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Monday, 26 June 2017

Blinkered energy efficiency focus brings death and dispair

This tragic fire has been attributed to a faulty fridge freezer and the cladding that was put onto the building. So how could a simple electrical fault cause the deaths of so many and strike fear into many more living in and around tower blocks in the UK?

We have been on a drive for the past few years to reduce carbon emissions. This is laudable as climate change is bar far the biggest threat facing the natural world. However, this drive has been blinkered. We have dumbed down the issue to one of carbon and carbon alone. Governments and industry like this, as they think that it can be a. measured and b. profitable. However, when you are purely focused on cutting carbon emissions you miss out on the beautiful complexity of life and the systems that surround, and are embedded into, it.

At Grenfell, the problem that was overlooked was fire risk. What happens when you cover a building with a flammable covering and you don't fit fire breaks? Well, we all know what can happen now. So what went wrong? Well one of the key issues, that underpin so much of the construction industry, is that or testing and specification. Many of our testing regimes are old, tired and not fit for purpose. They are rarely updated or questioned as entire industries are built on them. Companies have developed products that meet the basic test levels and they don't want to go through the cost of having to change these and make better ones. The complexity of the industrial structure also allows these factors to get lost. Main contractors, sub contractors, system suppliers, building control, planning etc all have their say and it makes it very easy for key things to be assumed rather than checked and insisted upon. The focus in the process is money and time, not quality. We await to hear the findings and recommendations, but one can predict that pinning this onto one party will be difficult / impossible as really it is the whole capitalist system is in the dock and no-one in power wants to find that guilty!

This can be seen to full effect in Fishwick, Preston. Never heard of it? Not surprising as the whole debacle is being covered over by the Government and Industry. 387 homes had External Wall Insulation (EWI) fitted, again for all the best intentions. All have failed. 100% failure. Now each of these homes has mould and damp problems.

In this instance it appears (believe me you have to know how and where to dig to get any information on this whatsoever) that the EWI used was one of the standard products. However, against all the advice of groups like the STBA and the BRE (i.e. those people who know about this stuff), they slapped this EWI onto traditional solid walled properties. Now on paper this is fine. The whole industry thinks that this is standard practice and they even offer a 'warranty' to go along with it (this is of course a complete waste of time and not worth the paper it is written on - ask CIVALLI (

The trouble is that the moisture test that the whole industry is based on is fundamentally wrong! The standard even says that it will not work in in-situ conditions. It only looks at water vapour in a one dimensional manner. Last time I looked water came in liquid and solid form as well as vapour. Water also appears to have the ability to go both in and out of a structure. It even has the audacity to move sideways. So the whole industry is based on a one dimensional world with only one state of existence. I think that even the least enlightened know that the world is not quite like that. However, all the technical decisions about insulation is based on these tests. No wonder that Fishwick went wrong. They must have three dimensions, water and ice up there! Who is going to pay for this? Well, I will let you make up your own minds whether it will be the contractor, the 'insurance' industry or the tax payer.

So, if you have 3 dimensions where you live and / or it rains or freezes at any time then you too might face similar issues.

If we are to avoid Grenfells and Fishwicks (and the many others that exist - these are just the biggies) then we have to be smarter. We have to use the right tests to get answers that might actually happen in the real world. We have to realise that the world is a complex and interlinked place. What we do in the name of carbon reduction has other implications. It can cause fire spread, it can cause mould and damp issues, it can cause structural failure, it can cause health problems....... It also can have its benefits, of course, in many cases we are able to reduce emissions and make homes warmer etc, but there is not much point doing this to the properties where we ruin them in the process! This is very much the situation for solid walled and narrow cavity properties (these make up around 35% of our building stock!)

The STBA and others have been saying for many years now that we have to look at things in the round; holistically. We also have to understand how products work in the REAL world, not just on a bench in a testing laboratory. we have to take this knowledge and apply it to each individual case. One size fits all is blatantly false. We have to use our skills and experience wisely, not just follow outdated and inappropriate testing regimes. Unfortunately this goes against the common thinking that the construction industry needs to be dumbed down so that even the least educated can get jobs in it. We should celebrate the fact that our building stock is varied and complex and train our crafts people and professionals appropriately. Some people have the knowledge on how to do this right (and hence do it once), but do we get a look in? The inertia and power of the mainstream industry is enormous and they don't want any boats rocked thank you very much.

So, we know how to avoid Grenfells and Fishwicks, but Government doesn't want to listen to the voices of reason and truth. It wants easy solutions that address the needs of now, so it turns to Industry for answers. The whole of the Each Home Counts review (that references Preston / Fishwick) is being run by Industry. It doesn't fill one with joy and hope. We really do need to wake up to see how the system works and who it actually works for.

I am not a do-nothing type of person, I agree that we need to do the right things and address the issues like climate change, BUT we have to be clever and learn from mistakes, not cover them up. We need to make it easy for people to use their homes in a less carbon intensive manner, this might be using EWI, but we need to use the right materials in the right way otherwise we are just going to have to do it all over again in the future. That is a waste of time, money, resources and carbon!

I might have a rant now about modern buildings: It is accepted that ALL new homes (yes the ones that the House Builders are building now) will all need retrofitting for energy efficiency in the future. What are we doing people???? Can't we see that Redrow, Wimpey, .... all need to be told to build carbon negative homes NOW? Trouble is Government is too weak in the face of big business. It would be laughable if it weren't so serious.

Knowledge is power. We need to get the answers to Fishwick out in the open. We need to ask questions of our politicians, we need to question the integrity and focus of industry, we need to demand proper recompense for mistakes in the construction industry, we need to act within the constraints of fairly allocated planetary resources. We are effectively been trodden on by uncontrolled capitalism in pursuit of the free market. Well the free market only seeks profit. We need to demand proper controls from the Government (who are after all elected by the people for the people) so that we and the planet are put on a level par with profit. Only then can the three pillars of sustainability truly start to exist.

Economics, Environment and Society must all be treated equally.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Maintenance Matters

Rhyd-y-car Terrace in St Fagans Museum of Welsh Life
For those, who have not been to St Fagans in Cardiff, it is worth the trip. Great place and an ideal way to start to understand how buildings have changed over time.

