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Friday, 28 October 2011

What is a sustainable kitchen?

Kitchens are one of the focal points of any home. This allows people to 'show-off' their eco credentials during dinner parties and such-like. Oh, how Guardian reader-ish. But seriously, having a well designed kitchen that will last a long time and also use sustainable materials is a real bonus for any home. People often pay really big money for kitchens that look good, but actually are not very good quality and do not last as long as would normally be expected.

Kitchens also suffer from trends and fashion. I think that we have all heard of people moving in to new homes and immediately changing the kitchen over. This is of course a huge waste of resources, unless you can re-use or recycle the kitchen.

Colour and style are important where you are going to spend a lot of time, but this can easily be changed by painting doors, just replacing the doors, changing over handles etc. There is generally no need to rip everything out, skip it and re-new.

However, there are times when needs must and a new kitchen is required. So what are the options?

The following are points that could be thought about and that might alter ones choice:

Look for really good carcassing. This is the backbone of a kitchen unit and is often overlooked. Many companies offer lovely looking kitchens (basically good quality doors) at reasonable prices. This is often achieved by having poor quality carcassing. Think about it. The hinges rely on a firm base (carcass) and so if this is not strong enough the wear and tear will soon become evident. How many kitchens have you seen with poor fitting doors and drawers after a couple of years? We would recommend either using plywood or min 18mm particle board. It is also possible to use recycled plastics for carcassing. This is great if you are in a flood area,or prone to leaving taps on, having a dodgy washing machine etc.

Raising the carcassing off of the ground is also a little tip. Any particle board that gets wet, will expand and effectively ruin the units.

Specify recycled content doors and drawers. Milestone up in Yorkshire have a range of kitchens that have very high recycled content. (

Specify A or A+ rated white goods

Look at housing noisy machines (washing machines etc) elsewhere so that they don't drown out conversation when on

Make sure any punctures through the wall (outflow pipes for sinks, washing machines etc.) are sealed up properly to reduce draughts.

Dish washers are regarded as being more water efficient than washing up, but they do use electric for heating and so are less efficient (bearing in mind overall efficiency of the electricity grid) than options like gas heating, so weigh up what suits best - water efficiency or energy efficiency. Personally I would go with energy, but it does depend a bit on where the boiler is, dead legs, boiler efficiency etc.

Work tops can be made from a variety of materials: recycled plastic, recycled glass, wood chip, solid wood, marble, granite etc. I think that locally grown timber or recycled glass are the best options. The plastic is often not heat proof and the stone options are imported from afar (Italy and China being a couple of the main exporters).

Think about using a good quality heat exchange system for above the cooker (hood) or just for the room generally. Kitchens do produce a lot of heat and this could be usefully transferred to other parts of the house.

Floors are best to be made of an easily cleanable material. Wood and tiles are good options here.

Maximise the natural light in a kitchen. It is a place where we spend a lot of time and having it swathed in light makes for a better internal environment.

Use scrubable natural paints as a finish. Green paints are a good option here. However in areas where splashing is likely we would recommend tiling these areas (around sinks, cookers, hobs etc.)

Provide enough space for recycling. Kitchens generate most waste, so having space for your food, green, plastic, metal (or mixed) and general waste bins is very useful to have here. You might not need to have the bins here, just smaller collection points so that you can take it out daily to the main bins.

Fit LED lights. In kitchens we generally need good quality and instant light. This can only be achieved in an energy efficient manner with LED bulbs.

Remember the Golden Triangle - the linking of the fridge, cooker / hob and sink in a close triangle so that you can access them all easily and quickly when cooking.

Fit extractors to the lee side of the house where possible to allow them to work properly and efficiently. See post on extractor fans.

Happy cooking!

Friday, 21 October 2011

Easy to clean natural paint

Natural paints are products of their ingredients. They are all different and have a range of characteristics that distinguish them from each other. This is completely different from conventional modern paints which are designed to work in a similar way to each other.

So some natural paints work well with lime plasters, others have no VOCs, some use linseed oil, some soya oil and others no oils at all. This alters how long they take to dry, how well they cover, what type of finish they create etc.

One thing that natural paints have had problems doing in creating a scrub-able surface. Most people don't scrub their walls down, but for those with particularly artistic young children, or very happy dogs who like going for walks in the park in the rain etc it might be a necessary task.

