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Renovated 1958 Semi-detached House

The Adventures of an Elderly (and very determined) Ecovator

After the death of her husband a widow of 73 sold their large house, bought a 1958 urban semi and commissioned an architect to make it as ‘green’ as possible in every respect and suitable for growing old.

About fuel consumption: no figures are available yet but base line readings were taken before renovation. In February the (gas) meter reader exclaimed, almost indignantly ‘You don’t use much!’ He should know because he had been reading meters in houses like mine all morning, and many of the occupants will have been out all day, presumably with their heating off, whereas mine is on all day. 

Latest case studies:

I have not needed to use the boiler as booster for hot water or under floor heating even in the coldest weather. There is always a lot of very hot water, but this may be partly because my panels were chosen to be adequate for a family of four or five rather than one person.

 Changes have been made on the large and the small scale, from installing a water tank in the garden to dispensing with the power shower and buying products from suppliers within walking distance of the house. Solar panels which supply hot water and under floor heating in an extension have been installed.

The walls, loft and extension have been insulated; a condensing boiler placed in the loft; a front porch added; rain water harvesting is now employed for flushing toilets, the washing machine and the outside tap.

An extension was built of timber, insulated with fleece, clad with cedar and roofed with cedar shingles has been added to the rear of the house;
all appliances are economical (including light bulbs and thermostatic valves on all radiators); and natural paints have been used throughout.

A wind turbine was proposed but rejected as new research shows that domestic ones are performing at only 10-25% of manufacturer’s claim, mainly because they need steady wind and around houses there is too much turbulence. (Large ones in the right place are fine.) The stone for the patio is recycled; it's lovely but very expensive.

The double glazing is Danish, and wooden (from heart wood), and they are very efficient and attractive. Particular attention has been paid to the small things in the house, the details. There is no power shower, no pop-up wastes (expensive and go wrong, plug and chain simple and cheap), loo seats are sustainable timber (but from China!), whilst some of the bathroom tiles are of beautiful recycled glass from Zimbabwe. These and the kitchen units were bought from a supplier within walking distance of house. There is a wooden clothes airer instead of a tumble drier, which works very well, indeed.

Vital Statistics

This property was built between 1920-1960. It is a semi-detached house with 3 bedrooms, located in a suburban area in West Midlands The household is a retired single person, with an average occupancy of 1 all year round. No planning restrictions are in effect. 

Annual Energy Use

(No energy use data is currently available for this ecovation.)

About me and why I did it

My name is Averil Stedeford.

I am a Christian. My faith motivated me, and also sustained me when the going got tough, as it did from time to time. I was first made to think of the ethics of my house by a Jamaican visitor, many years ago. Having seen round our three-bedroom semi where we lived with two children, she exclaimed ONLY FOUR PEOPLE IN ALL THIS HOUSE! That stayed with me. 

After the death of my husband I felt our four bedroom detached in a ‘desirable road’ was certainly too big for me. As an associate of the Iona Community I had often said the prayer beginning ‘The world belongs to God…..’ and I realised this included my house. When I began thinking about how I should act on this I felt almost commanded to sell the house, buy a cheaper and very ordinary one, and use some of the cash difference to make it as green as possible. My family, whose inheritance will be diminished as a result, have been very supportive. I know I will not get my money back, and a few people have considered me foolish on this account, but I have agreed with the architect that the research results which went into the planning of the house will be available to help other people. The house has gained publicity in the press and on T.V. The website has attracted a great deal of attention, and requests to see the house by students and people contemplating doing something similar are coming in.

So my goal of setting an example is being realised very well, and this is part of my reward. Also the house is beautiful now and very comfortable.

Many people consider moving to a smaller house when children leave home or at retirement or widowhood. I would urge them to consider doing something like this project if they can, rather than choosing a purpose-built retirement flat. Some say they must have room for their grandchildren to stay, but most youngsters these days don’t mind sleeping on the floor. Mine are proud of their ‘green grandma’ and think it a small price to pay. Is it right for one person to live in a large house so that others can stay for only a few weeks in the year? But I know very well now that moving is hard, and the disruption of building is very stressful when one is old. Had I known what I do now I would have considered a bridging loan. 

To people who are not contemplating moving I would say ‘Take every opportunity that comes. If you need an extension, build it of timber, if you need new windows, choose wooden double glazing, if you are redecorating, use natural paint. If your floor has to come up for rewiring, put some insulation underneath. If a gale blows through your letter box, stop it. Choose low energy light bulbs and efficient appliances, make sure you have thermostatic valves on all your radiators (not expensive, and rooms not in use can stay cool, saving a lot of fuel.) Almost everyone can do something effective.

Water and Sewage

Rainwater Harvesting

Advantages of,

It saves about a third of household consumption. A high proportion of the cost of our mains water is the cost of purifying it to a potable standard. It is absurd to wash our cars and water our gardens with drinking water. We wouldn’t do it if it were bottled!

