Aside

No one wants a dark house, so what about a sun pipe to flood your somber spaces with lovely light…


When architect Chris Lelliott bought his three-bed terraced cottage in Wrecclesham, Surrey, the one thing he didn’t like about it was the dark landing and windowless bathroom.

“I’m an architect, so I prefer things to be light and airy,” says Chris, so he installed the latest thing in lighting: sun pipes.

These clever little gadgets, which are also known as light tubes, sky tubes, solar pipes or daylight pipes, are a type of highly reflective tube that run from the roof to the ceiling and conduct natural, free, eco-friendly daylight into your home.


 As he also needed ventilation, Chris chose a pipe that provided both natural light and fresh air. And, with a little help from a roofer, he was able to install the sun pipes himself in about a day. 

“It makes a massive amount of difference,” says Chris, whose house is now on the market.

“On a sunny day the landing space is flooded with light but so is the hallway where you first come into the house.”


Making Light Work: The Benefit For Sellers 

Pic: Solatube

Everyone wants a bright home. Daylight is said to affect your mood, your concentration, even your weight, and it certainly affects your chances of selling your home.

Chris Taffs, marketing director at Solatube, the inventors of the sun pipe, says:

“We’re getting more and more interest as the market gets tougher out there.

“Just the other day we had someone ring up and say that they were trying to sell last year, but they couldn’t do it because the house was too dark.”

So light and, therefore, glass are becoming expected, even in the more traditionally dark country cottages.

“You see people putting more and more glass in their homes,” says Chris.

“But energy efficiency is an issue with glass, whereas with the Solatube it’s pretty neutral, there’s no solar gain or heat loss.”


How Does It Work? 

Before…

 Although the word is spreading, Chris says that the level of awareness of sun pipes is still surprisingly low among the general public.

“People ask me ‘where do you store the power?’ But it’s just a high tech window really. The concept is simplicity itself.”

Briefly, a glass-dome-topped sun pipe captures daylight from your rooftop, directs it down a reflective tube, then delivers the diffused light into the room below.

All the systems available are slightly different, but the Solatube uses a patented lens system to harvest additional light that would otherwise have passed straight through the dome and out the other side.


…After 

You lose a percentage of the light every time the rays bounce, so there is a finite limit to the length of the tube. But at the moment the Solatube can go up to 6m on a small system.

Flexible tubes are available that have the advantage of being slightly easier to fit than a rigid tube, but, according to Chris, you can end up with a poor amount of light if you follow this route.

And the dome doesn’t necessarily have to be fitted into the roof. With a bit of imagination, they can also be used on an exterior wall to bring daylight into a basement.





 

The Downside

 This is Britain, and the sun does spend a fair amount of time lurking behind clouds.

On miserable days the colour and intensity of the light from a sun pipe changes, but, to be fair, this is similar to the change in quality of light through a window.

More of a problem could be too much light if a sun pipe is used, for example, in a bedroom.

There is a solution to this in the form of an electric dimmer switch, which could save you from a rude awakening at 4am by a beautiful, but unwelcome shaft of sunshine.

And, don’t forget that what goes down can also go up.

At night any light produced in the house will be reflected outside. This can be an issue on large sites, where the reflected glow can cause light pollution.

This problem was overcome at the Greenwich eco-friendly Sainsbury’s by fitting daylight dimmers that come on automatically as the light level drops.

However, on a domestic level this is unlikely to cause more than a mild stir with the neighbours. As Chris Taffs puts it: “Don’t worry, it won’t look like the blitz!”


Planning 

Conservation SunPipe

 Due to the small size and minimal impact of the sun pipe on the roofscape, you usually won’t need planning permission. However, if you live in a conservation area or in a listed building you will need planning approval.

The good news is that some companies have produced special products for this sector. Monodraught, for example, sell a Conservation SunPipe designed to replicate a Victorian cast iron rooflight.

According to the company, they are “particularly favoured by Listed Building Officers since they are of steel construction and fit virtually flush with the roof tiling.”

