The beginners guide to… creating a low carbon home

| 24th April 2012
The beginners guide to… creating a low carbon home
From reducing energy consumption to a full-scale retrofit, Ruth Styles explains how to make your low carbon dream a reality

With the Green Deal due to launch in the Autumn and public outcry at rising energy costs, retrofit is big news – and big business. The concept is simple: improve your home’s energy efficiency and you’ll save on your bills, save carbon, and enjoy a warmer home. But undertaking a retrofit project can be anything but simple. Where do you begin? And how do you make the best decisions for your home and your lifestyle? Help is at hand with our guide to getting started.

‘Making our housing stock more energy efficient is critical to meeting the UK’s carbon emissions targets,’ says Anna Laycock, Research Manager at Ecology Building Society, which provides mortgages for retrofit projects. ‘But the time, effort and cost involved means that few people will do it purely for altruistic reasons. The benefits to homeowners are clear: you pay less for your heating and your home is more comfortable and cosy to live in.’ Whether you’re inspired to do your bit for the planet or keen to see your bills reduce, it’s vital to be clear on your overall goals for a retrofit project. ‘Be specific about what you want to achieve,’ advises Chris Newman, Commercial Director at low energy refurbishment experts, Parity Projects. ‘Do you want a 65 per cent reduction in carbon emissions or an energy bill free house? Are you guided by a fixed budget? Or are seeking to use only natural materials? Establish your priorities at the start, as these will influence your decisions along the way.’

Choosing the right people for the job is essential. Do they understand your goals and do they have the right skills? ‘Although cost is always important, don’t let it be your sole guide for choosing your team,' says Newman. 'It’s important to make sure that your architect, contractors and project managers are up to the job and critical that you get on well with them. If you’ve got the skills to carry out some of the work or management yourself then that’s great, but don’t underestimate the amount of time it will take. If you do go down this route, try to carve out discrete works for yourself and make sure that the boundaries of where your contractor should finish and you start are clear.’ ‘Lots of our borrowers are heavily involved in their building projects,’ adds Laycock. ‘Renovating an old family home or a leaky Victorian terrace can become a labour of love but it's well worth consulting a skilled professional with experience in retrofit.’ Get the advice you need on your retrofit from organisations such as AECB (the sustainable building association), the Energy Saving Trust, the Centre for Alternative Technology or Parity Projects.

What to do… or not to do
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to retrofit measures. ‘Every situation is different – from the structure of your home to the details of how you live your life – and these differences can change what are the best options for your home radically,’ says Newman. ‘Consider not just the fabric of the property but the various systems you have installed, your lighting, your appliances and even how you propose to use your house. Are you out from nine until six, or are you in the study most days? The list of options for your house is endless and it's often a good idea to have an independent assessment carried out, to help you choose and differentiate the fact from sales speak.’

But according to Newman, there are some common things that would benefit almost every home. ‘Leaving aside the well known – loft insulation, energy saving bulbs, high efficiency boilers and doors with draught gaps you can drive a bus through – there are a few less obvious things that generally are a good idea. There's no point heating areas of your house, or your whole house, when you don’t need to. Good programmable and zoned heating controls can help in this regard. Extractor fans can have closable louvres installed, chimneys can be blocked with removable balloons and floorboards sealed with wood glue or a range of specialist products. Crawl spaces to the sides of room in roofs are often lacking insulation on the timber stud walls and floors, which can be cheaply insulated with sheepswool or mineral wool. Low flow showerheads can cut your hot water bills by a huge amount.' If your walls are old and solid, they're likely to be the biggest contributor to heat loss, high bills and a cold house. Although not a quick or easy win, internal or external wall insulation could make a huge difference, and if carried out as part of a larger renovation the additional costs can be fairly low.

Money matters
Whether saving money is your main aim or not, you need to work out the costs and payback period for the retrofit measures you choose. Some quick wins may recoup their costs relatively quickly but other measures can take 10 or more years to break even. Don’t forget to think about the full cost of installation, such as skips, moving your gas meter, and alternative accommodation if you’re planning a full-scale makeover. ‘Quotes can often creep (and always upwards) so make sure you get a detailed itemised quote in writing before you engage anyone,’ adds Newman. ‘Ask lots of questions, preferably in writing, to clarify what's included and what extras you need to be prepared for. Once the project starts keep a keen eye on actual costs against budget and make sure you have some contingency set aside for delays and increases.’ If you want to finance the costs through the government’s Green Deal scheme, you’ll need an independent assessment from a qualified person. ’Your assessor will recommend a package of measures for your home that can be financed by a Green Deal provider,’ explains Laycock. ‘You’ll repay this loan through your energy bills, although there’s no official guarantee that these bills will be lower than in the past. If you move house,’ she continues, ‘the repayments will be transferred to the new occupant, so you won’t be paying for something you don’t benefit from – but we’re yet to see how this will affect the marketability of your home.’

And the Green Deal isn’t your only option. ‘Your mortgage provider may allow you to increase your borrowing to fund the works,' adds Laycock. 'Ecology actually incentivises retrofit by offering a discount on our interest rates if your Energy Performance Certificate rating improves, and we hope other lenders will play their part in encouraging energy efficiency.’ Your retrofit project may also benefit from energy efficiency subsidies. The CERT scheme, which runs until December 2012, obliges energy suppliers to save carbon by insulating our homes, particularly for people on lower incomes. When the Green Deal launches, the new Energy Company Obligation will combine subsidies with Green Deal finance, which will help support people who want to install measures such as solid wall insulation.

Powering through problems
As with any home renovation project, be prepared for challenges along the way. ‘You will have to make changes and compromises both with your design and your budget. Where possible have back up options, but don’t get too upset if designs change a little,’ says Newman.

What next?
You’ve made it – what was once a leaky, draughty house is now a fine example of energy efficiency. But this isn’t the end of the story: now’s the time to start monitoring your energy savings. ‘It’s well known that energy efficiency improvements can lead to a rebound effect,’ says Laycock. ‘Because you’re saving energy, it can feel like a green light to use more. You might turn up the thermostat or leave your appliances on standby. Keeping tabs on your energy consumption can help to avoid this, by helping to ensure your behaviour doesn’t counteract all your good work.’ If you’re proud of your achievements, why not share them? ‘Seeing a retrofitted house in action can be a real inspiration for other homeowners,’ adds Laycock. ‘As well as local eco open house schemes, the national SuperHomes network organises open weekends and online house tours. If you’ve successfully reduced your energy consumption, it’s a great way to help others learn from your experiences.’


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