Finding an eco-designer

So keen are we to get the plans drawn up that we were initially tempted to engage the first architect or designer we met (some ‘designers’ don’t have the full architects’ qualifications). But this work will be a big and expensive project, and we have been advised to search carefully for a designer and interview several. And we want to get the design right, so it achieves what we believe is its potential.

Now we know why we have been advised to look carefully. As we expressed interest in the environmental aspect of the proposed work, I think I was expecting the designers we met to rise to our enthusiasm and put forward ideas of their own. But apart from the very first one we met, this was not the case. Designers came and went but the core awareness of eco-standards was missing from their conversations with us. They would do an extension, yest, and it would be built to current building regulations. But that would be all.

This is disappointing, given how much climate change is now in the news. Homes are big emitters of CO2, but architects are not thinking about this at all. Thousands are houses are being built all around us at the moment, by these people who seem to have no interest in the wider issues.

Even without the environmental factor, we hoped our architect might show some enthusiasm for the project. For most homeowners, an extension is a big deal. Some friends of ours who renovated their home went to the expense of commissioning drawings from different architects to see who would do something they liked. Admittedly we didn’t go that far, and one might argue that architects don’t give like to too much away before they get a commitment to spend money. Even so, there has to be at least a bit of a spark, but several failed to inspire us.

Se we searched deliberately for environmental architects, and came across several including Alan Budden of Eco-Design Consultants, Milton Keynes. He is happy to work with us despite the distance (we had an internet meeting at the house). But we can immediately see why many people don’t immediately go down this route: Alan is expensive. Now there is no problem with enthusiasm for our project, but the difference will be reflected in the price.

His first act was to commission a detailed topographical survey of the existing house and surroundings. This survey has now been done, and we await the result.

Dream vs Reality

Building an extension is probably the nearest we will ever get to building our own house from scratch. What do we want from it, apart from extra space? How radical can we be?

There are many aspects to an eco-home. I will set out below some of the challenges and aspirations, though we have at this stage done no calculations to see what is feasible given the orientation and position of the house in relation to its neighbours, and the location of its garage on the south side.

Insulation

Together with passive solar heating, insulation is the cornerstone of the PassivHaus standard of building. We probably can’t aim for PassivHaus because of the existing portion of the house, but we may reach the next stage down, EcoPhit.

A house has to be insulated against temperature leaks into or out of the building: this is easy with a new build but harder to apply to an older house. In particular, 1960s houses are built on concrete as ours is, and there is little headroom in the house to add a layer of floor insulation without excavating the concrete (a bit and messy job).

Heating

Current heating is by means of an oil-fired boiler and distributed through microbore piping to radiators in the house. Hot water is obtained by the same method, and there is an airing cupboard containing an immersion tank in the tiny bathroom.

Oil is expensive and inefficient, and requires a tank in the garden to store the oil. This tank is badly rusted and in danger of leaking (which could cause serious environmental damage) and although the radiators look fairly new, the piping needs replacing. There is gas to the house (though currently unused) and the conventional route would be to install a gas boiler and replace the piping.

But we’re examining an altogether more radical options. The house has several chimneys currently not in use, and we are very used to woodburners, and we have a supply of wood. Installing a highly efficient Burley (link) woodburner in the lounge will enable the heating of a good portion of the house. A masonry Ecco stove (link) installed more centrally will store the heat from burning wood and release it gently, creating convection currents throughout the house.

These are fine but expensive options. I justify the expense buy not replacing the boiler, ripping out the pipes and the rads and relying entirely on woodburning. But is this sensible?

One of our plans is for a electric backup headers: we are just hoping this will be enough, and that we are not mad to rip out the conventional water-based heating system.

Electricity

The house needs rewiring, which can’t be done until the electrician can be given plans for the extension.

The same electrician can install solar panels, which would be a logical decision if we are relying partly on electricity for heating. A solar collector for hot water will also be a good plan. But some people argue, why install panels with high embodied energy when you can simply sign up for a renewable electricity provider? I suppose the answer is, because if we have our own system we can trust it. If we generate it ourselves, we know it’s renewable.

Solar technology is undergoing a revolution as batteries are coming available to store the electricity during the times when the sun isn’t out. We’ve been glued to the latest videos featuring the Tesla (name? link?). But we haven’t dared ask how much it will cost.