As part of their service they will provide detailed construction drawings or any other information requested by planning officers.


How Much? 

 For most simple situations, for example, sun pipes for a top floor or a bungalow, one unit will cost around £250.

Fitting will cost around the same again, but about a third of Chris’s customers install sun pipes themselves, though on taller homes you may need scaffolding and professional assistance.

Many people do it just before they put their home on the market. But, says Chris, when they see the results they regret it.

“The biggest comment we get is ‘we wish we’d done it sooner because we won’t be here to enjoy it.”


If your house still seems dark try these tips for brightening your home from house doctor Suzy Maas of The Final Touch

1. Glossy surfaces reflect light, so go for glass tables and high gloss kitchen units, and, of course, put up lots of mirrors.

2. Decorate using light colour and fabrics. Using the same colour on the ceiling, walls and woodwork makes a space seem lighter and fresher.

3. Hidden lighting can help. Use daylight bulbs hidden under plinths, behind eye-level architrave, furniture or pictures, or on top of pelmets.

4. To let in extra light arrange curtain poles to extend 10-15” beyond the window on either side so you can open the curtains right back.

5. AVOID – wooden shutters, venetian blinds, and net curtains because they all block out light. If privacy is an issue try Cosmos roller blinds that let in light but keep out prying eyes.

Nikki Sheehan

Aside

Wind turbines are topping the must-have list for the eco-conscious. But are they just a green fad for extremists, or will they soon be as common as satellite dishes?…

wind5As the price of oil reaches record heights, a recent survey by the Energy Saving Trust has revealed that 65 per cent of us worry more about energy bills than personal health and well-beingWe all know about solar panels being used by green householders to cut their fuel consumption, but a growing interest in domestic wind turbines has recently been sparked by some very high-profile eco one-upmanship. 

Of course, it could be for reasons of vote winning, rather than bill cutting, that Tory leader David Cameron and energy minister Malcolm Wicks are putting wind turbines on their houses, but that doesn’t make it a bad idea.

The Answer My Friend&

Pic: Eclectic Energy
wind4Wind turbines have three major merits. Firstly, the green credentials – a typical domestic turbine can save 2.8 tonnes of CO2 per year and around 56 tonnes over its lifetime – more than enough to fill a hot air balloon.Secondly, the financial incentive – investing in a wind turbine, or any other microgeneration technology, reduces the cost of your fuel bills. You may even be able to sell some of the energy you generate back to the grid.

Thirdly, independence – in the event of a power failure, households with their own energy supplies could be largely unaffected, though they will, of course, be besieged by neighbours requesting tea.

While there are an estimated 75,000 solar water-heating systems in the UK, and 1,300 solar voltaic systems producing electricity, year-round sun is obviously not what we are known for in Britain.

We do, however, have 40 per cent of Europe’s total wind energy. But crazily, it’s still largely untapped and only 0.5 per cent of our electricity requirements are currently generated by wind power.

Up On The Roof

Pic:

Proven Energy
windSo where do you put your turbine? Wind speed increases with height, so the ideal location is a smooth-topped hill, away from anything that will obstruct the flow of the wind, such as large trees or buildings.Fine if you live on a farm in Cumbria, but, for the rest of us who live in towns and cities, domestic wind turbines are being developed to go on top of any building.

In addition small-scale building-integrated wind turbines are currently in development that will fit discretely within the roof stucture of newly built homes within the next few years.

Mari Martiskainen, from the British Wind Energy Association says, “about 700 turbines have been installed in the UK, but a small minority of these are for householders. They are mainly on small businesses, schools, commercial centres and farms.”

So, are they noisy? “No. It’s a myth,” says Mari. “Noise is generally not thought of as an issue. The 1.5kw turbines produce less than 3.5 DBA.”

Mari believes that the reason why the market for domestic turbines is small is the cost – £2,000-3,000. However, Scottish and Southern Energy, and British Gas are trialing a sell-and-install service, so it could get cheaper soon.