One of the key elements of the museum is Rhyd-y-car Terrace. It illustrates how one style of property (in this case a Welsh terrace of houses) has been altered over time to address the cultural needs / desires / aspirations of the residents. (click on the photo for a link to discover more)

The original terrace house is represented by the home on the left and the team has made alterations to each subsequent house to reflect the changes to terraces in Wales. So when you reach the last house it has a covering of render on the walls rather than limewash, tiles on the roof rather than slates, modern casement windows rather than sash, large window panes rather than small etc. The internal layouts and services have also changed. Fascinating, but intuitively we sort of know this. However, what is not really explained on site is whether these changes were positive or not.

Of course, we do not want to live in houses anymore that have open coal fires, draughty doors and windows etc. However, neither do we want to live in houses that suffer from trapped moisture in the walls, rotting timbers and poor internal air quality. Unfortunately, some of the 'improvements' that are illustrated in the terrace have caused problems like this in the real world.

In time you could add another cottage to this terrace, with its original stone walls now clad in polystyrene (EPS) external wall insulation. This is a reflection on where we are blindly heading without due regard for the original structure. Again we shall then have a warmer property that is at high risk of overheating and likely to suffer rot and mould issues from penetrative damp and condensation.

Designing improvements to buildings is important, but we must get it right. So again, I urge you to read the STBA documents and guidance on retrofit of older houses. See

However, this article is about maintenance. So where does this fit in with the retrofit agenda?

Well, when you read all the underpinning documents about retrofit, they all say that any building should be in a good state of repair and stable before any work starts. So before even contemplating any improvements the house should be damp free and well maintained.

This is where much of the trouble has started. Organisations like the Government have targeted their initial efforts on those properties that were in urgent need and these tend to be the ones in a poor state of repair. So they started putting a load of retrofit measures on properties that weren't ready for it. Putting a load of non-breathable cladding / insulation over a wet wall, just seals in the damp. This would be bad enough, but putting a load of non-breathable cladding / insulation over a wet wall badly so that more water can get in, well, you can guess what has been happening!

So, we need to ensure that our buildings are in a good state of repair first and then we need to ensure that we do any retrofit works well. The second element is starting to be addressed (slowly and still with little real knowledge of the characteristics and pathology of traditionally built houses), but the issues of maintenance is less attractive to business.

Large companies delivering large scale projects are not really interested in minor works, or leaving buildings to become stable over time before starting with the big tools and toys. They just need to crack on, come rain or shine, cold or heat and get the job done ASAP and as cheaply as possible.

So we need to take a step back. Assess what we have, understand it, fix it, let it settle and become stable and then start to improve it sensitively and with the right amount of care and caution so that we don't mess it up.

So the first rung on this retrofit / improvement ladder for traditional buildings is not EPS wall insulation, it is Maintenance and Building Pathology.

CADW have produced some guidance on maintenance, but people see this as being for conservation areas and heritage buildings. We need to make maintenance relevant to the 34% of buildings in Wales that are traditionally built. This means all the terraces and stone / solid brick built homes that litter the landscape that we are so familiar with and proud of. After all it is these buildings that define the character of our inner cities and valleys.

Maintenance in itself is relevant to the retrofit agenda. A wet wall is 1/3 less efficient than a dry wall for example.

Building pathology is equally important. The recent Each Home Counts report for the UK Government highlights the recent case in Preston where the race for energy efficiency and the lack of understanding of older houses has left a trail of catastrophe. The details are being repressed by those concerned inc the Government as it really is a tale of woe, but suffice to say the underpinning issue was the lack of knowledge on traditional buildings within the mainstream construction and retrofit industry.

So we need to understand our homes, their history, how they work. This means getting to grip with material science and building dynamics. A good surveyor should be able to tell you these things, but most just refer on to 'specialists'. Unfortunately most of these are not really specialists, just glorified sales people. So we need 'Power to the People'. These are your homes and you are the ones paying for works to be done. So I urge you to understand older buildings and look after them well. Most of the things that I see when visiting homes are simple maintenance issues that can solve many ills.

As a starter for ten, have a think about the following:

A hole in the junction between a window and a sill. Water running down the window above the hole will go into it. What then? Well generally a damp patch and potentially a rotten floor joist. Solution? Fill the hole with some silicon sealer. Cost? 10p in silicon? 10 minutes in time. Potential savings? £350 for a damp report, £1,000 for DPC injection and replacement plaster, £2,000 for replacement joists,....

A crack in render on a west facing wall. Water above the crack will flow down into it. It cannot get back out if it is a modern cement render. So a damp patch. Rotten timbers maybe... Solution. Fill the crack. Cost? DIY solution, maybe £10. Contractor, maybe £100. Potential savings? Well, see above.

Dislodged guttering pouring water down and into a wall. Replacement bracket cost, maybe £1. Cost of leaving it? Easily into the £1,000's of pounds.

So check things like seals around doors and windows, leaf build up in the gutters, cracks in render, mortar and stonework. Make sure external ground levels are kept 15cm below internal floor levels, that extracts are working properly, that floor vents are not blocked by litter and dirt, that pipes through the wall are sealed up properly, that slipped tiles are replaced quickly, chimney stacks are in a good state and that any repairs are made with lime mortars etc etc.

I could go on. But I hope that you get the message. Preventative maintenance is cheap, relatively easy and essential both in terms of keeping you and your home healthy both now and into the future.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Rubbish Mechanical Extractors

This is what an extractor fan louvre should look like when in operation. I am not sure that I have ever seen this in practice. Wracked my brains, but apart from louvres on commercial systems I cannot recollect ever seeing much more than an occasional feeble movement. Certainly on my home there is rarely more than a flutter.

So if the louvres aren't moving, then the fan is not working properly, but this is the situation with virtually all extractors in the UK. So this in turn means that we are not dealing with ventilation as we should. All the calculations in Part F of the building regs etc are just a waste of time if the equipment we use is just rubbish.

The real life situation is made worse of course if the vents are facing the prevailing winds. With such minor pressure coming from the fans any extracting doesn't stand a chance against any sort of wind. Then we also fit any draught devices that just make it even more difficult for a poor fan to extract the volume of air required to keep condensation down to acceptable levels.

So what to do?

Well, it is worth having a look at a video from Envirovent. This helps to show the effectiveness of different types of fan on the market.

