Sunday, 18 March 2012

The Passivhaus: a few reflections on reality

I started tweeting this week, albeit very cautiously; it's been quite odd to see who twitter recommends me following but maybe Ed Sheeran and Mrs Beckham are genuinely committed environmentalists with a lot to say on the subject, who knows? Anyway, I digress, we are periodically getting requests to see the house and it occurred to me that people might want to know more about it so I've set it up to tweet (who's the master now eh, house??). 

We're also coming to the end of Climate Week, just in case you haven't been deluged with green publicity, and I've had a couple of local school Eco Committees visiting which has involved me polishing my spiel and, in the process, reflecting on how the house works.

I first read about the Passivhaus concept in 2008 in the Guardian newspaper (where else?) but there's a world of difference between reading about innovative house design and living the reality of it. 

The first thing people say when they walk into the house (apart from the social niceties, of course, all our guests are well-schooled in etiquette) is "are you really enjoying the warmth?" and they are quite taken aback when we reply "not yet, we're not". On sunny days the house is very warm because the sun streams through the massive, triple-glazed, south-facing windows but, as I've said before, on grey days we're only as warm as the base temperature of the house and I was mildly entertained to note that when the last group of architectural visitors came round they put fleeces on after a while. The house is fantastically well insulated and we know from thermal imaging cameras and general observations in frosty weather that heat doesn't escape but we were warned by the builders and architect that we would need to put a lot of heat into the concrete structure in the first year and so we are. Overall the house is usually managing to maintain its temperature for several days before we need to boost the heating but if you want to sit comfortably in rooms on the ground floor you need to plug in an additional heater. Some of the architects who visit say we should have underfloor heating, or stoves on the ground floor to warm that floor up, or a timber structure not concrete and originally the glass porch was going to run the length of the south wall to add warmth. We should, perhaps, have the bedrooms on the ground floor and the living/working rooms on the top floor where it's warmer but that's not terribly practical so we're compromising by adding extra heat topically and hoping that the house temperature reaches an equilibrium soon.

What I've found interesting this week is that, for the first time, we've had several groups of visitors spaced out over a few days and that has actually impacted on the house's temperature. The Passivhaus design is intended to use not just the sunshine but the heat generated by lighting, white goods and people to heat the building but whilst I knew that in theory it was noticeable that all the visitors made the house warmer last week.  I find it a bit odd, if not sinister, that the house is taking people's heat energy and using it....isn't there something like that in Frank Herbert's Dune novels? Perhaps we ought to be regularly hosting large gatherings but having shared my space for a year with all the builders and subcontractors of Speller Metcalfe I feel I now need the occasional quiet day even if it does mean spending more on the electrics.

This house is very much an organic entity. Perhaps if you're an architect or builder or engineer you consider the form and workings of your house all the time but I've really only looked on ones we've lived in as four walls and a roof and not considered the building itself at all unless we've needed to do DIY on it. Now we're always taking the workings of the house into consideration and even though it's airtight and insulated we've also become acutely conscious of the external environment and whether or not the sun is shining or if it's raining because that has such an enormous effect on how the house functions. It's not so much a house, more like a quirky member of the family really but, although this has taken a bit of mental adjustment, at least we're not bored!

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

What a difference a year makes

I took this photo from the corner of the site almost a year ago today. We were five weeks into the build at that point and the tree surgeons had just taken down the massive cypress tree in the south west corner (you can see the remains in the foreground). At the time I was imagining what the site would eventually look like and here it is a year later:
Last week I took delivery of the trees for the site. I wanted to have as many native species as possible and I found an excellent nursery online at We used to drive past them when we lived in Cambridgeshire so I knew they produced good stuff and I was able to plant the trees within a couple of days of them being dug up at the other end.

Here's what they looked like when they arrived (note the sensitive way the courier treated the parcels, fortunately no trees were harmed during the taking of this picture). Unwrapping the boxes was a bit Laurel and Hardy as it was just me and a Stanley knife and the boxes were rather long and top-heavy but I got the hang of it. I had a lovely day planting them all in the sunshine to the accompaniment of the wonderful 6 Music on my headphones and apart from nearly falling in the pond with a tree whilst laughing at the antics of Radcliffe and Maconie things went remarkably well.

Spaced around the garden I now have two wild cherry trees, a Worcester Pearmain apple tree, a local damson (the Shropshire Prune, a name that never fails to make me smile), a crab apple, a mulberry, a hawthorn tree, a rowan tree and a hazel. Lots of folklore to play with there and they support plenty of insect species.