Peckham Pioneer

Donnachadh McCarthy

3 Acorns
wind6The change won’t come soon enough for Peckham wind turbine pioneer Donnachadh McCarthy. In October 2005 he had London’s first wind turbine installed on his home.McCarthy is also known as the first London homeowner to have sold power, produced from the solar panels on his roof, back to London Electricity. So why did he need a wind turbine?

“In the summer it’s great and I export four to five times the amount I import. But in the winter I produce only 10 per cent of my own consumption. With the turbine I can address the production at night and in the winter.”

But being a ground-breaker is never easy, and it looked like McCarthy’s dream of 24-hour, year-round, environmentally-friendly power was doomed when planning permission was refused.

McCarthy had prepared and distributed an information pack explaining the turbine to all the neighbours who would be able to see it when it was positioned on the gable end wall of his terraced house.

“The feedback was fantastic,” says McCarthy. But then the council received an objection from a neighbour further away who was worried about her cat being killed by it.

McCarthy was told by the councillor he spoke to, “if I give you permission everyone will want one”. McCarthy replied, “good, then we’ll all be doing something to combat global warming.”

Cats Are Safe

Donnachadh McCarthy

3 Acorns
wind2But once McCarthy had reassured his worried neighbour that her cat would be unharmed, and, following a petition by the neighbours, permission was granted.Did he need any kind of structural survey before he put up the turbine? “Eclectic Energy,” he explains, “arranged for Hilti Intl to test the bolts after they were attached to the wall for forces equivalent to almost 4 times storm force.

“Thankfully as the wall had been rebuilt 10 years ago – they passed with flying colours.” The estimated commercial cost of such testing is £800- and it’s advisable to have this, or an equivalent structural survey, done before you erect a turbine on your roof.

There have, however, been problems. It took McCarthy three years to actually get his Stealthgen D400, made by Eclectic Energy, when he was let down by his first supplier.

And, due to some teething troubles with the very new technology, he is currently not producing the amount of electricity he had hoped for.

Off The Shelf?
So far we are a long way from turbines being sold at B&Q. And, although the number of planning applications is increasing, McCarthy believes that there are still only three or four domestic wind turbines on roofs in London.

In the recent budget the Chancellor announced an additional £50 million to develop microgeneration technologies under the new Low Carbon Buildings Programme.

Although this is itended to be spent by local authorities, schools, and other public bodies, it’s hoped that boosting mass production will lead to a reduction in the cost of domestic microgeneration technologies.

Although price is cited as a major disadvantage of wind turbines, McCarthy’s turbine cost only £1,000 and the inverter, which turns the electricity from DC to AC, cost him a further £1,000.

Grants are available of £1,000 per kW installed, up to a maximum of £5,000 subject to an overall 30 per cent limit of the installed cost.

The manufacturer of McCarthy’s turbine claims that, given average wind speeds at the site of around 12 mph, it could provide 15 – 20 per cent of a home’s annual electricity requirement.

So, as long as it’s windy enough, your turbine could pay for itself within a few years. You can work out average windspeeds for your postcode from the windspeed database on The British Wind Energy Association.

And, as the technology for microgeneration progresses, hopefully it won’t be long before a few more of us have the satisfaction of billing our utilities companies.

Installing a Small Wind Turbine – BWEA Top Tips

1. Get a reliable estimate of the wind speed at the proposed site. Turbine manufacturers should be able to help.

2.

Consult your local council as to whether you need planning permission.

3.

You should try to minimise the environmental impact of the turbine, and it will be helpful to inform your neighbours of your plans at an early stage.

4.

With a roof installation, it is very advisable to get the structure tested for stability – the turbine company should be able to help with this.

5.

With a tower installation, mount the turbine on as high a tower as possible and well clear of obstructions, but do not go to extremes. Foundations for the tower may be needed depending on the size and tower type. It is also important to ensure that the wind turbine can be easily lowered for inspection and maintenance.

6.

Try to have a clear, smooth fetch to the prevailing wind, e.g. over open water, smooth ground or on a smooth hill.

7.

Use cable of adequate current carrying capacity (check with the turbine supplier. This is particularly important for low voltage machines). Cable costs can be substantial.