This video looks at standard type fans, but you could also look at a dMEV fans. dMEV are Decentralised Mechanical Extract Vents. These work by continuously extracting air from a localised position (like in a bathroom). There are various manufacturers and types. So you can have more sophisticated ones that work by sensing factors like humidity, so as humidity increases, so the fan will respond according by extracting more air. They can also be controlled by timers & pull switches and combinations thereof.

So, if you have mould etc in your kitchen / bathroom, despite having an extractor fitted, almost guaranteed it would have been the £10 model from the local electrical factors or DIY store. So I would recommend that you look to replace it with a good quality fan that actually works rather than just making some noise.

I will be replacing mine at home very soon. I will have a standard fan in the upstairs bathroom (as this is an ensuite and also made of breathable materials) and a dMEV in the downstairs bathroom that can run continuously. The downstairs room is more prone to mould as it is less well insulated and more heavily used, hence the decision. I will be changing the one upstairs myself as it is a simple case of changing leads over from one unit to the other, but the downstairs one is currently operated by the light switch and so we will need to get a continuous live feed into this. Probably a simple job, but not being a 'sparky', I would prefer the confidence that a professional brings to the task.

So, as ever, it seems like you get what you pay for. So as a special note for people living in older properties. We have spent much of the past decade sealing up houses in the name of energy efficiency and carbon savings. This has meant that many of the sources of fresh air have gone and we are living more and more in warm, humid and still environments. This is not good for your health or for the health of the building. We need ventilation. We need fresh air. We need to remove warm moist air in order to reduce the risk of mould growth. So look to get a good working ventilation system in place at home. This starts with mechanical extract from high risk zones like bathrooms, toilets. kitchens and utility rooms.

Get good fans that actually work.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Great News for Lime Lovers

At last the revolutionary lime product that we have all been waiting for:

I have known for sometime that someday, someone (well I knew whom) would create a special lime product that would answer all the concerns that people have about lime on their buildings. Well folks, that day has arrived.

Vivus Solutions have just launched their website to you access to their amazing materials. Have a look at Lime has never been easier, quicker, better. Forget all your prejudices, this is a series of products that can be used by virtually anyone on virtually any old building.

We have known for many years that we have been ruining older solid walled buildings by applying modern non-breathable to them. Almost every traditionally built solid walled house is covered with hard cement render or an impervious paint, walls have been re-pointed with cement mortars that lock in moisture and cause the bricks and stones to spall. This has been due to a large amount of ignorance in the mainstream industry and a lack of awareness from owners. Time and time again I, and many others, have stated that lime mortars and renders need to be used on projects, but clients end up listening to mainstream builders and surveyors rather than conservation specialists.

For years, the industry has moaned about the fact that lime is slow, difficult to use, expensive, unreliable and just out of reach for most. Well I think that this is a game changer.

As well as being an Air Lime (which provides a highly breathable mix) this new series of products are sent out dry. No longer will we have to pay for wet mixes to be delivered. So already it is money saver. The 20kg bags are designed to be mixed up in a standard mixing tub with a plaster whisk.

The small bag sizes are important for two reasons. Firstly Health and Safety but also the fact that each mix will be dry in a day. So you don't want to have it sitting around for long.

Dry in a day! That is truly remarkable for a non hydraulic lime. However, it will still carbonate like a putty over time, so it will still absorb CO2. So the trick has been to get an Air Lime to set this quickly. Great stuff. This means that suddenly you are not there waiting around for days for first sets / coats to dry etc. As I say, a game changer.

I would highly recommend that people have a look at all the products available - there are internal plasters, external renders, mortars and even some pre-formed laths. Spread the news!

Note: We do not benefit commercially at all from this product, or from Vivus Solutions, I just think that it is great.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Refurbishing old homes with building regs

Part L is different in Wales to England, so be aware of this
Part L of the Building Regulations in Wales (and England) are basically designed around SAP and conventional U value calculations. This is fine for modern conventional cavity walled buildings, but there are issues with older solid walled buildings.

Thankfully the Approved Documents take notice of this fact and they guide you towards some additional advice. Section 12 is entitled: Dwellings of architectural or historical interest. This is broken down into 12.1 Exempt historic and traditional buildings and 12.2 Historic and traditional buildings where special considerations apply.

I think that this is where we get a bit lost, as people don't see their solid walled buildings as being 'historic / traditional'. So many think that this section will not apply to their home. This issue even applies to Building Surveyors and Architects! So wake up Wales (and other countries in the UK), many of us live in older traditionally built homes. Think of all the terraces in SE Wales, stone cottages in mid Wales and  north Wales etc.

So back to the guidance. 12.2 is the big one.

"12.2.1 In addition, special considerations apply to works to the following three classes of non-exempt existing buildings:
a. of architectural and historic interest and are referred to as a material consideration in a local authority’s development plan or local development framework; or
b. of architectural and historic interest and are within national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, registered historic parks and gardens, registered battlefields, the curtilages of scheduled ancient monuments, and world heritage sites; or
c. of traditional construction with permeable fabric that both absorbs and readily allows the evaporation of moisture."

So here we are at the bottom of the list 12.2.1 c. Solid walls (random rubble, solid brick etc) are 'traditional construction with permeable fabric'. So they have 'Special Considerations'.

So what are these 'Special Considerations'?

There are several that are linked to the more 'historic' side of the guidance, however there are some key paragraphs that affect your average Welsh Victorian terrace:

"Work to such buildings is required to comply with the energy efficiency requirements as far as is reasonably practicable. In considering what is reasonably practicable, the work should not unacceptably alter or mar the character of the building or increase the risk of long-term deterioration." (p.34)

"Particular issues relating to work to dwellings of historic and architectural interest warrant sympathetic treatment and would benefit from further professional advice. These issues include: enabling the fabric of historic buildings to ‘breathe’ to control moisture and potential long-term deterioration." (p.35)

A link to the Wales' Part 1B Building Regs can be found here

Better than this, the guidance points us towards Historic England guidance on improving energy efficiency in historic / traditional buildings.

Click here to follow link to Historic England advice

This advice goes into a lot of detail about what to do and how. An excellent document. Worth following the link and printing it out for reference.

The missing link for many people is understanding their building. When was it built? Out of what? How has it changed over time? How significant is this? What would be the impacts of change?

There is a standardised and recognised way of achieving this: BS 7913: Guide to the Conservation of Historic Buildings (2013). This British Standard does cost money to buy, but there are a number of key issues that might be important to you and any argument that you might have with building control etc.