EarthBorn produce a wall glaze that will sit over the top of their clay and emulsion paints that will produce a wipe-able surface, so this is one option. However Auro have created a scrub-able satin paint, the 324 range. This is a very 'green' product that is made from high quality raw materials that are all responsibly sourced. So this is another option, but it is an expensive one. The third option is the Green Paints Emulsion range. This has just been reformulated to be a scrub-able paint. It has a soya oil base that has been responsibly sourced, but cannot be guaranteed GM free. However it is the price of a normal natural paint, so it may well be the answer for people needing to clean their walls, whilst maintaining their sustainable credentials.

Plastering partially renovated walls

I have just been renovating one of the rooms in our house. This has meant taking off the wallpaper and stripping it back to the plaster. Aprt from the multitude of other layers of paper and paint that we uncovered, I also managed to unearth a range of different plasters, past repairs and some areas in need of total removal.

The old lime plaster / render on the walls was mostly intact, but of course where a damp proof course had been put in years before this meant that the lower portion of the walls were cement render. This is attached firmly to the walls and even though I would have loved to of removed it, it would have damaged the wall too much for it to the really viable. Of course the water proofed cement had pushed the water up into the old render and focused it here. So in these areas the render had suffered from salt deposition and the old paper and paint had sealed in the moisture for so long that the plaster needed to be removed. So I hacked off the old render and replaced with the lime render (lime putty with stone dust of course!)

Around the reveal on the window I found a complete bodge job. The old story of windows slowly getting smaller as they have been replaced over time. So brick pillars had been built up the edges and the lintel was at least 6 inches (150mm) above the window and this space had been filled in with .... yes, you guessed it, paper (well a couple of old cement bags to be accurate - great to see recycling going on with the builders of old!) No wonder this area was always cold and attracting condensation.

In this area I decided not to use lime render, but to use the InsOwall as it was an external wall and the construction meant that it was basically a single skin wall in the zone immediately next to the window. this would give the area a better insulation value and hence reduce the risk of condensation.

So after a lot of hacking off, rebuilding, re-rendering with lime plaster, InsOwall, as well as the old plaster and the cement render and gypsum lower down I am left with a right old mix of surfaces. Some are breathable, some not so, some inbetween. They also have a different texture and finish. This is a plasterers nightmare.

Plaster will be drawn at different rates dependent on the different substrates. So getting a finish would be almost impossible. So what to do?

I need to maintain a breathable finish over the majority of the walls, so the option I have plumbed for is to use silicate primer. Earthborn and Auro both produce silicate binders / primers. This will then even out the suction between the different substrates and help the plasterer. I will be using lime plaster to give the final finish (but I might also experiment with clay plaster as well on one wall as this will give a smoother finish).

I will let you know how it goes after the plasterer has been in!

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Damp proofing doesn't work*

A bit of a headline I admit, however, there are a number of very common situations where the recommended damp proofing techniques just don't work. So the * is there for qualification purposes, as some damp proofing works, however it depends on a number of factors - the wall, the damp proofing system and the skills / quality of the installer.

The most common area where conventional damp proofing does not work is when dealing with older rubble filled solid walled houses. Sounds very specific, but actually this encompassed virtually all the pre-1919 houses in Wales and the UK. The common terrace is built from a mix of stone, brick and rubble. The walls are generally stone, with brick used where a clean finish was required (doors, windows, chimneys etc.) with the construction technique being to create two reasonably faced edges for the walls and then infill the middle with any old stuff and some lime mortar.

The stone used was a mix of whatever was available locally. Sometimes this meant the local stone, but in port towns and their environs, it was often ship ballast so this could have come from almost anywhere. These stones have different properties and this complicates the picture, however the main point is that the walls were a right mix of materials all held together by lime mortar.

This construction technique means that the walls are full of cavities, fissures, voids, so pumping a load of waterproofing liquid under pressure into them just means that the fluid travels the easiest route, whether this be up, down, across, whatever. So the treatment is not contained / localised where you want it to be. Consequently the damp proof line that is being attempted just will not be achieved.

Creams suffer the same fate, though to not such a great extent, as at least these stay where they are put, but you could find yourself using a lot of silicon cream and still leaving some gaps for the damp to travel up.