8.

For larger machines you may have to pay rates. This can make a big difference to the economics of the installation, again you should find this out by consulting your local council.

Aside

The ideal way to reduce your fuel bills, or a leaky glass box that heats up the skies? We go in search of the answer to the great conservatory conundrum…

Passive solar sunspace, ecoarc

 Conservatories are terribly popular in this country. And it’s not surprising.

As well as helping to eke out the Great British summer, a conservatory is seen as a cheap way to extend your home and add value to your property.

But what about the impact on the environment?

A recent eco-living booklet attached to Grand Designs Magazine warns that the conservatory is a very bad idea:

“When heated, a three-sided conservatory (with glazed roof and three exposed sides) can double the energy use of a three-bed semi”.

Yikes! That sounds worse than owning a Hummer.  But hang on – how, then, do you explain all those eco homes with acres of sun-capturing glass?

They look suspiciously like conservatories. And as such they prompt the question: is it possible to have one that won’t melt the icecaps and turn you into an eco-pariah? One that might even reduce your carbon footprint?

We went in search of an answer. Here’s what we discovered…


Eco Saint: The Case For 

Ecos Homes Great Bow Yard

 The eco credentials of conservatories (AKA sunspaces, in the green building world) are impressive.

Most new eco homes are built with some kind of south-facing conservatory to allow the building to utilise passive solar heating.

Stunning floor-to-ceiling examples of this are the sunspaces on the Ecos Homes Great Bow Yard development. There’s also an impressive passive solar conservatory on the Earthship in Brighton.

How do they work? Located on the south face they look great and give the inhabitants a bit of inside-outside space to enjoy, but they are also positioned and designed to improve the environmental performance of the houses.

Well-designed conservatories, such as these, are effective in two principle ways.


Earthship Brighton 

 1. They act as a buffer, or draught excluder, between inside and outside.

2. They trap the sun’s heat and use thermal mass (such as a heavy stone, conrete or brick floor) to warm up the home and reduce the amount of fuel we need to use.

In order to work efficiently these sunny spaces can be controlled by doors, vents and louvers, according to the weather, to direct warm air into the house in winter, and keep the heat down in the summer.

The Great Bow Yard sunspaces are, of course, very state of the art. But even suburban-styled conservatories can help to reduce our carbon emissions and keep our fuel bills down by up to 20 per cent.

Sounds great. But here’s what has been labelled the ‘conservatory paradox’.


Eco Sinner: The Case Against 

Traditional conservatory

 It used to be generally believed that, for the reasons given above, conservatories were a great way to reduce household energy consumption.

But this relied on the assumption that they are used as they were intended, only when it’s warm enough, between spring and autumn.

However, a survey in 1993 found that 91 per cent of respondents heated their conservatories and 50 per cent of those said they did so regularly.

And more recent research shows even more owners using their conservatory all year round, coping with temperature fluctuations by installing heating, and even air conditioning.

Ironically, while a well-designed, properly-used conservatory will reduce energy consumption by a significant amount, findings from building research group, the Building Research Establishment (BRE) show that, when heated, a conservatory can double the energy use of a three-bed semi.


The Solution
So what’s the solution? Here’s a quick run through the main issues to keep in mind if you want an eco friendly sunspace:
1. Solar Orientation: The usual advice is not to bother unless your garden is south, south-east, or south-west facing. 

However, it’s worth consulting an expert on this. Julian Brooks, a sustainable development consultant at Brooks Devlin is, in fact, in the process of putting a conservatory on his own home, despite the fact that it faces north.

“It will catch the easterly morning sun and in the west in the evening,” says Julian. “Any conservatory in the height of summer is too hot if it’s not shaded, so there’s no reason not to do it.”

2. Keep It Separate, Not Integral: Conservatories are designed to fit onto the outside of a house, not be an integral part.

Julian Brooks says that you won’t find a knocked through conservatory to be a cheap option once the bills start coming in.  “You’ll be going down a dead end in energy-efficiency terms by losing a wall that has better thermal performance.