Energy improvements to buildings should not harm the physical performance of the fabric.
Some energy efficiency measures can have adverse effects.
Damp walls are up to one third less efficient if damp.
Correct choice of materials is really important.
Correct application of materials is also so.

Much of BS7913 is designed to help those with the more historic end of the spectrum, but it equally applies to an average terrace house (just less so in terms of architectural significance).

Basically you need to be able to understand what your building now is, how it operates, what can be done to improve it safely and considerately. This will no doubt mean that you will not be able to quickly slap a load of modern insulation all expect it to work (ECO? Green Deal?!!!)

So we have to tools and advice to help us get it right for our older buildings (especially important in Wales where we have roughly a third of all stock being 'historic / traditional'), so why aren't we using it?

Hopefully this post will give you some of the information you need to be able to make the right decisions for your home.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Life with an electric car (on test drive)

My test drive car wasn't white and was also sprinkled liberally with advertising
I have just spent 5 days with a Nissan Leaf from Wessex Garages in Cardiff. So thanks for that. My impressions?

The main issue for us was range. Could it do a variety of runs:

Back and forth to UWE in Bristol on one charge (88 miles return)
To Wiltshire to see the family (85 miles one way)
To Merthyr for work (66 miles, but uphill one way!)

Having spent time looking at different makes and models, we decided that the best bet was either the Nissan 30kW Leaf or the new long range Renault Zoe. Renault Retail in Cardiff have been rubbish with any semblance of customer care, so we borrowed the Nissan on a long test drive offer that they had.

The reported range of the Leaf is 155 miles, but in the real world this means around 100-120 miles, dependent on a range of factors. But what are those factors and how would they influence our experience?

The main issues with range are:

Driving style (heaviness of the right foot)
Type of driving (motorway, urban etc)
Location (apart from being on a road, this means whether you are heading up hills or not)

There are other more minor ones like:

Weather considerations (heater on, wipers and lights etc)
Number of passengers

So the first test was to take myself and friend to UWE. The drive there was clear and I managed to trundle along at around 65- 70 mph. Lights on and heater set at 17 degrees. The way back was, as ever, congested and slow especially for the 5 miles around Newport. However the car likes slower driving so this was fine.

On my return home I had 17% battery left (around a further 17 miles), so this test was passed with ease.

The second test was a bit more tricky. To Pewsey in Wiltshire with the whole family (4 in total) and a boot full of clothes, wellies, food for chickens, (warning triangle and first aid kit - at the wife's insistence) and three very large helium balloons for my niece's 21st birthday - these might have helped! 

I had checked the height above sea level before the journey (this is the level of detail required when one has a doubting Thomas aboard) and it was over 200m higher than the trip to Merthyr. So if it could make it to Wilts on one charge it could certainly make it to the borders to the Brecon Beacons National Park and back!

The confidence in the journey was bolstered after the trip to Bristol and its associated levels of reserves upon return. My foot was therefore a little heavy and I admit that there were times (quite by accident) that I found that we were travelling at faster than 70mph. However, what with all the hills in the way by the time we got to Chippenham (and our last chance to have a rapid top-up) we were down to 30 miles projected range. At that point I was trying to remember how far we had to go (was it 20 or 30 miles???!!!) I kept up the optimism and assured everyone that everything was fine and that we would make it.

As the miles clocked by, so did the battery storage %. By the time we were heading into the Vale of Pewsey the warning lights were on and there was a certain air of concern. However, we pulled up into the driveway with 11 miles 'still in the tank'. So we had made it. The extra height above sea level combined with some less than economical driving had caused a little minor panic, but we were there.

On the way home, we were of course heading downhill back to Cardiff, plus we were being more aware of our driving techniques, so we actually arrived back in a slightly heavier car (due to the addition of some lovely garden veg and the loss of three large helium balloons) with 21% battery life remaining.

No need to do the Merthyr run as we can now be confident in the Leaf's ability to do 99% of all the journeys that we need it for.

Charging the car would cost us around £3.50 from zero to full for around 100 miles, so a considerable saving. Also with the PV panels on the roof we may manage to get some very low cost charges in the lighter months during the day. Time will tell.

It is a completely different set of factors to think about when driving an electric car. Checking distances prior to leaving, identifying charge points etc. but nothing too difficult or out of the ordinary. The car itself was comfy, easy to drive (although odd not having gears per se), quiet and able to give a warm glow inside the driver!

My brother and mother were also very impressed as I took them out for a ride as well. Mother was impressed with the road holding and quietness, whilst my brother, of course, had to test for its renowned acceleration! 

I thought that it was worth putting this on a Eco Home blog as there are implications for housing. Where to park the car to facilitate charging, where to put the charging point, how to store some renewable energy effectively for later use, how to cut carbon emissions if there are limitation on what you can do to the fabric of the house etc. So if you are in the market for another car, I would suggest that you have a think about what you need it for and whether an electric one would suffice.

Also on another note, if you are an Ecotricity Dual Fuel customer (which we are), then you also get £40 back from them just by having an electric car, plus you get free charges from their network of charging points (there are some limitations to this re number of charges per week, but all the same!).

Monday, 10 October 2016

Limewashing the west facing wall

Limewash picture from Heritage Directory
I have spent a lovely few hours yesterday painting the rear of my house using some limewash. I made the limewash using some mature lime putty mixed up with water. The mix is around 60:40 water to putty. I used a plaster whisk to mix up the solution (a very quick job) and then up the ladder.

The first job was to get the masking equipment out. Dust sheets over the ground and windows all taped up and covered with some protective sheeting (old compost bags). If you have never attempted lime washing before it is a splashy business. Limewash has no binders in it like normal paint, so it doesn't really hold together when being applied. This issue was also made the more extreme as my walled are rough cast (so quite textured). The limewash was more slopped on using a large brush than any more glamorous process. Many professional limewashers use large soft floor brushes to apply it as it really is a case of just getting it onto the wall. 

When using lime you should also be careful with your skins and eyes as lime is caustic. I had a small cut on my hand and this 'burned' when limewash got onto it. So, don't do as I do and just get on with it, you should wear goggles and gloves and appropriate clothing.

