ECO­LOG­I­CAL

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Country - Neil McCormick

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.

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