“Even triple glazing has a U-value of 0.8, compared to 0.35 for a wall, but triple glazing a conservatory would be extremely expensive.”

If you really have to open up your living space to the conservatory, external quality folding doors that can be closed throughout winter may be a reasonable compromise.

3. No Heaters, Please! It’s impossible to efficiently insulate a mostly glazed building, and, says Julian, if you fit a heater you may as well leave the door open because your hot air will quickly escape into the garden anyway.

Plus, even with a heater, your conservatory probably won’t be warm enough to sit in comfortably all winter.  Just don’t do it, is the advice. “Heating a conservatory is so inefficient that it won’t pay you back in any way.”

4. Thermal Mass: Include plenty of ‘thermal mass’ to store the heat gained for longer. A stone, tiled or brick floor works well because it will absorb and slowly release heat during the evening.

5. Airflow: Make sure that there is a means of drawing warmed air into the house. Airflow is hard to predict, however, so adjustable vents between the conservatory and the house may need help from a small electric fan at times.

6. Keep Cool: Include a system to prevent overheating during the summer. The best way to keep cool is external blinds, wooden shutters or sun canopies, like those used by shops.

As the goal is to stop the glass heating up in the first place, blinds that fit in-between the double-glazing are less efficient, but better than internal blinds.

Nikki Sheehan

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Green, eco, zero-carbon, confused yet?

Green, eco, zero-carbon, sustainable: when it comes to property, does anyone really know what any of these terms mean? …

Eco house, Living Villages
 By 2016, the government says, all new homes will have to be zero carbon, and we will all be so used to superinsulation and microgeneration that a green house will once again be somewhere to grow tomatoes. 

Which is great.

But, until that day, what’s an environmentally friendly home buyer to do?

There are so many shades of green home available, and so many terms being bandied around to describe them, that total confusion seems inevitable.

Below we run through some of the most common terms used, followed by a quick guide to help you get past the eco-waffle and recognise the genuine article.

 


1. Green and Eco Homes 

Rural Zed

 I’ve put these two together not only because they are the most commonly used terms, but because often they mean the same thing – almost nothing.

They have both become generic terms that could mean anything from a house made of the mud in which it stands, to any home that incorporates modern technology to save energy.

At its best an eco or green home will generate less (or no) carbon dioxide, waste less water, and will be made of sustainable or renewable materials.

At worst it could be a house with a badly positioned wind turbine on the roof.

Although the older version of the Code for Sustainable Homes was calledEco Homes, and still applies to refurbished housing, many people use ‘eco home’ loosely and without reference to this rating system.

The word green, on the other hand, is fairly meaningless, which is why it’s one of the most popular with eco wafflers.

The point is this: look for agreed, or regulated, definitions and be wary of vague or aspirational usage in advertising copy.

 


2. Sustainable Homes 

‘Sustainable’ is the government’s word of choice – and the term they use in their green bible, The Code for Sustainable Homes.

The code assesses properties according to nine categories and then weights these in order to rate the property on a scale from 1-6. The nine categories are:

 •         Energy
•         Water
•         Materials
•         Surface water run off
•         Waste & Pollution
•         Health and well-being
•         Management
•         Ecology

 


 You would expect a home advertised as green to attain Code Level 3 or above – indeed, it is a requirement for social housing and homes built with government money.  A home achieving Level 6 would be zero carbon. 

Critics point out that the Code is voluntary rather than mandatory and that a home rated 1 may meet very basic levels of ‘sustainability’. But Simon McWhirter from WWF says:

“It’s a pretty rigorous system, albeit a realistic one that acknowledges the considerable challenges we face in changing the way we build houses.  While it’s not mandatory, we’re seeing more large housebuilders like Berkeley Homescommitting to level 3. We’ve got miles to go, but it’s a decent system and starts raising awareness of the non-carbon issues.”

 


3. Zero Carbon Homes 

 Zero carbon is a term that should be easy to define, but the devil is in the detail – on which the government is still in consultation with the building industry.

