with all this cycling – I reckon I do about 5,000 miles a year by bike. We’ve tried to find more efficient way of doing it but there’s 6 of us and surprisingly few cars that’ll take us all.

If the sustainable target is 1 tonne each per year we’ve got some way to go yet!

Feburary 2006

Insulation?! We could do with some, Sarah’s found out that the council will come and do some basic insulation and draft excluding as our youngest child is under 5. Because there are rooms in the attic we can’t get the whole roof done unless we either re-roof or rip down the sloping part of the ceilings in the attic rooms, but we can feel the difference immediately. Had to stop them with the draft excluders, we’ve an aspiration to sorting out the windows and want to keep them, so lots of little bits of plastic nailed into the face of the windows isn’t doing it for me. The shiny reflective plastic sheets behind the radiators seem to work. I’ve no actual data for this claim but rooms feel warmer.
So while we’re on the subject, the amount of plaster that fell off the bathroom wall gives us the chance to insulate the wall with something thin before we put a new finish up and it’ll hardly add anything to the wall thickness so won’t mess up the trim round the window.

I’ve never like the idea of foam in a house because of the poisons it gives off in a fire, but also the sustainability of the materials used in manufacture is doubtful – they may have ditched the CFC and HCFC gas to create the bubbles but not a lot else. I looked at using flax and wool – the former isn’t efficient enough for the small space I’ve got, and neither are that good if steam gets through the wall from the bathroom. Glass fibre is not that green in a lot of ways as it uses a lot of energy in its manufacture, but if it is made from recycled glass it uses less energy and it puts a widespread waste material to use and produces a completely inert material at the end.

March 2006

Waste,  it’s another big issue if you want to reduce your ecological footprint. We’re trying all sorts. When URBED moved from Hulme a couple of years ago Nick got hold of some board for the shelving made from shredded drinks cartons. There’s only one company in the UK that we’ve been able to find that takes the cartons for recycling but they’re in Scotland. Anyway, it’s proved it’s feasible to recycled them and you can see the difference in how full the bin gets when you take them out of the waste stream. So we’re pulling the plastic off and rinsing them, boxing them then when we remember we’ll give them to my mum as Kirklees Council recycles them (Manchester doesn’t….yet).
But the big drop in waste has been composting. It’s compulsory in loads of places. First we built a pair of pens made from pallets in the corner of the garden where someone leaps over out back wall and comes down the side of the house to see if there’s a door left open. They’ve got in once maybe next time SOCO can look for someone with a foot full of rotting tomatoes – it might put them off a bit.

Didn’t work, they got in again and the pallets didn’t work that well as rubbish kept falling through the slats and whiffing a bit, we’ve now gone for some purpose made wooden compost bins. We’re up to 3 of them now, and they don’t smell at all until your nose is right over them.

So with the paper and glass recycling the council do any way, we’re using cardboard on the woodburner, recycling the plastic bottles into the bin behind the supermarket and as I said sending the cartons over the hills. So despite there being 6 of us we only get half way up the wheelie bin each week. If we could find something to do with all the plastic and polythene covers that come on things that’d make another dent.

We’re using good solid shopping bags from Unicorn (kids insisted on getting their mother to carry one with the “Old Bag” logo!) but it’s amazing how insistent you have to be that you don’t need a carrier bag to carry a loaf of bread across the road.

April 2006

Decorating: we’ve managed to get some rooms to the point they could do with a coat of paint, I know it’s taken us a year but you know how things are!? A friend of mine used to be a decorator and he’d read up on all the stuff that went into them. I’d heard it before that acrylic emits things and non-acrylic paints are often carried in those solvents called volatile organic compounds, which smell nice but are apparently bad for you. So working on the precautionary principle going for organic paint, next task – find paints that don’t look like they been woven from crushed lentils.

There’s a surprising amount around and the colours are surprisingly vibrant, not even remotely cheap though. I remember the allowance people got off the council to go down to the near legendary Chester Road paint shop and buy paint for our flats in Hulme for less than 20 quid – this stuff is several times the price.