The process was to start from the top of the wall and work down. The limewash can form quite thick patches due to the roughness of the wall. These will crack as they dry out to form the characteristic limewash finish. These are not a problem at all as they will effectively just create thicker pieces of limestone on the wall, however it is better to apply two thinner coats rather than one thick one. As this was just a quick top up I only did the one coat, but it is possible to apply two in one day and in total many people might find that they have to put on 3 or 4 coats to give them a good period of maintenance free finish.

I am always amazed by limewash and how durable it is. Some old splashes on the ground are still there (from being painted last year) and looking really fresh. So don't think that it is a job that you need to do every year.

The limewash is quite translucent when it is applied and with our lime render being quite red underneath the render does show through when wet. However, as the limewash dries and carbonates it turns much more opaque. So when I looked out this morning it was looking lovely and matt.

In all I did two fairly small walls and I needed one 20 litre pot of lime putty (thus using around 50 litres of limewash). A 20 litre pot of putty costs around £15. So it is really cheap (if you have white walls!) but expect to pay more for made up limewash or for colours / pigments. Even so, it is a really cheap way of painting your house.

So that is the house protected for the next few years, so feeling OK about life at the moment. 

Monday, 8 August 2016

Water efficient toilet - retrofitted

Simple, but highly effective
Last week I suffered a common complaint from siphon toilets - that of the failure of the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the only thing that can go wrong with siphon toilets - in most systems it is a thin piece of plastic that can be expected to last 10-15 years. This is preferable to a valve system as these tend to leak and hence are not very water efficient. For example, I have had to clean the seal on the valve in my Mothers' house several times in the past couple of years as she has very hard water. This means that calcium deposits 'furrs' up the seal housing and the seal itself and this means that the toilet is often running small amounts of water constantly.

Anyway, I wanted to stay with a siphon system due to their reliability and efficiency. However, I also wanted an even more reliable and efficient system. So, what better than the excellent Interflush Siphon!?

The Interflush siphon has three advantages that suited my tight-fisted tendencies.

1. It has an everlasting diaphragm - basically it is a pivoted solid piece of plastic (see below)
2. It has an interrupter system - this means that there is a small hole in the siphon that is closed when the handle is held down. So you can adjust the amount of water that you use for flushing. Hold it down for a longer flush and vice versa. There can be no more efficient system.
3. It cost the same as a new replacement siphon!

After draining down the cistern it was an easy job to remove and replace the siphon. No leaks! (this is always a worry when you are changing over water based systems). The new system did however have one small issue. Noise. When we use the short flush the pipes started to hum! Not sure why, but I tweaked the water pressure and it was cured. The dear wife was pleased!

I am not sure whether this product is now available from Interflush, which is a shame, but we have several in the Eco Home Centre shop.

A picture below shows the everlasting siphon:

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

What is the Whole House Approach?

A house is a structure embracing complex systems, embodied history and knowledge, not to mention humans!
We tend to think of houses as being simple structures that provide shelter, security and a place to call home. However, they are in fact, much more than this.

First of all, houses are products of geography, history and society. Geography has dictated the form of many buildings. Think of the different materials that have been used to form buildings in the past. I grew up in Wiltshire where thatch is quite common and there are even some chalk rammed earth houses. Now living in Wales I am surrounded by stone houses.

Geography also places a different set of pressures on buildings. Exposure in areas like west Wales and Scotland is unlike that faced by East Anglia or Kent. Buildings reflect the needs that the weather and topography place upon them. 

History has had wide ranging impacts on buildings. This might be the type of human activity that has taken place in the area (farming, industry, maritime etc), the effects of war and natural disasters, ..... Advances in science have facilitated change by the development of construction materials coupled with advancing building techniques and machinery. Globalisation and the role of the market have also altered how, why, where and what we build. 

Social pressures have also influenced buildings. Where once we would never have dreamed that it was safe or hygienic to have toilets in the house, we are expect new houses to have en-suite bathrooms.

The points above, are only the briefest because the topic is huge, but the principles are there. Houses represent a physical point in time that reflects their origins, but they also then continue to amass these markers in time. People extend and demolish, redecorate, add and remove services, change functionality, follow fashion, .... Each of these changes leaves a mark.

These marks are important. They are largely guided not by specialists. but by individuals. The decisions that have been made are not always the right ones, nor are they always done to a high enough standard. The decisions and their execution are again complex in nature. They are driven by different forces: economics, knowledge, skills, tradition, fashion, material science, ....

So when are are faced with new pressures in the world like: climate change; austerity; fuel poverty; wealth creation these will have an effect, for better or worse, on our buildings. For example, the past few years the main driving factor has been the encouragement to make buildings more energy efficient. This is no bad thing, however we have undertaken this task with self attached blinkers. Everything has been designed with one thought in mind, to reduce carbon and fuel consumption. This in turn has led to serious mistakes and huge amounts of wasted resources both in terms of physical, mental and economic waste. We are now taking out Cavity Wall Insulation (CWI) where is was put into narrow cavities, or into houses in exposed areas of the country, or where is was done without undertaking necessary repairs prior to installation. I fear (and know) that we shall be doing the same with External Wall Insulation (EWI) and Internal Wall Insulation (IWI) in years to come too. All for the same basic reasons: wrong materials used, poor craftsmanship applied, tunnel vision in the design stage, time pressures, funding requirements.

So can a different Whole House Approach (WHA) work and what is it?

The WHA is all about understanding a building, assessing the risks of different solutions, addressing the needs of the occupants (both now and for the future), making recommendations that can be explained and justified, ensuring that the craftsmanship and systems used are of a high enough standard. Ideally the building is also monitored and assessed into the future so that changes can be fine-tuned and lessons learnt and shared.

Building Surveyors should be able to assess a building independently and accurately. However, we need to ensure that they are not taking the easy route and one that leaves stones unturned. It is worth reading my earlier post about the Home Buyers Report and its potential to leave important factors like damp in the hands of 'interested profit making parties'.

Owners need to understand their properties - ain't that a can of worms! Ideally this should be taught in schools, but for now we have to rely on Building Surveyors (and RICS) and the power of the internet to inform.

We also need to have skilled and knowledgeable builders, architects, planners, building control officers, maintenance teams, ....... Yet another can'o'worms! The trouble here is that it does take a really strong and courageous person at the moment to make decisions that are ultimately correct, but that currently fly against the prevailing modus operandii of the construction industry.