But basically, a zero-carbon home is one that can be shown to produce as much energy across a single year as it uses.

So, a calculation is made comparing the carbon dioxide generated by living in a house built to the minimum standards with those from a zero carbon home, which is much more efficient, and produces energy through the use of technologies like wind turbines, solar panels, photovoltaic cells and heat pumps.

 In the current definition, zero carbon does not take into account the CO2 that is tied up in the materials used to build the house – so-called embodied energy.

The government is so keen on zero carbon that, until 2012, all newly-built zero-carbon homes sold for up to £500,000 will be exempt from stamp duty.

Luckily they are so few and far between (as of last summer only 13 qualified) that this random act of generosity is unlikely to cost taxpayers very much.

There are a few developers producing zero carbon homes already – Barratt Homes are currently building a zero carbon village atHanham Hall in Bristol, Rural Zed is the next chapter in the BedZed story; and Ecostessey Park in Norfolk also aims to be zero carbon.

 


4. Passive house 

 A particular kind of eco home, a passive house is a building that maintains a minimum temperature of around 18°C year round without the need for dedicated heating appliances.

The house uses the heat given off during everyday life. So by cooking, washing, even watching the TV we keep the house warm.

This isn’t the stuff of science fiction – it’s down to some very clever use of insulation to produce an airtight, mechanically-ventilated home (though you can open the windows if you really want) that is superefficient at stopping heat escaping from the house.

There are many passive houses running successfully in Europe, and a small, but growing number here in the UK.

The fundamental requirement of a Passive House is that the energy required for space heating must not exceed 15 kWh/(m2 a).

The BRE (who worked closely with the government to devise the Code for Sustainable Homes) is registered with the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany to issue PassivHaus Certificates for domestic dwellings in this country.

 


5.  Home Energy Ratings/Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) 

 Energy Performance Certificates, which are produced as part of a property’s HIP, rate a property from A to G in terms of energy efficiency and environmental impact.

For a property to achieve a Level 6 it should have an A for both.

However, the EPC inspection cannot be carried out until a building is finished, so if you are buying off-plan you will have to wait.

Almost half (44 per cent) of properties in England and Wales are being awarded an ‘average’, or Band D, energy-efficiency rating, according to Halifax’s first ever report on the subject.

Which underlines that, whatever about new homes, we face a huge task making exisiting homes environmentally friendly.

 


So What Features Should You Look For? 

If you think the nomenclature of green building is as clear as a nice pile of organic mud, there are ways to decide whether or not a given development is worth looking at from an environmental point of view.

Firstly, and most obviously, you can look for the professional assessments such a Code rating or a PassivHaus Certificates.

Next you can look at the features that are being offered. These could (and probably should) include items such as:

• Very high levels of insulation (eg: a Passive house will have 350mm in the walls, compared the government’s recommended 90mm)
• Passive solar orientation (larger amounts of south facing glazing)
• Use of natural and if possible locally sourced materials, eg: a timber frame and wool insulation
• Microgeneration systems, such as solar thermal hot water heating, photovoltaic panels for generating electricity, and heat recovery systems to circulate heat throughout the house.
• Rainwater harvesting and/or greywater collection

 


What Should You Ask? 

The presence of these features, however, is not enough.  Greenwash, for the most part, involves a number of basic tactics: vagueness, irrelevant information, hidden trade-offs, lack of proof,  technical jargon no ordinary person can understand, and the like.

With this in mind, Green Building Specialist Tim Pullen offers the following tips:

1. Demand the figures from the developers. Ask what the bills will be. In Europe you would be given detailed costing.

2. If the builder is saying it’s a sustainable house ask what that actually means. Ask about the materials used. If they say they use recycled materials ask for the percentages.

3. You can anticipate a good EPC rating, but ask yourself what the rating of a non-eco new build next door is. It doesn’t mean very much if you don’t have anything to compare it with.

Nikki Sheehan

[written for findaproperty.com 2009]

Note: we would like to express our thanks to Simon McWhirter of WWF for his help with this article.

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