We bought loads of little pots to see if the website was for real – went for Ecos. A new and interesting problem was encountered which was that the paint actually went mouldy in the pot if we didn’t use it fast enough. I guess you don’t get much more organic than that. Kids spent a couple of days painting bits of old wall paper to be pinned up round the house so we can see what we might want to use.

You can paint a whole room and scarcely smell a thing – they smell even less than those poster paints you used to use at primary school

September 2006

Start re-doing windows, we don’t want to use UPVC, it looks awful, is another damaging material for the environment and sash type are difficult to come by an expensive. There’s no way we can afford to have new wooden sashes/windows made for the whole house.

Earlier last year someone came round offering to draft seal the sashes on the back of the house for 200 quid each. We thought that was a little pricey given that we wanted them double glazed too so we sourced the draft sealing stuff ourselves and got Danny to do fit the draft proofing and double glazing while he was doing it. For some reason the windows on the back of the house are siding sashes but they’re hinged opening casements on the front. All the opening bits on the front were beyond the pail, the bathroom window at the back however was the only one on the back that needed to be redone and that was more to with the rot that had spread round the bathroom.

We then tried to source decent timber to rebuild the opening windows. We presumed they would have been made from Douglas Fir so thought – well that’s a temperate timber there shouldn’t be too many freight miles in some of that. Wrong! We couldn’t find it in the UK or Europe only Canada. Then the next obstacle;  I have always been adamant about not using unsustainably forested timber so ask for properly certified timber. FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) is the most reliable certification that I know of and I have asked for FSC timber ever since I started doing this kind of thing 15 years ago. People used to react like I was mad, now it’s moved on – you ask if it is certified, some say yes then admit it’s not when you ask which certifying body it is, others just confess they still don’t sell it. I was astounded, 15 years on and the UK timber industry still seems to be in a state of denial about what things like clear felling of virgin forest actually means. The UK is still one of the biggest importers of tropical rainforest hardwoods with no care for what future generations will use.

Anyway, we never got closer to laying our hands on FSC Douglas Fir than someone at International Timber telling us the only shipment they knew about was all going to one place and it was still from Canada anyway. I could have tried to get hold of the kind of Scandinavian timber that’s nearly like hardwood and that they make high quality windows from but no-one in Manchester seemed to know what I was talking about and I have no idea how to specify it, so wouldn’t know whether I was having my leg pulled when asking for it. So in the end we went back to Ecotimber in Cardiff, they supplied FSC certified rainforest hardwood for the decking of Homes for Change phase 2 and it hasn’t moved, rotted or even faded that much in 6 years outside.

The argument in favour of continuing to use rainforest hardwood runs that people will come and fell it anyway so if it can be proved that local people can still profit from their forest as long as they are careful and sensitive about it then they might stop letting the a***holes in to fell the lot. You take a bit of a risk with the type of timber. Woods like Iroko, Mahogany and Teak are, I am told, no longer available from sustainable sources. HFC’s decking is called Cumaru. Hubert at Ecotimber recommended Guariuba for the windows. Danny’s feedback was it had a tendency to lose bits like corners when planing more easily than was ideal, sharp edges sometimes broke off.

Quite chuffed with the detail we’ve come up with for the existing sash windows – they’re not very deep so getting a double glazed unit is not that easy if you want to keep the rebate. We tried it and by the time we had thinned the moulded rebate to fit the glazing in we were scarcely covering the edges of the glass. So we’ve gone for taking out the whole rebate and making new glazing bead for both sides of the glass, they’re glued in so there’s no reduction in draft exclusion or security, it’s quicker and means we’ve got nice new sharp lines round windows. Danny made the beads in his workshop using the offcuts from the timber he had used to make the new casements on the front.