For this to change we need changes in regulation, standards and decision making tools. Now that DECC has gone this might mean that a lot of changes that are in the pipeline might get lost, or it might be that the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy drives this forward with new vigour! Time will tell.

Anyhow, back to what is the Whole House Approach!!

The WHA is about looking at all the factors that effect a building. We need to address and assess the risks associated with:

Underpinning Structure - What is it? What is it made from? How well was it made? What orientation is it?
Design - Does the building work well? Is easy to maintain? Is it accessible? Is it easy to navigate? 
Social factors - Is it noisy? Do smells waft into un-wanted places? Is it easy to clean? How will any changes reflect in the appearance of the building?
Energy efficiency - Is it easy / cheap to heat? Will it require cooling? Where is the heat lost / gained?
Energy generation - Can the building generate energy? Which technology is best for particular building?
Moisture movement - Is there damp? Will changes introduce damp? How is moisture managed?
Ventilation - Is there sufficient fresh air? Is the fresh air fresh?
Material compatibility - Can we use standard materials or do we need specialist ones?
Water efficiency - Can we reduce water use?
Monitoring - Can systems be used to help owners monitor and reduce resource consumption?
Maintenance - Can low maintenance be created? How can alerts be created to trigger responses to need?
Preservation - Do certain features need to be preserved / protected?
External environmental factors - How exposed is the building? Is there a flood risk? How will it perform in a warming world with more extremes of weather?
External social factors - Is there a skilled workforce available? Are the materials available locally?

Starting to get the picture?

The main complicating factor is that all of these are interlinked. 

For example, by wishing to improve the energy efficiency of a wall it will generally require the addition of insulation. This then creates RISKS. Is it compatible with the existing structure? Will it effect the appearance of the building? Will it introduce damp? Will it change the way the ventilation system works? Will it need maintaining? What happens if it put in by low skilled workers? Can you preserve wanted features? When will it be done?

After all of these questions are answered it may be that the better (lower risk) solution is to generate energy instead of saving it. But this needs to assessed and a reasoned solution presented.

So will this work? 

The main point behind the WHA is one that minimises the risk associated with proposed changes. Once we can understand the risks, we can assess them and make informed and hopefully rational decisions. This does not mean that it is a recipe for doing nothing, just that we might make fewer long term and costly errors.

A WHA therefore needs really well informed professionals who are independent, have time to make recommendations, have back-up of accepted knowledge and standards, but most importantly have the support of owners of buildings who wish to create a long-term future for their investment. A start has been made on this process by the STBA and you can access their Responsible Retrofit Wheel free of charge.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Community Work with Renew Wales

Saron Chapel in Treoes

Eco Home Centre is a Rounded Developments Enterprises project. RDE is a not-for-profit organisation that does work with other partners in Wales and one of our main ones is Renew Wales (see Renew Wales is a great concept where experienced community groups help other not-for-profit organisations with climate change linked projects. These projects can cover a wide range of issues: community gardens, community energy, sustainable transport, training and education, .....

We have been one of the mainstays for helping community groups with their buildings. Most of this work is to help groups understand their buildings and also how to refurbish / redevelop them in a more holistic manner. We follow the guidance created by the Sustainable Traditional Buildings Alliance (STBA - see These groups include:

Saron Chapel in Treoes
Nantyffyllon Miners Institute in Nantyffyllon
Kings Church in Newport
Amelia Trust Farm in Walterston
Cathays Sports and Social Club in Cardiff
Harlech Swimming Pool in Harlech
Ysgol Glannau Gwaun in Fishguard
Chirk Scout Hall in Chirk

The work has varied from looking at heating systems, renewable energy options, damp and maintenance issues, design and new builds. Getting the balance between social, economic and environmental issues is not easy and I think that we have been instrumental in groups really starting to understand both their community building and their own homes. We have found that people come to Renew with one particular issue and leave with the knowledge that there is a large amount of interlinked factors that they also need to be aware of in order to find the correct solution both for them and their property. Factors like intuitive navigation, noise, access, maintenance and servicing are often overlooked, yet they are vital to the day to day running of a community centre. Just getting people to think in a more holistic manner really has really allowed them to make much more informed and longer term decisions.

If you are involved with a community group, are based in Wales and have a property that could do with some holistic advice then think about giving Renew Wales a call. The Renew Wales model means that the service is free for the group and you will benefit from around 5-6 days worth of consultancy from experienced community practitioners. This advice could be in the form of business development, outreach, training, marketing, fundraising or the more specialist services from people like us.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

House update

I know that we are at the start of summer here in Wales (not that you can tell on a day like today) but I thought that it was worth sharing an update on the house.

Two years ago the lime rendering was completed on the house and I had hoped that this would be sufficient time for the render to have worked its magic, so I took the damp meter home last week.

The inside of the external walls had been covered in mould in localised areas and they were reading between 20 and 25% wood moisture equivalent. The same areas where tested again and they are down to around 12%. So I can report that the external walls have indeed dried out and the house is much drier.

So why do we still have a slight smell of mould when we come back after a weekend away?

Well the internal walls are still wet. The fools who replaced the wooden suspended floor with new concrete ones are still causing me problems. The moisture is being forced up from the foundations and into the walls due to the Damp Proof Membrane (DPM) under these floors. I have installed a chemical DPC into the walls, but it is not working well enough, so I feel that I will have to try again, or bite the bullet and install a physical DPC.

I have injected into the mortar of the wall, but I will also do the bricks this time if they are really damp. So it will be off with the skirting boards and in with the Dryzone.

So 3/4 of a victory so far, just the final furlong to go. Just goes to show that you can rely on the old technology, but the newer stuff can be temperamental!

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Old Paint Brush Revival

Got any solid brushes in the drawer that you are thinking of throwing out?
Many of us have a load of old paint brushes in the garage, cupboards, left in plastic bags etc. With all the best will in the world, we were going to clean them up properly, but we just forgot. Well all is not lost!

When it comes to paint brushesat the Eco Home Centre we have some great new brushes from EcoEzee, but we also have an even more sustainable product from EcoSolutions: Brush Renew

Basically this is a non toxic, non burning, water based product that will remove all the solid dried paint from your brushes overnight. Brilliant. Just leave the brushes in the solution overnight and then wash out in the morning. No nasty fumes, no worries about skin irritation etc, just perfectly clean and restored brushes.