It reduces the risk of flooding. Severe downpours run off into the sewers instead of soaking in, thus contributing to flash floods (as does paving of front gardens unless the water goes into a soak away.) My underground tank (capacity 3,500litres) can take up a downpour from the roof of house and shed and release it into the sewer, (or a soak-away if the tank is full) gradually as it is used.

The water is very soft. I use 1/3 or less of the recommended amount of detergent for our water, which means less pollution for rivers etc. The water The water is good for the steam iron, flower vases, etc. It is not allowed in the kitchen or bathroom; only for toilets and washer.

There are industrial applications too. I read of a large single storey factory next door to a bus depot. Someone thought of using all the water off the factory roofs to wash the buses, and both companies benefited.

Problems of,

All is well now but we had initial troubles: The water was offensive when the system first came into use. We did not notice that the manufacturers (Free-rain) advised draining and flushing the tank at that time. Water had been put in as the tank was buried to weigh it down. It remained stagnant through the warm summer so it is not surprising that it was foul. Cisterns had to be cleaned and the tank flushed.

Too much soil was left near the cover of the tank so that in heavy rain it was in a puddle and mud got in. That gradually washed out. The water was discoloured even when the mud had gone. We eventually identified this as leeching from the cedar roof. Fortunately white clothes still came out white and the colour is paling into insignificance.

Digging the hole disrupted part of the garden. The lid, which is not pretty, has to be accessible because a filter has to be cleaned every 2 months. (not difficult.) Shrubs can be planted around it and pots put on it. 

Hose-pipe ban? Whether I can use my hose during a ban is uncertain. If the tank gets down to 10% there is an automatic top-up from the mains. There is an easy-to read gauge in the kitchen so I could probably monitor at times of drought, how low the supply was.

Obstacles and How we Overcame Them

Cost, particularly government mandated VAT, has proved a signficant problem.

Materials used in ecovation, like fleece and sustainable timber, attract VAT when used for renovation of an existing building but not in a new one. This is ridiculous. For many years to come, more fuel will be saved by renovating old houses than by building new ones. The architect thinks my house will be good for another 100 years. The government should make it as rewarding as possible to make such homes efficient.

Many of us ecovators are angry that we cannot get a grant for insulating our loft between the rafters as we must do if the boiler is to go there. Grants are only available for insulation above the bedroom ceiling.

Fleece is a wonderful natural insulator, regulating the humidity of the house as well as the temperature. It is also pleasant to use. BUT it is expensive. At the same time farmers have no market for their fleece and are shearing only to keep the sheep comfortable. Something must be done about this even if it hurts the manufacturers of rock wool! 

Other difficulties encountered. Before describing these I want to make it clear that everyone on site worked well. Though some were sceptical at first, they all entered into the spirit of the enterprise. Everyone from the contractor to the men digging the hole told me they learned from it, and some admitted it was a steep learning curve. I find it very satisfying that there are now workmen in all the house building trades who know more about green building than they did before.

In some areas other countries have technology more advanced than ours. Using materials etc. from them can cause problems. The boiler/solar panels/underfloor heating from Eco hometec is an example. The boiler is German with no instructions in English and the UK helpline never answered. None of the team knew German. The heating was turned on for the first time on a Friday afternoon.
During the night there were loud and alarming noises above. I went into the loft where the display read ‘Fault’ so I turned it off. They thought it was air in the system and corrected that but the same happened on Monday night. Downstairs the programmer declared that the boiler was OFF so the men could not believe me that it was firing. After a third night they realised there was an integral programmer in the boiler which over-rode the one downstairs! I was vindicated but angry that I had to go through that.

The windows and doors came from Denmark. Soon after they arrived it was noted the new back door could be locked and unlocked only from inside. I wanted it to unlock from outside too as English back doors usually do. We wondered if in Denmark it was more common to use a patio-type door at the back or side, and this was why this had happened. Rectifying it would be expensive and my complaints elicited kindly sympathy but no action until, months later, I noticed that the specification stated that it was to have the same ironmongery as the front door. Immediate change of attitude!

Heat recovery unit
. I was offered this free as part of some research if I would take regular readings to monitor its efficiency. It wraps round the pipe carrying waste water from bath etc and uses it to preheat water going to the boiler. Results in Canada where it is made show that it reduces fuel use considerably. It was duly installed outside my house and the plumbers and electricians were very concerned that it was exposed to the weather. A proposal to box it in acceptably was costed at hundreds of pounds and bubble wrap had to suffice through the winter. I am negotiating to lose it because a) it was designed for a country where waste pipes are NOT outside houses, so it is not suitable for my house. b) My waste water comes down in two separate pipes to two drains and this collects from only one. I think more research should have been done before it arrived.

Top Tips

Don't be afraid of the reactions of people around you.

There have been no complaints from neighbours and those in the other half of our pair decided to get their cavity wall insulation done when I told them how cheap it was, with the grant. They like the appearance of the extension very much, especially the cedar roof. A man whose family is in Bangladesh came to ask about the rainwater harvesting, wondering if it would help them to cope with the annual drought, so he has gone off with literature about this! The burying of the water tank, which we nicknamed Thomas because of its size and shape, was a great source of entertainment.

For more information on the house and images, visit www.

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