For rubble filled walls there are a number of solutions that will work (as long as they are specified and fitted correctly). These include

1. Electro-Osmosis damp proofing
2. Using the right renders, pointing, paints etc on the exterior walls
3. Correct drainage and heights of external floor finishes

So for individualised advice please contact the Eco Home Centre. Builders, damp proofing companies and building societies are generally wrong on damp and will just use damp proofing that at best only working in part and at worse can cause even more damp and insulation problems.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Extractor fans and prevailing winds

Building regulations mean that we have to install extractor fans in high humidity rooms like bathrooms, kitchens and toilets. This is especially important in non-breathing structures where the walls cannot assist with moisture management.

The extractors are designed to take out warm moist air to help ensure that damp and condensation issues are minimised. There is an issue about size and type of extractors as most are simple on-off that are linked to the light switch. They are also standard sizes that have little to do with the amount of moisture in the room. Bathroom extractors are 100mm fans and kitchen ones are 150mm. If they are anything like the ones in my house they tend to be too small to be really effective when showering or having more than two rings going on the hob.

The effectiveness of the extractors can be increased by using the ones with timers on, or ideally humidity sensors. These then keep the fans on until the humidity levels reach a low enough level. The timed ones at least give a bit more time for the warm moist air to be extracted to the outside.

All of them, though, can be even less effective if they are placed on the walls that face the prevailing winds. Their already weak motors cannot compete with the prevailing wind. For example the ones in my house are on the west and south facing walls and the south westerly winds that occasionally blow in Wales play merry hell with them. When not in use, the external shutters are constantly being blown around by the wind, which can be very annoying at night. Clatter clatter, humph!

So my advice is to think about this when deciding how to manage humidity in these areas of the home. It might be better to vent through the ceiling and out through the eaves rather than drilling through the closest wall. If venting through the eaves, again look at doing this to the East or North if possible. This might affect the power rating required for the fan and its cost, but it is better to have something that actually works rather than not.

This is a simple piece of knowledge and logic that is not always simple to enact, however it is worth bearing in mind if designing a new bathroom, refurbishing an old one etc.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Report on in-situ U values for older buildings

In an early post called 'are solid walls really that bad at insulating' I wrote about the fact that some research has been done on U values of solid walled buildings and how they were different from those calculated in BuildDesk (this is one of the main software programmes that are used for calculating U values in the UK and hence forms the basis for calculating amounts of insulation etc). Well I have decided to create a link to the report called the SPAB Report by Dr Caroline Rye. This is a pdf of about 1.2Mb.

Effectively is says that:
1. Nearly 80% of the BuildDesk U value calcs were significantly wrong compared to the in-situ tests (i.e. what happens in real life)
2. The BuildDesk calculations were worse at the older stone walled buildings, but OK with the more modern walls they tested
3. In virtually all cases the Build Besk calculations showed higher U values than were actually measured and hence it underestimates the thermal performance of the wall
4. The thicker the wall the better the thermal performance
5. The need for modern radical insulation measures is often not necessary and could have harmful consequences

So again if you are looking at a Barn Conversion you may wish to use this report and the figures it contains to show your architect / building control. This is a really vital area of work that is so important to get right, otherwise we risk creating no end of problems for our heritage in the future, as well as using un-necessary resources in the meantime. Please share this report as widely as you can.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Designing a refurbishment

This is a difficult topic to write on as each house is individual - a sum of its parts, its history and of its future. So this will be a set of ideas, hints, observations rather than a definitive guide. For an individualised vision please give us a call to arrange a Home Report (see page on this blog for information).

Layout - should you join rooms, split rooms, change function of rooms? This is really down to a range of factors, including: family size, location, style of house, orientation of building, size of house, lifestyle, etc. Personally I think that we join rooms too readily in the effort to 'create space'. However, knocking through, can lose a type of space. Physically it loses wall space (which might be important), socially it loses separate space (could be important if people want to do different activities - watch TV, listen to music, play instruments etc), environmentally it can mean higher heating bills because of not being able to concentrate heat into a smaller space for those cool days during the year.

Sound - refurbishments give you a chance to acoustically insulate (normally thermally at the same time) rooms from one another. This is an important social element that is often overlooked. Isolating floors from each other helps with sleeping, facilitating different independent activities in the house and also with heating bills as it allows you to only heat the rooms that you want to.