So if you accidentally forget to give your brushes a very thorough clean after use then all is not lost.

Eco Solutions Brush Restorer
Click on the image to be taken to the Brush Renew page on our E-shop

Blog 2 Vlog?

Thanks to a grant from a lovely local charity we are going to branch out into Vlogging! We already have a You Tube channel at but we haven't used it for years!

The plan is to film some of the buildings diagnostics that we do in order to highlight certain aspects of maintenance and improvements to houses. I will also be doing a tour of my house and the improvements that we have made and why.

If you have a topic that you would like to be covered (and that would be of interest to others) please let me know and I will see if I can make a short video about it. Also if you in the Cardiff region and are happy to have your project recorded, I might be able to come around armed with a video camera, thermal imaging camera, protimeter and brain to make a short film.

Contact details are:
029 20373094

Monday, 9 May 2016

House Prices, Supply and Turkeys

House builders in action
There seems to be a story being told to us that the best way to reduce house prices is to build more. This all sounds reasonable. Supply and demand and all that. The free market is the answer.

But let's think for a minute. Getting large companies for build more so that they can make less money on each one? That is not attractive to them, surely. House builders are in the business of making money. They only really care about building in order to keep share holders happy, so why would they want to build good houses for people and get less for them. Surely it is in their interest to keep supply short. I would be like turkeys voting for Christmas would it not?

So we must look at this 'crisis' from another angle.

We all know that there are many houses standing empty across the UK, but most are in depressed towns. So do we leave them empty or do we encourage people to live anywhere but London and the SE? After all building loads more houses in the SE will just put ridiculous pressure on water supplies, transport systems and also entail many people spending their waking hours sitting in traffic. So maybe encouraging companies and also Gov to relocate might be an idea.

Maybe we need to make lots of land available for individuals and micro / SME companies so that we develop a smaller scale building industry. So fairdo's to some aspects of Government that is trying to encourage this -, however, it is only really scratching the itch of a much bigger problem. We need to free up land banks that large companies own and also change policy for Government organisations to require them to sell off land for self builds a la social housing system. Section 106 agreements could also be used for such changes.

So if we are serious about our housing crisis we need to radically rethink how we deal with housing and stop the assumption that the house builders are the solution. Effectively, they are the problem and they are also not the type of home builders that we really need for a low carbon future.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Do you need a new damp course?

3 injected damp proof courses in this house, courtesy of Heritage House
When we buy a house a surveyor will often find high readings on their protimeter ('damp meter'). This then leads to a recommendation to have a 'damp proof specialist' do a report. The mortgage company will insist on having the damp treated. This will mean that the damp specialist will almost invariably diagnose 'rising damp' and a recommendation to have an injected DPC (Damp Proof Course) and the removal of the 'damp' plaster internally up to a meter high.

This is the common practice that is accepted as industry standard. IT DOES NOT WORK (in many properties)!!!

The picture above shows where a house has been injected 3 times at different periods. When will we learn that it doesn't work?!?!?!?

Surely just seeing that a wall has been injected three times might indicate that the solution is wrong, but no, we just blindly go on doing the same old thing. Wasting your time and money!

If you have an old house (or even a new one!) use a damp specialist that does not have a DPC to sell you.

There are solutions, but generally DPCs are not one of them. Save your efforts and money for getting a proper solution that works permanently. Happy to assist if needed.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Beware the "Damp Meter"

This is the tool of choice for damp proofing companies
The Protimeter is pretty much ubiquitous in the damp and building surveying world. The meter is used to show owners how damp their homes are. This is also invariably 'rising' damp that 'will require' an injected DPC. However, is this tool an actual damp meter?

The short answer is NO!

These meters measure electrical resistance between the two prongs. That is not necessarily the same as the amount of water between them. Originally they were developed for timber to check how dry it was. In timber the only real thing that will conduct electricity is water and hence they were quite useful. However, this is not the case in masonry.

So what else could they be measuring?

Well, there is another factor that can give a high readings on a protimeter:

Carbon content. As you may be aware some old mortars were made using dust from industrial waste. This is especially true in areas like Cardiff where we have black mortar. This mortar is high in carbon and hence conducts electricity well. So high readings may well be to do with the mortar, not moisture.

So, if you have a high reading in a house without old mortar / plaster, then a high reading is probably indicative of dampness. However, the key question is then; What is causing the Damp?

Well this opens up a range of options (however, the majority of the damp industry only looks for 'moisture' along the base of ground floor walls).

The damp could be caused by:

Hygroscopic salts. These are actually very common in walls and are often the cause of high readings. Salts can be introduced by the building process, water ingress and from the combustion processes associated with fireplaces. So if you have high readings around the base of the fire place / hearth this may well be salts not rising damp. The salts are 'hygroscopic' and that means that they attract moisture to them. So this moisture might be linked to condensation, being located in high humidity areas like kitchens / bathrooms, etc. So the moisture is probably associated with salt not 'rising damp'. So just keep dusting off the salt residues until they disappear and lo and behold you will have cured the damp. Simple.

Condensation. Virtually all external walls have a cold bridge along their base and this attracts moisture to condense there. This is natural and nothing really to worry about unless it is causing some mould issues. This condensation can also be caused by a lack of ventilation. So again you might need to look at ventilation / insulation rather than jump straight into a potentially unnecessary damp proof course. Note that thermal bridging can occur in a number of other places (ceiling edges, around window frames etc) where the wall is cold for some reason so again check issues like insulation cover and building defects.

Leaks. Old or current leaks can show up on the meters, so this is a case of fixing the cause, or just allowing the wall to dry naturally.

Material incompatibility. Old houses have walls that allow moisture to pass through them, however most modern materials are designed to resist moisture movement. Commonly you get a combination of materials that don't like each other in terms of moisture and a lot of problems stem from this. Gypsum plaster is particularly prone to becoming hygroscopic when it has been placed over old lime plaster.

Penetrating damp. This is the likely cause of most damp issues. The industry tends to recommend injecting more DPCs into the wall rather than addressing the actual problem. This tends to be simple and cheap maintenance issues like sealing around windows, cracked render, repointing etc.

So if you see a 'damp' meter, make sure it is attached to something that has an inquisitive brain and also nothing to sell you!!

