How to be green and stay sane


imageSarah Lonsdale tests the latest ‘eco’ products and sorts the fads from the finds. This week: an eco-makeover for an unlovely building.

The village of Over in Cambridgeshire lies exposed, like all Fenland villages, to the bitter easterlies that sweep in from the Russian steppes. Apart from a few trees, the flat semi-liquid landscape is exposed to the pitiless winds that can chill even in summer. Having grown up in the area, I still shiver at memories of seeing my breath in my bedroom on winter mornings.

The houses in Over are a typical mix of brick-built Victorian villas and mid-20th- century bungalows – rather unlovely boxes in shades of pink, yellow and grey.

One of these bungalows, however, has undergone an ugly duckling-style transformation so as to be unrecognisable. The exterior is clad in thin cedar planks ranging in hues from creamy beige to deep pink and the front façade has an almost industrial-style sawtooth roofline of three asymmetrical apexes.

Its simple beauty fair takes your breath away and shows what fun can be had with a home that won’t suffer from a radical makeover. As the project’s architect, Meredith Bowles, puts it: “Tinkering around with a duffer is quite fun. If owners want to mess around with a historic building, as an architect, you get quite nervous. But in this case any change would be an improvement.” But its beauty is not just in the way it looks – its energy efficiency and renewable heat and electricity installations mean it is lovely on the inside too, delivering its owners peace of mind as they head towards retirement, as well as environmental benefits.

Owners Michael and Patricia Sumpter, who moved from their large Victorian family home once their children fledged, had firm ideas of what they wanted. “We wanted a house that had real connection to its garden and plenty of light flooding in,” says Patricia, who works in the villa holiday business. “Because we are both nearing retirement and we wanted a house that would look after us for the next 20 years, we had the full eco-dream wish list.” Although not all of that list was fulfilled – the ground-source heat pump and the heat-recovery ventilation had to be dumped on cost grounds – the Sumpters have enough energy efficient measures to both reduce their bills, and, with the solar pv, provide a small income of £800 a year.

The house has been wrapped – under, over and round – with high levels of Celotex insulation in the new part and cavity wall insulation in the existing structure, so much so that the new office room in the roof has only needed its plug-in radiator switched on four times in the past year. And while the desired self-darkening windows had to be rejected on cost grounds (“we’re not made of money,” says Michael, an IT consultant), they are very pleased with their double-glazed new windows from Velfac.

As with all large projects, the Sumpters had more than their fair share of builder troubles, and cannot understand why this section of British industry is so full of shoddy practice. “If I go to a garage and buy a car, even a second-hand one, I expect it will at least come with four wheels,” says Patricia. “Why is it that builders seem to think that the equivalent of a three-wheeled car is just something that we consumers have to put up with?” The Sumpters’ words of warning – and the experience of countless other householders who have upgraded the energy efficiency of their homes in recent years – must be taken into account by the Government as it now finalises its Green Deal plans, ready for their autumn launch. The idea behind the Green Deal is reasonable enough – that home owners take out loans to improve their homes’ energy efficiency and the loans are paid back with financial savings from lower fuel bills. But it simply won’t work unless builders’ skills and pride in their work improve drastically.

After a long series of agonies, suffice to say it was lucky that the window company’s agent lives in the next-door village and was able to force the builders to put their errors straight – and the house is now finished.

It’s a very fine swan indeed. “The living rooms to the rear of the house face south-west and are suffused with light, and it’s so warm we keep having to lower the thermostat settings,” says Patricia.

Outside, the uneven sawtooth roof gives the whole building a kind of flowing movement as if the narrow cedar boards are like rushes bending in the Fenland wind. A one-time duffer is certainly a duffer no more.

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