Social gradient in the home - homes should have an inbuilt social map with the most social areas being closest to the main door and the most private areas being the furthest away. This not an element that most people have to worry about as their bedrooms are upstairs and the main door takes you into a hallway with the kitchen and living room off of this. However some homes do have to consider this. Making a home feel right is important and so thinking about social interaction within the family and friends is important. Location also has a large impact on this, as situations next to roads, south facing aspects etc can all complicate the social aspect as noise. light and views might be in the 'wrong' place as far as the layout is concerned.

Draught proofing - this is a chance to get on a favourite hobby horse of draught lobbies (independent porches). If you don't have a porch (by this I mean a proper one that is thermally independent from the rest of the house and also of a reasonable size) think about creating one. The best ones allow you and the family to gather together to welcome and bid farewell to guests without losing all the warm air from the rest of the house. They also have space to coats, boots etc. They can be features in themselves and offer a range of social and practical functions.

Light - maximising natural light is perfect for a sense of well being, lower electrical bills and also creating a sense of space. Increasing window sizes, creating new windows or installing sun pipes etc are all ways of getting more light into the house, however you need to bear in mind heat loss. So look at maximising glazing to the south rather than the north.

Future proofing - think about what might happen in the future: larger family, new technology on the house, different fuels etc. Have a think about what might happen at a later date and possibly build in some features that will save you some money in the longer term. Rewiring might include provision for PV panels, an electric shower, circuits for a future extension. A ground floor extension might be built with foundations appropriate for a two storey structure etc.

Low maintenance - thinking about cleaning and life span of materials comes into play here. Do you fit cheap plastic guttering that will require maintenance / replacement every few years or just fit a steel system that might be more expensive initially put will save you time, effort and money in the long term. If replacing windows think about using inward opening ones on the first floor and above as they can be maintained and cleaned easily from the inside.

En-suites - research has shown that having en-suites is not ideal for family life. It is actually better to have a larger shared bathroom rather than lots of individual ones. It encourages interaction in the house, a sense of sharing and being able to live together rather than encouraging people to live apart. Having a separate toilet though is a good idea as there are those times when you don't want to share!

These are all factors that can have a radical influence on refurbishment plans, so it is worth having a really good think about what you want the house to look like at the end of the whole process (bearing in mind that you might be doing it all in stages). Making a house a home takes more than just getting in the builders!

Friday, 7 October 2011

Eco 'bling' - do we need it?

Many people get carried away with all the new technologies coming out. It seems at times that people start from the add-ons and forget the fundamentals.

A classic example for you. On Flatholm Island (in the Severn Estuary) they have a problem of power supply for the running of their accommodation, visitor centre etc. So in order to get around this they have installed a 6kW wind turbine and around 10kWp PV along with two generators and some solar thermal arrays. Cost a packet as you can imagine, especially having to get it all out to the island and put in the infrastructure. BUT, their main use of electricity is pumping water up from the Victorian rainwater store across the island to the farmhouse. Did they minimise water consumption first through aerating shower heads, low water flushes on the toilets, etc? The answer is, of course, no. On the back of a stamp I estimated that £250 spent on water saving measures would have saved them £30,000 in renewable technology.

So the message is that we really need to start from minimisation of resource use and then look at the eco-bling (if indeed it is even necessary).

By investing in the 'boring' elements like insulation, good design, draughtproofing and airtightness, water minimisation measures, etc you could potentially save money on your overall budget by cutting out the need for the eco 'bling'. You don't need a ground (or air) source heat pump (at around £10-15,000) if you insulate your home so well that it does not need a heating system.

For certain areas of living, we do need energy - electricity and domestic hot water for example, so having some renewable technology is advantageous here, but again it begs a wider question: Is it better to invest £10,000 each on PV systems or to reduce use down to an absolute minimum and ultimately de-carbonise the grid? I recognise that the Feed In Tariff skews all of this to a large extent, but the principles remain. Minimising usage and wastage should always take priority so that we minimise the need for expensive bling.

When thinking about a refurbishment (or new build) really have a close look at where your priorities are. Can one cut out the expensive add-ons and use these savings to really make a lasting difference to the consumption needs of the home? The Feed In Tariff only lasts 25 years, whereas insulation lasts for the lifetime of the house.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Eco fans

Not you, although one assumes that you are an Eco Fan of sorts!