Out of sheer indulgence I also put in the beautiful White Stem Birch Tree (Betula 'Jacquemontii') next to the silver rehau inlet pipe. It's not much to speak of yet, as it's thinner than the cane it's tied to, but I thought it will complement the silver pipe nicely when its grows a bit.

So we are poised to enter the growing season now, all I need is the fencing to enclose the garden and the grass to get greener and it will start to feel more like home.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

A First!

Someone told us a while back that they'd be interested to see how living in an eco house works in practice for a 'normal' family. By that I think they meant a family that is up for a bit of green pioneering but not wanting to go all tofu and unwashed about it. One of my children wryly remarked that they do find themselves wracked with Green Guilt rather than the Catholic [insert preferred religion] variety when it comes to discarding packaging or whatever and we did do the usual stuff like recycling everything possible, not having devices on standby etc etc before moving here. Having said that, though, we are not really dark green and, whilst I do try to buy the greenest versions I can afford, we do have things like DAB radios, laptops on constantly and the other features of 21st century living and this house is used for work for about 16 hours a day. It is therefore with great delight that I can tell you that today we actually generated more electricity than we used for the first time. Am I allowed a moment of green smugness? Nope, just relief because, deep down I genuinely doubted if the PV would be up to it.... mea culpa.

And for those of you interested in the architectural features here's a photo of the porch from inside the house. The external door may still be closing with string (the perils of having to get products from Germany) but I've started opening the internal door in this sunny weather. The porch gets pretty hot so I've been opening the door to disperse the warmth through the house and this has, of course, reduced the need to boost the heating.

I would think come the summer we will be having to think again about having plants in the porch but at the moment it's proving a very efficient way of getting seeds germinating and I have actually got cyclamen thriving for the first time in my horticultural life.

Isn't it lovely when things work?!

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Good news

Three bits of good news from the eco frontier this week. Last weekend and one day this week we generated as much electricity as we used - hurray! I must admit to doubting if this would ever happen over the winter months when we've been cold and yet still the meter's been spinning round but it does begin to look like the technology works - phew!

Last February, right at the beginning of the build, this pond was one of the first things to go. I'm not sure how old it was but it had become an eyesore and its proximity to the street meant that it acted more like a wet rubbish bin than a wildlife habitat so I didn't make much effort to save it. The Code for Sustainable Homes states that: "House building need not reduce the ecological value of the site; it may enhance it in many cases. There will always be some temporary disturbance to the local ecology, but wildlife will return once construction is complete, providing an appropriate habitat is provided".

With that in mind the builders dug this hole in the back garden before they left and put in a butyl liner and I've gradually begun to create a new pond. This is what it's looking like at the moment and I've just planted it up with some plants from I've gone for all native plants so I will post another picture later in the season when the pond is looking prettier. I've never created a wildlife pond from scratch before and hunted round for advice on how to edge it but opinion is divided on what and how. Eventually, working on the premise that a messy garden equals an eco-friendly garden I decided to edge it with plants and grass.

The large pebbles that create small beaches at the sides have come from the garden itself; when the trenches were dug last year we collected all the stones that came up with the sand so it's our little tribute to the power of glaciation. They should form sunbathing spots for visitors to/inhabitants of the pond. In the spirit of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle I've used a left-over paver to form a small bench and rested it on two logs from the leyland cypress that was cut down this time last year. Some of the rest of the tree can be seen in the wheelbarrow at the back of the pond, where it's waiting to form a log pile in a quiet corner of the garden, once the fence is installed.

Also to the left of the pond is my version of a bug hotel. I was reading a gardening magazine this week where they had a very pretty hibernaculum for the price of a couple of trees and it struck me as a bit Marie Antoinette to spend a load of money on something that's supposed to be rustic. I created mine with a bee log I already had, an old basket, a log tunnel belonging to our late guinea pig and some hessian the builders left on site. I know you can create grandiose ones with pallets but I didn't really want something so dominant and if the local insects turn their probosces up at my efforts well, that's their loss.

And the third and final bit of good news? Despite the very best efforts of the local Columbae palumbae the grass seed I've put down is just beginning to germinate, if you zoom in on the top picture you can see a faint green tinge as proof. I can't say I'm going to miss the plain of stones and mud that I've got at the moment.