The thermostat in our house has been set at 21 degrees, which, I am assured by all relevant authorities, should be perfectly comfortable for human habitation, especially with a thermal vest and an extra pair of socks. Still, I woke up one night last week in a hot sweat, my bedroom so stifling that I had kicked off the covers. On investigation, the thermostat had mysteriously risen to 30C. My eldest son refers to this as “regression to the mean”, arguing that it is all down to mathematical probability and has nothing to do with the temperature control being located adjacent to his basement bedroom.
“Regression to the mean” probably defines my entire domestic carbon-neutral quest. No matter what steps I take to adjust our lifestyle, after a brief period everything seems to settle back to the way it was. The truth is that, despite my one-man environmental campaign, I am no longer even the most eco person in my own street.
Over the past two years, I have watched with interest as a structure was erected in the smallest space imaginable, a triangular corner at the end of the road. In Victorian times, it was a stable, but in more recent history it has housed a builder’s shed and a small yard.
On this tiny plot — an urban sliver, really — has arisen a timberand-glass construction, comprising a two-storey block and adjoining triangular single-storey outhouse, each construction pressed against the perimeter walls of the property. It is so simple, square and elegantly Swedish in design, it could be a flat-pack house. Actually, it looks like the box a flat-pack house might come in, with added windows.
Luke and Maria are architects, married with a young child, and this is their first house. When you hear about all the problems facing first-time buyers, their solution seems ingenious: buy a small plot of land barely suitable for human habitation and design something that fits. It is like one of those strange buildings cooed over on Channel 4’s Grand Designs, only it’s the opposite of grand — it is compact, clever and economical.
The couple designed it with certain principles in mind, including being environmentally responsible. Or, as Luke puts it, “as possible as it is in Britain, on a budget, given the expense and restrictive planning laws”.
Luke and Maria have reused materials from the original stable and sourced sustainable wood. Grass grows on the flat roof of the lower part of the house (improving insulation while absorbing carbon dioxide). Solar panels occupy the roof of the larger block.
But plans to install ground heating were stymied by the expense of sinking a shaft, compounded by the almost complete absence of domestic grants to facilitate green building. In Germany, eco building is proliferating because it is made easy; and the more it spreads, the cheaper it becomes. In the UK, according to Luke, without a lot of government support, it remains difficult for people to go green on their own.
He and Maria are contemplating installing an air-to-air heating system, which works on the same principle: taking heat from natural sources and putting it into the house, in a process akin to reverse refrigeration. Air-source heat pumps are cheaper than groundsource, because they do not require civil works and pipelaying. It has been calculated that over a 25-year lifespan, an air-toair pump would save a Victorian house in the region of £12,000 in fuel bills and 100 tons of CO2.
The drawback is that they are noisy. I suspect this might not prove popular on a street of terraced houses where my neighbours complain if I play my guitar after 10 at night (I like to think it’s the volume that bothers them, not my singing).
“The fact is, this country is full of perfectly serviceable old buildings, which were not built with our modern lifestyles in mind,” says Luke. “We wear T-shirts in winter and like our houses warm, and while oil and gas have been cheap, people have got used to just turning the heat up. In the future, I suspect we may have to go back to the Victorian approach: wear warm clothes and lots of them.”
Try telling that to my children.
For more information on ground and air heat pumps, contact Eco Heat Pumps: 01142 962227, www.ecoheatpumps.co.uk.