We had a few issues with the sash weights than enable you to open the windows – a piece of double glazing is heavier than single so you have top put extra sash weights in (readily available from Reddiseals in Reddish)

We’ve managed to keep all the stained glass too – it all now has secondary glazing behind it so is in some cases actually triple glazed.

So we managed to retain all the existing windows, we’ll replace the attic windows at some point as they’re replacements from what looks like the 70’s, look terrible and are knackered already. We kept to the ecologically friendly paints and got local decorator, Lisa Pilkington, to sand all the windows down and repaint them with external paint made by the same people that made the floor finish – Osmo.

July 2006

After much chasing and a request to Councillor Nein Swannick for a bit of help we’ve finally got permission in writing off the Smoke Control Officer at the council. We can install the new kit, although with the proviso that if it emits too much smoke he has the right to insist we remove it. So we’ll just have to hope it’s as good as the test data.

Jubilantly ring Sundance to get the boiler that they’ve had sat in their shed for ages. It’s gone and the prices of the new ones are 40% higher. Hmmmm. Carry on exchanging system schematics with Richard and he tells me about a model that Atmos do for the German market that is another 5% more efficient. We start looking around for the GSE not the GS version of the boiler.

August 2006

In the meantime, we set about working out the precise numbers for the new system, there’s the thought that we might need a bigger boiler so I want to work out what the heat loss actually is and whether we can insulate the bits losing most heat. So I’ve added another page to the earlier spreadsheet with all the surface areas of every room in it. I then work out the U-values for each one and the temperature either side of each one so that I can work out the heat loss from every room. This will give precise figures for radiator sizing if we can ever afford to replace the rusting hulks gurgling under most of the windows.

October 2006

Got hold of figures for how much sun will land on the roof, it looks like we may be able to get enough evacuated tubes on the roof to be able to avoid turning the boiler on between mid-March and mid-October. I think that means we will still need 6-7 tonnes of wood a year, about 15 cubic metres – so visualizing that, that’s a normal double bedroom chest high in timber.


This is a highly efficient piece of kit we’re using, not just shoving heat up a chimney. Independent test data on the German version we’re getting says it’s 91% efficient. The realisation starts to dawn that receiving our energy through pipes and along wires hides our ability to comprehend the real consumption that supports our everyday lives.

Another one that got me recently was cycling on a bike with a power meter on it, at full belt I was only getting up to 250 watts, so bike powered hair dryers are out then! I heard recently that if you were to convert the calorific value of petrol into something that could fuel humans you’d get a thousand miles to the gallon out of a cyclist. If we’re to really engage in this low carbon future we’re going to have to get to grips with the fact that for 150 years we’ve been fuelled on abundant nearly apparently free energy as long as you can get it out of the ground.

So I really need to think about the heat loss out of this house and see if I can reduce the amount that has to go in because while I am not proposing that everyone goes to biomass I did want it to be a realistic proposal and that amount of timber implies that I need about an acre of intensively farmed woodland to produce just this family’s heating needs. That said there’s possibly as much as 25 million acres of woodland in the UK and only 20 million households so while you wouldn’t want anything like all our woodland to be farmed for energy I’m sure that a percentage could be used.

November 2006

Richard comes on a site visit and we make some serious headway in working out a system design that gives me flexibility and squeezes every last drop of heat out of the system so that even when the sun only pops out for a bit there’s some usable heat. He mentions that he’s got another 3 households looking at changing to these boiler systems

December 2006

The bathroom timber has arrived. We had to rebuild the bathroom floor when we moved in as it had rotted most of the way across, so we thought we may as well lay the floor so that it could be made into a wet room. We then peered at it for ages as the prices for making it into one were a bit of a surprise. We had the original bath re-enamelled on the basis that a free standing bath was nice, and re-use is the second of the 3 r’s of waste reduction (reduce, re-use, recycle) besides it’s got a flat rim so you can balance a brew on it, new free standing baths are either acrylic or new from china and they all had roll tops. We found this really nice slate for the tiling, but it was from Brazil and we had no idea how it had been extracted or what had been done to remediate the ground afterwards – if anything. We were going to go for it anyway on the basis that the embodied energy was less than fired tiles until we realised that they’d break the moment we put a cast iron bath on them with only timber below. So we going to try a wet room finished in FSC certified Cumaru timber.