Ventilation

Hand in hand with insulation goes ventilation – because a house that could not evacuate the stale air within it, or provide cool air in summer, would be unhealthy and uncomfortable. The trick is to ventilate without losing heat in winter.

The PassivHaus model relies on mechanical ventilation with heat recovery. This requires pumps and filters that need servicing, and some people don’t like the uniform atmosphere this creates, finding it rather artificial. This is of course a matter of opinion. MVHR needs pipes to be installed throughout the house so this is the right time to be planning it.

There are other forms of ventilation that require the house to be correctly designed in order to work, and for the air flow to be mapped. Some books say you have to have insulated walls but porous ceilings for it to work. Others refer to stack ventilation, which is the vertical movement of air from floor to ceiling in a building.

We still don’t know enough to know which is best applied to our situation.

Water

Minimising our water use is another environmental goal, and while we’ve got diggers creating an extension, we may as well dig the garden and install an underground tank. The tank will store rainwater that drains from the roof of the house, but it’s what we do with the water that isn’t clear.

The obvious use is for watering the garden. But wouldnl’t it be nice to flush our toilets with it, and wash our clothse and dishes? This requires planning and extra piping.

So what happens if you hook up your toilets to the underground tank, and then run out of water during a dry spell? One solution would be to link the tank to the mains which would only need to top it up if the rainwater level falls below a given level.

But we wonder whether this will work, and how much maintenance it will need. What are the things that can go wrong?

Background and Timeline

Tilia, as taken by the estate agents.
Tilia, as publicised by the estate agents

My husband Alex has been a vicar for 25 years, which is the reason we have lived for so long in Church of England-owned property. He has decided to change his approach to ministry and leave behind the parish model, with its ancient church buildings, its geographic dimension and, affecting us both, its tied accommodation.

The most immediate consequence, apart from the loss of salary, is that we will leave our home – currently a five-bedroom rectory set in half an acre of garden. All stipendiary clergy know they will need their own home at some point, usually at retirement. Alex is doing it early in the hope of further non-parish work, paid and unpaid, in and around the church. We are in the fortunate position to be able to afford this.

The decision was made a year ago, during a retreat in February 2019. The news filtered slowly to our friends and family and to those in his churches and diocese who needed to know for practical reasons. The wider public was informed in January 2020, and we will move in May.

It is unlikely that any work will have started by then… It’s highly unlikely that we will get plans drawn up and approved by the council by then! We’re looking at possibly a year’s worth of effort, with us living in the house meanwhile.

Introducing Tilia

Eco House Book, by Terence Conran

For Christmas 2019, our daughter bought us Terence Conran’s Eco House Book. It’s a large volume with an unusual cover design, looking rather like a coffee-table book. I sat down with it, and within a few days I had read the whole thing and absorbed its messages.

We are moving from a rectory owned by the Church of England, and for the first time in almost 25 years, we will live in our own house. We have over the years tried, and failed, to pesuade the C of E to acknowledge our collective debt to the planet and install innovative, environmentally responsible appliances, from solar hotwater collectors to photovoltaic panels. The arguements, the costs, and the location of our rectory in a conservation area (requiring special planning permission) all defeated us.

Finally we have bought our own house and we can, within the constraints of planning and funds, do what we like.

Our new home, which we have renamed Tilia, sits on the edge of Ashford in Kent, in the village of Great Chart. It’s a small 3-bedroom detached house built in the 1960s on a wide-ish plot with a garden that backs onto a playing field. The field is surrounded by large lime trees which have given the house its new name – Tilia is the latin name of the lime tree.

The house has had only one previous owner who was its original builder (he also built its neighbour, believe), Gordon. He and his wife lived here with no children until his death, which followed hers. Gordon kept verything very tidy and in good working order – the heating, the electricity, the kitchen.

However, much of this is original and needs replacing. Tilia is also too small for us, with two good bedrooms and a box room, and one reception room downstairs. We are a couple but our student son, who has not properly left home, may need a base with us for some time to come.

So this is going to be the story of a renovation and extension to be carried out to the highest environmental standards that we can reasonably afford.

