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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??

Love a real fire?

Image from Burley Stoves
Wood burning stoves are gaining in popularity. Good thing too. However, you need to know more than just that you want to have a carbon neutral energy source.

Efficiency. The efficiencies of wood stoves vary tremendously. The design of stoves go from the simplest grates to the more complex second burn options. Most are now rated and so look out for those that give the better rates.

Cleanliness. Hand in hand with efficiencies go the amount of soot produced. More efficient burns create less soot, so again if you don't want to be emptying out large amounts of waste, look for high efficiency stoves.

Drying wood. Wood needs to be dry before being burned and so you may well need to store wood so that it can air dry. This requires space and some sort of system so that you can have a stack of wood drying and another ready to burn.

Source of wood. Great if you have a source of natural wood, but if you are going to be burning waste wood you need to be aware that there is a bit of work required to get it ready for burning (removing nails etc). Also different woods burn at different temperatures. Wood like oak, blackthorn are great for burning, but birch, lime and pine are not so great. Check out: http://www.firewood.co.uk/heating-qualities/

Location of stove. Ideally the stove will be away from a wall and air will be able to circulate around it freely. This will allow the maximum amount of heat to be transferred to the room.

Air for burning. If you have stove that takes air from the room you will be encouraging colder fresh air into the house (in fact you will need to have external ventilation into the room). Also if you are using the stove as secondary heating you will be drawing your heated air into the stove and straight up the flue! So it is much better to draw fresh air into the stove directly from outside using a dedicated air inlet. Many new stoves have this capacity for a direct air inlet, but the older ones do not. By using fresh air from outside you will make your stove much more efficient.

Stove fans. If you have your stove set into the chimney breast then you may wish to look at a stove fan. These are powered by the heat of the stove itself and help to circulate the warm air around the room. They are expensive, but do work well.

Sizing. Think about what you will use the stove for. If it is just secondary heating then you will only need a small kW stove, but if you are to use it for heating the whole house then you will need to think about circulation of air as well as sizing. Too big a stove can overpower a room and make it unusable (unless you are into swimwear in the winter!) It may be better to have two smaller stoves in separate rooms etc. So care is needed here as it can be a bit of a balancing act.

Flue liners. There are two main grades of liners. Personally I would go for the higher grade as you will be peace of mind and a longer guarantee.

Installers. Always use a HETAS installer.

Carbon monoxide sensor. All stoves should be monitored by a working carbon monoxide alarm. No point having a lower carbon future if you are not here to enjoy it.

Sweeping. Check with you installer that the stove can be swept easily. This will need to be done annually on average.

Chimney pot. The pot should reduce the amount of water able to enter the system, so ensure that you have a cowl of some description. Do not fit cowls with fine grating as they can be blocked more easily. Again your installer should be able to advise.

So, have a think about these factors before you buy and fit a stove. Good luck!

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Proactive Maintenance

Not your average building, but a building nevertheless.

I had a meeting with the management team at the Wales Millennium Centre to discuss how we could do some work together. It was a productive meeting, but more importantly they are on the ball.

I walked in to see their DEC (Display Energy Certificate) with a proud rating of 42. Performing well above average for this size and type of building. So they are not only talking the talk, they are walking the walk.

However, the best thing about the meeting was to learn that they have a proactive maintenance system in place. This is really impressive and important. The great thing is that it shows that they really value their building. Given the cost of making the venue it makes sense to allocate sums to maintaining it. Not only that they have worked out what they are going to do to it for years to come to ensure that it keeps looking great and working well.

Of course things will come up and need immediate attention, but the fact that they are checking, cleaning and testing all aspects of the building on a regular and systematic basis means that it will continue to be fit for purpose for decades to come.

I think that people can take a leaf out of their book. Even though the building cost millions to construct and hence costs hundreds of thousands to maintain it acts a great example for home owners. A house costs tens or hundreds of thousands to buy, yet how much do we allocate for annual repairs, improvements etc? Generally nothing I would guess. We wait and wait until something goes wrong or we cannot put up with the issue any longer. By this time the problem will need major investment in time, resources and hassle factors to put right. If we all did a few checks around the house, once or twice a year it would save millions of £ across Wales.

I only wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, so scroll down for some pointers on what to check and save yourself the heartache and hassle (and not to mention many £'s) of major repairs.

Also remember that we offer some services in support of this like our Pre-Purchase Home Report and Damp Reports. Good luck.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Are natural products just about being eco?


As stockists of a range of natural products are we just a bunch of hippies worried about the environment? The short answer is NO.

At the Eco Home Centre we are all about sustainability and all that this encompasses. But this is a much misunderstood term and so here are some hard facts and rationales behind some of the choices we have made for our supply chain.

