‘Insulation’s What You Need’

My living room thermal backed curtains.

On Saturday I got to enjoy the curious pleasure of nosing around other people’s homes.

Along with several other areas across the UK, the Forest of Dean held an Open Eco-Home weekend, organised by the Forest Transition Group. Several brave souls, who are ‘ahead of the curve’ when it comes to installing various energy efficiency and carbon reduction measures, agreed to open their homes up to a stream of strangers . . . very interesting for us, hopefully not too exhausting for the homeowners !

The idea is of course that we get to see first hand how we might reduce our own home’s carbon footprint, and can discuss the pros and cons of various technologies and techniques in detail with people who had already ‘been there, done that’. Over the course of a few hours I had several really interesting discussions about different PV cell arrangements and capacities, argon-filled K-glass windows, solar water tubes, liquid thermal mass, ground and air sourced heat-pumps and a variety of solid fuel burners.

Solar thermal tubes on the roof of an ‘open eco-home’.

It was all really encouraging, and most of what I saw seemed to be working well – but the fact remains that if you’re considering changing the way you heat your home, you need to have available space and available cash.

If you’re replacing an older heating system, refitting an old building, or perhaps even building your home from scratch, then there are an ever increasing range of options, but most of us will have to make do with something else for now.


Improving our home’s insulation is something we can all do – whether we own or rent, have plenty of space available or hardly any and regardless of the size of our bank balances. But we shouldn’t think of it as some kind of second best option, on the contrary it’s essential if we’re to stand a chance of achieving the rapid reductions in domestic carbon emissions we need: 34% by 2020 ! After all the overwhelming majority of homes we’ll be living in in 2020 have already been built – we’re living in them now, and no amount of changes to the Energy Standards, will make any difference.

Of course we need to design new energy efficient buildings, but if we really want to change anything, we’ll have to adapt what we’ve already got.¬†Retrofitting will be vital !

The good news is there’s plenty we can all do to make our homes more energy efficient:

RADIATORS – if you have radiators maximise their effectiveness – don’t block them with furniture. Consider placing a low shelf above them to direct warn air further into the room. For radiators on external walls use reflective foil coated insulation (you can buy these, or simply use silver foil taped to polystyrene panels) to minimise heat loss through the wall (but keep at least 2cm air gap), but those on internal walls benefit from having the wall behind painted a dark colour, to maximise the heat storage effect of the wall. Most importantly keep the radiators well-bled, and if possible fit thermostatically controlled valves (TRVs). Turn down radiators in unoccupied rooms, where 14 degrees might be appropriate.

THERMOSTATS – understand the controls and make sure you not wasting energy by heating your home when you’re not there. If you have a room thermostat make sure it’s located correctly – most advice recommends locating it in the room you occupy the most, usually the living room. Placing it near windows, in cold-spots or unused rooms might all lead to wasteful heating, also don’t waste energy trying to heat rooms with open windows. Don’t set your thermostat temperature too high – remember costs rise around 8% for every degree above 20 degrees C.

BUILDING INSULATION – a variety of products and techniques are available to better insulate the fabric of the building, regardless of construction type, and in the UK a variety of grants are often available: cavity wall insulation, loft insulation, floor insulation, solid wall insulation etc. Loft insulation in particular is cheap and quick to install, and can make a significant difference to the heat loss through the roof.

AIR CONDITIONING – if you live in hotter climes, and have a home air conditioning system make sure it is kept properly maintained and filled with moisture free refrigerant – a 15% loss of refrigerant can halve the efficiency of the system. Close blinds/curtains during the hotter parts of the day to minimise solar gain, and consider installing external shutters/overhangs or awnings, external reflective cladding may also be a possibility. Experiment using natural ventilation such as windows and chimneys to help cooling in the evening, As with heating, don’t waste energy trying to cool a room with open windows. Installing low energy cooling options such as chilled beams or ground source cooling may be a possibility.

WINDOWS & CURTAINS – normal loose fitting curtains make little difference to heat loss – if thin fabric stopped heat, then tents would be warming! But thick curtains with thermal-linings can make a difference in stopping heat loss through windows, so long as they fit snugly into the window alcove. Care should be taken with curtains on windows above radiators though, as these can easily trap rising warm air between the back of the curtain and the window, heating the glass and little else.

VENTILATION & DRAFT-PROOFING – remember drafts are simply unwanted ventilation and vice-versa. Close windows when running either heating or cooling systems, otherwise your trying to heat or cool the outside air! Switch off extraction fans when not needed. Seal gaps around doors and windows, service penetrations (water and sewer pipes etc), letterboxes, loft hatches etc – using draft strips, sealants etc. You should be careful in areas that require good ventilation, however, such as bathrooms and kitchens, rooms with fireplaces etc – all homes require some ventilation, and care should be taken to allow some, via trickle vents or other means.

PSYCHOLOGY – it’s strange but our mind’s have a subjective view of temperature, not an objective one. To test this stand with one hand in a bowl of cold water, and the other in hot water, then place both into a bowl of warm water at the same time – one will feel hot the other cold! We also tend to describe colours and being ‘warm’, or ‘cool’. There is a lot we can do to fool ourselves into thinking of a room or our home as being more warm and cosy, or cool, just by changing the colour scheme, lighting and furnishings.