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Building Science

When you start to dissect how buildings work it is really complicated. A right old mix of elements like:
Solar Gain
Thermal loss of materials
Ventilation rates
Air change requirements for different rooms / activities
Acoustic characteristics of materials and structures
Noise generation and levels
Lighting, natural, artificial, reflected...

This doesn't even start to take into effect the human elements of knowledge, behaviour etc.

Modelling how a building will perform is really difficult, especially for the domestic market. We often find that pressures to improve some elements of a buildings performance can have a detrimental effect on others. For example the pressure to decrease the need for energy for heating has led us to insulate our walls, floors and ceilings and reduce draughts. However this has had a knock-on effect on moisture movement, overheating, ventilation rates and hence internal air quality.

Should we be driven by the science then?

Well I think that we need to be aware of the science, but not completely reliant on it. We need to know the interactions between all the different elements of building science: the relationships between materials, ventilation, solar gain, heat sources, conductivity, noise, acoustics etc. However, we also need to rely on our knowledge of human behaviour, our own experiences of living in houses and the experience of other trusted people. This is especially important with older houses as we will not have all the facts and figures to plug into the equations that the science uses. What is the thermal capacity of your living room wall??

The need to refurbish our existing homes for the future, though, does not go away. We know that we cannot just tackle issues on a individual basis as we will just upset other elements of the building. So, we really need to address the whole house, not just one element of it. Easier said than done in a world of specialists and doubly difficult when building regulations are not joined up or compassionate towards older houses.

Using the processes expounded by the STBA and ourselves is one  of the very few ways forward as we really need to look, think and act holistically.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Sand and lime

When building we use the term 'sand' a lot for mortars, but what do we mean by it and is sand what we really need for lime renders and plasters?

The picture above shows some 'soft sand' on the right and 'coarse / sharp sand' on the left. It is really important that any render is mixed with a coarse / sharp sand. This is often termed 'Builders' sand. The angular nature of the aggregate is important, however it is not the only important factor in choosing the best aggregate for the work.

Two other major factors are:

Grade of the mix. It is really, really important that any aggregate is well graded and this means that it has a wide range of particle sizes in it. You need a variety to ensure that it is well bonded with minimal air gaps. Dust is therefore key to a good render mix. Many mixes are just a combination of different uniform sized particles (e.g. 2mm mixed with 1mm and 0.5mm). These mixes do not give the variety needed.

Type of material. Many mixes are sands or crushed quartz. These rocks are not very porous in themselves, they rely on water moving around them to give the porosity needed for a lime render. Using a porous rock, like limestone, as part of the aggregate mix allows water to pass both through and around the aggregate.

We would therefore recommend that you use well graded limestone aggregates for renders.

Note that there are other issues as well like colour of aggregate, amount of pozzolans in the mix etc as this affects the colour of the render and also the amount of 'free lime' in the mix. Care is therefore also required on these fronts.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Should Wales become the Self Build Capital of the UK?

We are used to seeing groups of similar houses in new developments
We all know that the House Builders are not really there to provide us with great homes. They are there to create profit for their shareholders and to be able to pay large salaries to the 'fat cats' at the top.

They work on a 1/3rd model. Cost of land = 1/3, Cost of building = 1/3 and profit = 1/3.

To maximise this profit they obviously build as cheaply as possible, hence they have resisted any real attempts from Government to impose stricter controls on energy efficiency, sustainability etc. Houses are built with the minimum standards, the cheapest products and quickly. So much so that most of the houses built don't even reach the minimum standards in practice (a study in 2004 found that 60% of homes didn't reach building regulations minimum standards)

So is there a different way?

I believe so. I think that if we dealt with land differently we could democratise house building. We have seen the poor value for money that Governments get when they sell off land to developers. In Wales we are experiencing a situation where land has been sold off for around 1/10th of its true market value. What if Government and other public bodies sold off some of this land for self builders, what would happen?

I believe the following benefits would happen:

1. We would help to diversify the types of houses built. This would lead to a completely different feel to our urban landscape as it would be characterful and easy to navigate. "Turn left at the wacky house with a turret and then right at the red house and we are the timber clad house with the raised beds in the front"

Self built homes tend to reflect an owners needs rather than those of the developers
2. The Government would get a better return. It could also incentivise Housing Associations and Co-Housing, Housing Co-ops etc to build on plots. This helps to make new homes more affordable to those with little disposable income.

The Telegraph produced this map showing where houses were more affordable
3. It would encourage a better standard of building. People would demand better standards if they could see their house being built. This would help drive the supply for low carbon homes, 

4. It would help to embed low carbon skills in SME's rather than larger construction companies, as it would be they who were building these new homes. These SME would also be employing local people and keeping the wealth in Wales.

5. It would provide more work for local architects as each house would need to be designed separately in order to fulfil the needs of the client and the environment. Again this keeps the money here in Wales.

6. It would help to drive a movement across the UK and this would help Welsh business, as we would be at the vanguard. We desperately need skills to export and this could be a way forward.

7. It would encourage people and companies to move to Wales if we had a culture of self build. We would soon be seen as the place to do business. Build your own home and your own life afresh in Wales - the way that you like it. We are not so limited by location anymore and Wales has lots to offer in terms of countryside, natural resources and great culture.

8. It would engage people in their communities more. They would, after all, be building the communities themselves, bit by bit. A strategic masterplan from the outset would control development and ensure that the provision of community space etc. But each household would be embedded into the space it has.

9. It would provide longer term communities. If you have built your dream house, why move out? Sense of place would be created and people would take more ownership and pride in their neighbourhoods.

So lots of positives, but would it stack up?

Well even if you look at £800,000 per acre for some land in Cardiff (it would be much less elsewhere) this would equate to £90,000 per plot. The Solcer House is a net exporter of energy and this has been built for around £1,000 per sq m. So an average 3 bed of around 90 sq m would be another £90,000. So for £200,000 approx. people could be building carbon negative homes if we did it as a self build. 

Average cost of new 3 bedroom house-builder built home around Cardiff is around £250,000.

So it seems to make sense, at least to the point of trialing the idea. Obviously there are lots of potential issues etc - size of plots, Section 106 agreements, planning, ....... but it just might be a way of Wales pulling its own socks up, giving the power to develop to the people and avoiding lots of money flowing out to the large corporations and the City of London.

Wales could be a land of Bio-Solar, Passive, Solcer, Ty Unnos, Wild & Wacky homes built for the future by the people of today. What say you??