Earthborn claypaint - highly breathable paint that is brilliant for application on lime plasters / breathable substrates. IF you put conventional paint (or a low porosity natural paint) on a wall that is highly porous it will not last long. So using a paint that is designed for use on lime / porous wall it will last and do what you want it to do. It also has no real smell and no VOCs.

Osmo Polyx Oil - this is not a perfectly natural choice as it uses (de-benzenated) white spirit as its solvent (unless you use their Polyx 2K product). However, it does use natural oils for its working element. The great advantage though is that it wears really well, gives a great finish, does not need to be re-sanded between coats or before future re-application. It also is loved by professionals as it does not create 'tramlines' on application. SO this does what you want it to do, brilliantly.

Auro 524. This is a new paint that is completely based on natural materials that are sustainably sourced and also it is manufactured using renewable energy sources. Ticking all the eco boxes here, but more importantly it is a great quality paint. Breathable, excellent opacity, easily cleanable, compostable, no VOCs. ......

Eco Solutions Home Strip. A safe paint remover that can be used without fear of poisoning, skin irritation, smells, VOCs, .... So again something that works really well, but without all the downsides associated with nasty chemicals like Nitromors.

Auro and Earthborn Wall Fillers. These are great products that remain workable when dry. You get really smooth finishes etc, but you can still sand them back once they are dry. Products like PolyFilla go really hard and if you don't get the correct finish first time you have to spend a lot of time getting it right. These more natural fillers are therefore much more user friendly.

I could go on.

So it is all about getting products that do the job properly and well. I have no time for 'eco' products that are kind to the environment but that don't work. People need high quality products that will do what is needed, last a long time and be easy to use. The fact that all of this is available with products that also are 'natural' and 'eco' just proves the point that we can do a lot with less oil being consumed, less waste, less pollution, less risk to health!

Maintenance and the consumer society


One might think that with the growth of consumerism that we would naturally consume more maintenance products for our homes, but the trend seems to be the opposite.

The rush to be at the front of the queue for the latest gadgets etc does not sit well with the need for the regular and mundane nature of building maintenance. Checking whether you have cracked render, failed silicon around the windows, leaking gutters etc is not as glamorous as a new internet accessing tool.

So I often find that some houses with easily fixable problems (like many damp issues) get to the state where a 'damp proof expert' ends up recommending an expensive (and completely inappropriate) solution. These homes are often stuffed to the gunnels with disposable electronic kit, so there is not a lack of money, just a lack of priorities.

The 'quick fix' nature associated with modern consumerism doesn't help here either. Once people see that they have a problem any solution must be quick, cheap, no hassle, immediate, ... Unfortunately, due to the delay in acting they have often missed the boat. If maintenance is done regularly then you can use quick fix solutions. For example:

If you see that your silicon has failed around the windows, then it is a quick job to remove the old and replace with new. This will stop any more water getting into the structure. Simple. However, because people don't do this, the first they will know will be when damp has penetrated through the structure and the plaster inside has failed. This then becomes a job that might involve replastering, redecorating etc.

Exmaple #2: If you see that the ventilation grills on your ground floor are becoming blocked, just clean them up. Simple. If you don't then your solum (underfloor area between the wooden floor and the earth) won't work properly and eventually the floor joists will start to rot etc. This then becomes a major job. It will also take a nasty turn, as the builder coming in will fill your mind with having the floor replaced with a concrete one. This will of course be maintenance free!!! Naturally the new concrete floor with cause a range of new damp problems, ..........

So take a break from the computer / curved screen TV / smarter (than 6 months ago) phone and get outside and have a look at your biggest ever investment and give it a few precious minutes of your time. This will save you a lot of heartbreak, money and time resources in the long term. A few basic tools will allow you to do most of the work yourself (or it will be cheap for a good handyperson to fix for you). Houses are not as addictive as modern consumerist stuff, but they can a real drain on your resources if you ignore them for too long.

I would recommend checking the following:

Windows and door seals (esp. those facing the prevailing winds)
Guttering
Renders / pointing (again esp. those facing the wind and rain)
Drains around the house (to ensure that water is being taken away from the walls)
The roof (to spot any broken or slipped tiles)
Vents and extracts (clear to ensure that they are working properly)

I reckon that a thorough check will take around 5 or 10 mins. 

Then it is a case of keeping your eyes, nose and ears open for any changes. A new drip might be the first sign of a guttering issue. A small damp patch might indicate the need for a check of the seals around the window. A musty smell might alert you to a blocked vent, ....

So when you look at it this way, actually you can fit in all the consumerist stuff that you like and some basic checks on your home. For more guidance on maintenance, especially on older properties have a look at Cadw's Maintenance Matters website.