Keerthi becomes Bishop of Kurunegala

How can I begin to describe the extravaganza of Keerthi’s enthronement? Suffice it to say that with three separate processions, with singing priests, dancing children, foot washing, deaf-blind performances and translations between three languages, the service took over four hours. The cathedral building could seat only 600 of the 2500 guests, so most of them watched the action on screens under marquees set up for them outside.

Alex sat with other robed clergy from all over the island, some of whom we knew. I joined Keerthi and his close family on a procession into the cathedral between a double row of Kandyan drummers in full ceremonial dress. As we squeezed into the pews reserved for family and friends, I found myself seated three rows from the front with an excellent view of the proceedings.

Bishops came from diverse parts of the Anglican Communion, including Paul Slater from Leeds, Sri Lanka’s partner diocese in the UK. Bishop Ian Ernest came from Mauritius to represent the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. Keerthi has built up a vast network of friends and contacts, and all the parishes with which he has been associated send busloads of parishioners.

There were pews set aside for government ministers who appeared dressed in formal white. In front even of them, on low settles decorated with ceremonial white sheets, sat four orange-clad Buddhist monks: Kurunegala Diocese includes the town of Kandy, seat of the country’s most important and influential Buddhist monasteries. The press were there in force.

The town of Kurunegala, 150m above sea level and on the edge of the dry zone, is less humid than Colombo. It nestles at the foot of a sheer rock face called Elephant Rock, topped with a vast modern Buddhist shrine. This rock is reputed to retain the heat and give the town an airless feel during the hot season, though it is comfortable in early January.

The cathedral complex is right at the foot of this rock, behind a low wall decorated with elephants after the fashion of many Buddhist temples. The Bishop’s house, which will be Keerthi and Arlene’s new home, is at the back of the complex, wedged between the cathedral and the rock. The house is not ready for them and they won’t be moving down from Bandarawela for a few weeks. Keerthi’s new duties start straight away.

Unexpected return to Sri Lanka

We are about to add a happy postscript to our Sri Lankan adventure: our friend and host Keerthi Fernando, currently the archdeacon of Nuwara Eliya, has been chosen to be the next Bishop of Kurunagala. His consecration and enthronement ceremony will take place on 6th January, the Feast of Epiphany, and we have decided (after much discussion) to travel to Sri Lanka to attend. We leave on 4th January and will stay in SL about ten days.

We had not expected to return so soon! We have booked our tickets and our initial accommodation in Kurunagala, and now we are getting our heads around the change of climate and culture that awaits us. This time we have a much better idea about what to take – those of you who have heard us speak about SL will not be surprised to learn that we will pack umbrellas rather than hats. Most of all, we are looking forward to the unexpected pleasure of seeing our friends again after less than a year.

Once more we are indebted to our friends and neighbours who will be looking after our dog and chickens, to Alex’s colleague Catherine who will take care of the churches, and to friends and well-wishers who are cheering us on our way.

There will probably be more to write after the ceremony: Sri Lankans like to celebrate in style and I am sure this will be a big occasion.

Postscript: Sri Lanka Evening, 30th June

Elephant graphic for Sri Lanka BlogWe haven’t forgotten Sri Lanka: Alex and I have been writing and thinking about our time there since we got back.

I tried to publish an article about the Tea Estate Tamils in the Church Times: they rejected it because, by chance, they had just commissioned someone else to write about precisely that subject and my article overlapped too much. They were sorry not to be able to use mine and I could see why: the one they eventually published was cobbled together from press releases, whereas mine was based on our own research and interviews conducted on the ground.

Alex is writing a couple of reports for his diocese, who supported and funded his part of the sabbatical.

But we’re also going to give a talk with slides to our local villages, expanding on a few of the topics we wrote about on our blogs. Our Sri Lankan Evening will take place at 7pm on Fiday 30th June at All Saints Biddenden. We will be providing some home-made “short eats” or Sri Lankan snacks – so we need to know who’s coming, for numbers.

We are asking for minimum donations of £5 (gift aid welcome) of which the proceeds will go to Karuna Nilayam, the church-run orphanage centre where we stayed in Kilinochchi, and the Church of Ceylon’s Board of Social Responsibility, which funds the projects that support the Tea Estate Tamils and gives grants to help rebuild homes and businesses that were destroyed in the war (we have seen some of this work).

It would be great to see a few of you there! If you would like to come but can’t make that evening, let us know because there is a tentative plan to repeat the evening at another date, still to be decided.