Eco Fans are little stirling engines that sit atop of ones stove (wood burning, gas etc, as long as it has a flat and level surface) and help circulate the hot air from around the stove into the room. Amazing little things that are driven by heat. So no power to them, they just get to an appropriate temperature and start to waft away.

They are brilliant at getting heat from behind stoves and into the room. The hot air therefore does not travel just upwards to the ceiling it is slowly pushed into the room at a much lower level - ideal if you have an older high ceilinged house.

I have had one in my front room for a couple of years and been very impressed with it, especially since our wood burner is set back into the hearth and so tends to heat up the register plate quite well and hence we lose more of the heat to the chimney and the neighbours.

I know that PowRed in Cowbridge Road has a special offer on at the moment, so where they were once £120, I think that they are about £90 now.

Underlay for carpets

I had a question last week about which underlay is best if you are looking for a sustainable option.

There are a range of underlays available however the ones that I think are the most available and also suitable for a home are:

1. Recycled cotton / felt underlay for deep cushioned areas like living rooms, bedrooms etc. This is the basic non rubberised version that should be available from all carpets outlets.

2. Recycled tyres underlay for heavy wearing applications like hallways, stairwells etc. This has been widely available through many of the main merchants.

Personally I would avoid all rubberised underlays as they will slowly decompose and also give off a range of toxic fumes as they do so. The amount of carpets I have lifted to find dust underneath - terrible stuff.

A word of caution though. You may specify and buy good underlay and some lovely natural carpets, BUT carpet fitters will insist on using glue! This stinks and is just not necessary as long as they fit the edge grippers well enough (and this is not difficult). Please INSIST on no glue. It might make their guarantee a bit more secure, but it also hampers any time that you want to lift the carpet in the future as well as stinking the house out for days.

Clay plastering vs gypsum

Gypsum plastering is the modus operandi of the common plasterer. It is smooth, fine and cheap and colleges train people how to work it and get it looking as flat as you like. What is there not to like?

On the face of it, if you have a modern house and plasterboard finishes and a professional coming in to do the work then it is an acceptable route to go down. However, if you want a breathable finish that has a natural beauty to it and that is as easy to work as gypsum, but a lot more accommodating for an amateur then clay plaster could well be the way forward.

Clay plaster also has a major advantage over gypsum in older buildings in that it is not hygroscopic. It is breathable (so it lets moisture and water vapour pass through it), but it does not collect moisture like gypsum. Many of these older properties you will find damp patches where the gypsum plaster has swelled up from excess moisture in the walls (through rising damp, wind driven water ingress etc.) Once damp they will stay damp, so you will need to remove them and replaster (hopefully this time with a suitable product like clay or lime).

Clay plasters are:
100% natural and non-toxic
100% biodegradable
Lower in carbon
Natural regulators of internal humidity and temperature
Help to absorb toxins and also neutralise odours
Beneficial to those with allergies and sensitivities
Easy to apply, maintain and repair

So clay plastering, how does it work? Well, basically it is a direct replacement for a skim coat of gypsum. Applied with a plastic edged trowel up to 4 or 5 mm thick is creates a natural finish for your walls. It now comes in a range of finishes from Clayworks (and available through the Eco Home Centre). A standard finish (for painting over) a coloured finish or a mica enriched finish for that added bit of class.

The clay is very forgiving as a material, so if you are not happy with one piece, just go back whenever, wet it up and re-work it. Simple. Once you are happy with the finish simply use the EarthBorn Wallglaze to give a breathable finish that will stop any dusting of the surface (an old complaint from architects and designers - well no more!)

To reduce postage costs the plaster is supplied in dry powder form, so it is just add water and go.

I have a client who is keen to try the plaster in her new home and so we are looking to run a clay plastering course in the near future and so if you are interested please let me know at the centre by emailing

Costs are important of course, so per 25kg bag (enough for 7-8 sq m at 2-4mm thick):
£39.40 - £43.90 for pigmented Mica top coat (dependent on colour)
£34.80 - £39.10 for pigmented top coat (dependent on colour)
£21.50 for plain top coat
£17.90 for a fibre base coat (if required)

Costs are exc. VAT and delivery.