The bathroom is becoming a bit indulgent to be honest because gon next to this beautiful timber, I then found a way of using the perfect finish for combining environmentally sustainable materials with drop dead gorgeous modern finish – polished plaster. For years I’ve wanted to use it, the Romans invented it, crushed marble, flour, plaster and wax. The last time I tried to use it the cost was through the roof but now a bunch of guys in Keighley ( are selling the raw materials and training in how to apply it. It’s not suitable for getting very wet but it can be splashed apparently, so we’ll see what happens

January 2007

I’ve been googling and surfing and found a Latvian company on whose website you can buy everything from sex toys to Atmos boilers but only the GS range. I find a Hungarian who might be hopeful, the prices are great but he can’t get hold of the GSE’s. I contact Atmos for details of how to get hold of the GSE version of their boiler. It turns out that it is ONLY available in Germany, so we go for prices off them. They’re not cheap. I wonder about just buying the ordinary ones from Hungary only to get hit by a stonking 21% price hike in January. This, followed by a rise in the fortunes of the Pound in Europe and the German kit is looking competitive. I’ve not done this kind of thing before. I see now how people make so much money just buying and selling foreign currency – weird! Just in the last week the European bits of our new system have gone up £130.

February 2007

The water tank is leaking so much now that it is filling a bucket in a week, we need to move forward some of the bits. So we’re taking the plunge and ordered the Consolar ‘stratifying thermal store’ plus bits like controllers and pump ‘stations’. Ross at the Greenshop mentions that there is a  5% VAT rate payable on this stuff if the householder buys from someone who installs it too. This is interesting and I knew nothing about it. I’d given up being able to get the grant on the system as we were just getting on with it and my attempts to get registered installers to talk to me had not got very far, it looked to me as if I could save as much money as the grant by procuring the kit myself. But this VAT business is worth trying to make work.

We’ve now got an informal buying co-op going here with the other 3 buyers as it saves on shipping and gets us better rates from the tank and boiler suppliers. So Charlie Baker Design, currently supplying Urbed and others sustainable building and neighbourhood design services, is now offering system design and installation. So I make everyone customers, hire Richard to bolt it down and connect it and we all reduce the eye watering cost of this new system by 12.5%

March 2007

Finalised all the costs so invoices have now gone out to our little buying co-op, once the money comes in order will be place and kit should be here in the next few weeks.

Now I have to get scurrying along this critical path. Richard hasn’t the time to do all the plumbing so I still need to find a competent plumber who, being in such a minority, is not so busy he can charge silly money. A mate of a mate is learning plumbing, I showed him the final schematic and we now have interest from his tutor at college who’s saying he has to learn this stuff for the next generation of students. I’ve got some work to do to get the kit into the basement and the boiler weighs a mere 450kgs!

10 March 2007

2 comments on “Blog

  1. Keith Baker March 10, 2010 10:11 pm


    How did the Spacetherm-ing go? I struggle a bit with the ‘science part’- but is it really a miracle product for insulating damp solid walls? And how expensive is it, can you recall?

  2. Ruth Kelly June 23, 2010 9:02 pm


    I went on the Carbon Co-op tour at the weekend and had a look round your house – thank you.

    We are planning to install passive solar water heating this summer and I wondered if you could recommend an installer? We’ve got a quote off the web bit it would be great to have a recommendation.

    We also wondered about the foil stuff you put under your roof (TLX Gold?). We are having our roof recovered in July so if we were going to do something like that now is the time. We couldn’t find anything useful about it on the web and wondered if you could tell us a bit more about it and where to get it from.

    Many thanks,


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