CLOTHING – finally, and most obviously, we should consider our own insulation, as well as that of our homes. Having suitable casual ‘loungewear’ available to wear at home, either to keep warm, or keep cool, will help us save both energy and money. Modern fabrics mean there are a wide range of clothes, socks, blankets and even hats to choose from.

. . . though I must admit I haven’t gone as far as asking my kids to wear hats in the house yet :)

What’s in Your Tool Shed ?

What’s lurking in your tool shed ?

Perhaps you own an electric drill . . . when did you last use it ?

How about a lawn mower, ladders, hedge-trimmer, jig-saw, trailer, wheelbarrow, patio-cleaner, wallpaper stripper ?

If you think about it, owning stuff that sits around unused for 99% of the time, is the epitome of unsustainability. For practical, utilitarian items like drills and ladders, what matters is access when we need them, not ownership.

There’s an obvious solution – sharing stuff !

It goes a little against the grain in our hyper-individualistic society, but it makes perfect sense – we don’t all need to buy our own a drill so it saves us money, and we don’t all need to find space for it in our own home so it saves us space and clutter (which Rachel recently wrote about on her Green & Tidy blog).

There are a range of ways we can replace ownership with access-  from hire schemes, to tool libraries, which work in a similar way to book libraries. Several organisations are already encouraging local groups and communities to set-up similar projects; such as Streetbank, and technology makes knowing where we can get access to things locally much easier.

There is a catch though.

To work, it requires a participating local community !

Unfortunately in many places this is something we’ve lost. We live next to each other, but often don’t know each other, or even come into contact with each other any more. There’s been a tendency in many places for us to lead increasingly fragmented and isolated lives. We sit in front of our screens forming friendships with people across the globe, but too easily neglect what’s outside our own front door.

But this isn’t entirely our fault ! It’s the natural product of the environments we’ve created. We often live apart from our work, and commute back and forth, usually by ourselves and we increasingly tend to shop in impersonal huge edge-of-town superstores. Many of our societies are increasingly divided and suffer from increased background levels of stress, tension and anger. We complain about the ‘fear of crime’ – perhaps it’s partly because we don’t know our neighbours as people and as a result don’t trust them . . . relationships matter.

There’s a large overlap between the health of our communities and the state of the planet. Personal change by itself won’t deliver the increases in sustainability we need, from energy to water use. If we are to succeed in combating climate change, peak oil and resource depletion, we will need to collectively re-engineer our communities to make it natural and easy for us to live more sustainable lives.

Although cities are sometime viewed as almost the opposite of ‘environment’, high density communities are invariably more sustainable than low density ones. In denser communities we can easily walk to a local shop, park, library or cinema. We can walk or cycle to work, avoiding inefficient, costly and time-consuming commutes, meaning we spend more time locally, and get to know more people. In a dense environment it’s easier to design and build infrastructure, from water & sewerage, to public transport systems. Dense communities also have a smaller physical footprint than sprawling suburban communities, leaving more land available either for food production or the natural environment.

Many towns and cities are trying to build more localism and sustainability into their development. Vancouver is a good example, with 40% of central area households no longer own a car, because they don’t need one on a daily basis – as they can walk, cycle or use public transport to get around. Car clubs/lift share/car hire schemes exist for the occasions when a car is needed, and the benefits of reduced car ownership are massive: personal cost savings in buying, maintenance and fuel, less traffic accidents, less obesity, better air quality, less land needed for garages and roads, and huge environmental savings in vehicle manufacture and disposal, as well as the obvious carbon saving associated with reduced fuel use.

It also means fewer large superstores and car parks are needed – in a compact community it’s much easier and more sustainable for a single delivery truck to deliver to 100 properties a week, than for 100 cars to visit the store!

Less obviously, reducing travelling also gives people their time back – up to 10 or more hours a week! As a result people play more sport, spend more time with their families and friends, have more hobbies and have time to engage in more leisure and cultural activities, not to mention politics and voluntary work !

As I write this I’m watching rioting and looting taking place on the streets of London and several other English cities.

While the reasons are undoubtedly complex, I’m sure our modern way of life, with it’s increasing disconnection and division, and loss of community is partly to blame.

Let’s hope we can quickly fix the mistakes of the past and rebuild sustainable, caring communities in our cities – for the benefit of both ourselves, and the planet.

Alex Steffen, editor of the Worldchanging gave an excellent TED talk last month titled The Shareable Future of Cities :

Photo by Miss Millions, via Flickr

The Brighton Earthship

An earthship is a house made from recycled materials and soil, that exists entirely off-grid, ie: generating its own electricity, purifying its own water and treating its own sewage. The name earthship comes from the idea that these structures ‘sail effortlessly’ on the surface of the Earth.

The photo shows the first earthship to be built in England, at Stanmer House in Brighton. It was built in 2003 and is now managed by the Low Carbon Trust.

The original concept for earthships was developed by American architect Michael Reynolds, who has championed sustainable construction ideas and biotecture for several decades. His original concept was for a home that could be self or community built, thus avoiding the need for a mortgage, with a low environmental footprint, and negligible ongoing utility costs.

Comprising non-standard building techniques, reuse of waste and site managed water, power and sewerage, obtaining official approval to construct earthships has proved difficult in many Western countries. The film Garbage Warrior documents Michael’s fight against the New Mexico planning authorities in building earthships, and his successes in building them in the developing world.

Photo by Dominic Alves