We have lived in our present house for seventeen years, and wanted to continue living in it, but there is no denying it is a bit of a money pit! In those seventeen years we have spent countless weekends and evenings mending water pipes, mopping up leaks, just firefighting problems with acid spring water in standard copper pipes and copper hot water cylinders. We have spent a lot of money replacing our hot water cylinder at regular intervals because of the acid water, decorating rooms only to see the damp seep through the walls and ruin the paintwork, employing useless builders to try to rectify problems with damp only to find the situation is worse after they have finished. The draughts whipping through the house on windy days (that is most days up here on our hill) made the place cold and uninviting. On top of all that are the day to day bills for running a house with no mains sewerage and no mains gas; in a word, astronomical.
When the window frames rotted I researched replacements. I didn’t like Upvc, nor the standard metal units generally available, I wanted something made from a sustainable material that would do the job properly. That is when I found The Green Building Store. They are local, they manufactured Eco-plus triple glazed windows and doors, and they were committed to low-energy, eco-friendly building, especially Passivhaus. We had most of our windows replaced by them and immediately noticed how much warmer the house was. They also put right some of the problems caused by previous builders, and there is no doubt that they made a huge difference, but the house still ate money. Time for something radical.
We drew up a plan for what we wanted: use our acre of boggy land and our rooftop to provide us with warmth and energy, replacing the expensive LPGas; insulate the house and stop up the draughts; replace our cesspit, which has to be emptied every two months (at great and increasing expense) with a package sewage plant; in a word, make the house live-in-able in a sustainable way. Since insulating would require the removal of all the internal plaster, we decided to have some of the rooms remodelled to make them more useful for us. The project had taken on a life of its own!
Although Green Building Company are primarily Passivhaus builders, they saw our house as an opportunity to demonstrate that a typical stone-built house in an extreme environment could be retrofitted to provide low-energy comfort. The fact that we have both solid wall and cavity wall construction in one property made it ideal for demonstrating the differing techniques required to make this possible. After all, most of the 24million houses in this country were built using one or other of these methods, and although the remodelling meant that our retrofit has been radical, the basic principles apply; with properly trained and motivated builders and owners prepared to put up with a bit of mess for a week or two, it is possible to bring the UK housing stock into the twenty-first century and reduce energy consumption in heating our homes.
Ours is a house of two halves: the old barn with thick walls of solid construction, no damp proof course, and roof trusses that impinged on the top floor design, making some of the rooms awkward; and a modern construction extension with dpc and cavity walls, housing one room on each floor.
One of the bedrooms in the barn, a narrow room which we used as an office, had to be accessed through a narrow door and up a separate set of stairs. Off this room was a small attic room, accessible only by crawling on hands and knees through a low doorway. On the ground floor was an annexe, also accessible up a separate flight of stairs. The annexe consisted of two narrow bedrooms, a tiny shower room, half of which was located within the adjoining garage, and a corridor. This annexe was our guest room, but neither of the rooms was really large enough to accommodate a double bed. The annexe always felt very claustrophobic to me.
We drew up plans, with Green Building Company, to restructure the roof, using steel beams instead of the massive wooden ones. These i-beams would be hidden under the floor, and the weight of the roof taken by upright struts and plywood. The structural engineers assured us that this would work!
The annexe would go, and a new guest suite would take its place, accessed from a door opposite the kitchen. The archway through the original wall taking the shower room through into the garage would be blocked up as the wall formed the edge of the thermal envelope. The internal walls would be demolished and what had been the stairs up to the annexe and the corridor within it would become the en-suite shower room for a large guest bedroom.
On the middle floor, there was also some remodelling to be done. With the removal of the LPGas boiler, the cupboard under the stairs (leading to the office) that had housed the boiler would be redundant, and the removal of the stairs to the office meant that the space could be incorporated into a room (next to the boiler cupboard). This room had originally been a dining room, when the kitchen had been on the middle floor. Later, I had annexed it as my sewing room, although it had largely been used as a dumping ground. The old kitchen on the middle floor was to be ripped out and turned into a bathroom, but with all the kitchen cupboards removed it was shown to be a spacious room, rather large for a bathroom. We decided to take some of that space, equivalent to the width of the gas boiler cupboard, and add it onto the sewing room enlarging that room by about a quarter. In effect, we are turning a five bedroom house, where three of the bedrooms were too small to be practical, into a four bedroom house where the rooms provide flexibility of use and better overall accommodation.
Building Works Begin
In September 2014, we moved into rented accommodation. We both felt a wrench at leaving our home, but kept telling ourselves it would be lovely when it was finished! We had debated whether to store everything and have a caravan on site, but eventually decided that we didn’t fancy spending a Yorkshire winter in a caravan so we would rent. We found a very nice cottage a mere five minutes drive from home, and managed to squeeze most of our stuff into it, although we do have to edge around the furniture it is so crowded!
The builders moved in with a couple of cabins, one for them and one for us, and work commenced. A daily skip delivery removed masses of material. We were pleased to hear that the skip company sorted the waste and recycled as much as possible, as we hated to think so much material was going into landfill. Some things we saved for reuse – the bathroom suite would be reinstated, for instance – other things, like the nearly new stainless steel hot water cylinder, would go on Ebay. The house started to change before our eyes, with walls disappearing daily, the roof tiles being removed and the plaster ceilings coming down and revealing the different roof structure between the old barn and the 1990s extension.
Because we have used steel beams in the barn to support the roof, there is a danger of thermal bridging. This we have overcome by using FOAMGLAS® Insulation, manufactured from specially graded recycled glass (≥ 60%) and readily available natural raw materials such as sand, dolomite and lime. The insulation is totally inorganic, contains no ozone depleting propellants, flame resistant additives or binders, nor does it contain VOC or other volatile substances. It is very light but very strong. The ends of each beam set into the walls were surrounded by Foamglas bricks to stop the bridging. We have also used Foamglas as a tanking material on the ground floor (more about that later).
To be continued . . .