Wednesday, 27 October 2010

How to turn a small, cold, dark house into a SuperHome

As part of Energy Saving Week, Juliet Heller, the Ashden Awards Media and PR Manager, writes about moving to Essex and converting an Edwardian terraced house that had felt "small, cold and dark" into an officially-accredited SuperHome. The aim was to show how green an old house could be.

In this post, Juliet explains the range of issues addressed and the measures taken: from solar thermal gain, efficient wood burning stove, solar hot water and insulation to secondary heating and water use.

The post also explains what a SuperHome is, the benefits of a low-carbon home, and what more there still is to do.

The story so far
After many years in London, Ian Daglish and Juliet Heller, with their young son Callum, decided to go rural and adopt a low carbon lifestyle. In 2003 they moved into Tollesbury, a village on the Blackwater estuary in Essex. This vibrant working community which has a population of around 3,000 people has a history steeped in fishing and farming. Juliet writes:

At the heart of our relocation was a dream to buy a period house where we could implement sustainable design and technology on a low budget. A few years later we found the ideal property: a small terraced dwelling, exactly 100 years old, situated on a quiet, rural lane on the village edge, surrounded by fields and farm land.

The eco scheme
The house met our main criteria: it required a complete refurbishment and it had a South facing aspect.

Typically Edwardian, the main house has a square footprint with a two storey rear addition. The ground floor was divided into a living room, dining room and kitchen with a 60s extension at the rear to house a bathroom and toilet. It felt small, cold and dark, but that was soon to change dramatically.

The refurbishment project was managed by Ian, who's an experienced building contractor with an engineering background and longstanding interest in sustainability. Ian’s aim was to contradict a prevailing belief that older properties could not be “green” and demonstrate that they could be made super energy efficient - at an affordable price.

The scheme for the house involved re-designing the ground floor to make it completely open plan, and installing extensive glazing on the rear, to bring more light and warm sun into the house. It also included a loft conversion to accommodate a guest room and office.

The house was planned and equipped to be as energy efficient as possible, using insulation, renewable energy and smart environmental design. Within four months the refurbishment was complete and the three of us moved into an attractive, light and spacious new home.

Creating a ‘SuperHome’
We undertook a range of measures to reduce the carbon impact of the house:

Solar thermal gain: passive solar gain occurs when a house benefits from the internal heat generated by the low sun during winter months. The open plan design and installation of glazing on the South facing elevation heat the house through the natural power of the sun, at zero cost.

Efficient wood burning stove: the wood burning stove is integral to the scheme. The original chimney breast was widened to allow for a 10 kilowatt convection stove. With the open plan design, its heat radiates and warms the whole house, and the temperature can be regulated by opening or closing bedroom doors. Only seasoned, locally-sourced hardwoods are used.

Solar hot water: solar panels on the kitchen roof are South-facing and during April to October they provide at least 90% of the household’s hot water.

Insulation: insulation was installed during the loft conversion thus removing a large cold area within the house. Unusually for a property of its age, the house had cavity walls. Once this had been established, all four houses in the terrace were able to benefit from cavity wall insulation.

Electricity consumption: all domestic appliances are A-rated for energy efficiency and clothes are dried outside. The majority of the lights throughout the house are low energy, and less efficient overhead halogen lights are used as little as possible. We track the energy consumption with an OWL energy monitor, switching off lights and appliances when they are not needed.

Secondary heating: an oil condensing boiler (there is no gas in the village) was fitted for back up heating and hot water but is not required during summer months. At colder times of year the wood stove, passive solar gain and solar water heating heat the house and water.

Water: as 30% of domestic water consumption goes down the pan, a dual flush toilet was a must. The family opts for showers instead of baths as they consume a fraction of water. An unforeseen benefit was a sealed well in the back garden previously used to supply the terrace for domestic needs and is now used to water the plants.

What are the benefits of a low carbon home?
The house is warm and comfortable to live in, as well as bright and airy thanks to the building design and the harnessing of the natural heat of the sun. It also requires very little electricity, water and fuel, as the yearly bills confirm. With such low electricity and water use, the utility companies were initially regularly in contact to check whether the meters were accurate!

The combination of the wood burner acting as the household’s primary heat source, and the use of solar hot water, annual heating bills have been slashed by more than 75% compared with an equivalent house.

More to do
Next year we hope to install high-efficiency sash windows and a new sealed front door to further draught-proof the house.

Another aim is to replace all overhead halogen lighting in the living area and loft with efficient LED lights.

What is a “SuperHome”?
Having reduced its CO2 emissions by 62%, in 2009, the house achieved SuperHome status from the Sustainable Energy Academy and National Energy Foundation who together run the Old Home SuperHome Project, an alliance of exemplar low carbon homes across the UK.

Each SuperHome has been assessed for a range of energy efficiency criteria and found to have reduced its carbon footprint by over 60% compared to an equivalent home of its age and size. SuperHome owners hold regular open home days to encourage other home owners to take energy saving steps, helping the UK move towards its target to cut carbon emissions by 34% by 2020.

About us
Ian Daglish is a building consultant specialising in sustainable building refurbishments, with over 20 years’ experience as a building contractor. He has studied for an MSc in sustainable building from the Centre for Alternative Technology, the world’s leading centre for pioneering sustainable technologies.

Juliet Heller is a writer and communications consultant specialising in the environment and sustainable energy. See To arrange a visit or discuss ideas, email

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Big Congrats Jools & Ian on your lovely "Superhome" Thanks for inspiring and being an example that living "green" is not only achievable, but can be done so without having to compromise on comfort and warmth, we so take for granted.Its a win,win, situation; financially,environmentally,morally!