We have lived in our new eco-house for six years now and at time progress has been very slow – we are only just feeling like we have got it how we want it to be. But it has also been far more transformative that I had imagined, knowing where my water and electricity comes from and where my waste goes has made me far more conscious about how I use resources. There is still something wonderful about having a sun-heated bath, and rejoicing when it rains because it fills the rainwater harvester. We had long held a dream to build somewhere that not only reduced our environmental impact and facilitated a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle, but would also dramatically reduce our running costs and increase our resilience to climatic uncertainty.
Deciding to build an eco-house with my mother generated a surprisingly number of shocked responses from friends and family. They variously thought Maggie to be too old (she was only in her late 50’s) for such a challenge, and that she would cramp my life choices. Few understood how our skills, ideas and dreams complemented each other. Maggie had explored the idea of living in existing communities and we met with others interested in establishing new eco-co-housing schemes. But we realised we did not want to wait for the slowness of collaborative enterprises and that living together would provide enough challenges, and entail new ways of working together as it was.
We have taken a very pragmatic approach to the build. Inspired by the Centre for Alternative Technology and the Autonomous House we started with a utopian vision which was quickly scaled down. Our choices have been very much shaped by financial and practical limitations and a desire to complete the project so that we could get on with living the way we wanted to. We were determined to prove that older people and those with full-time jobs could still self-build and be eco. Although we had a sizeable budget it was also only slightly more than the average house price and we had no back-up plan.
This budget bought us a small (10th of an acre) triangle plot in rural Leicesterhire, near Melton Mowbray. By facing south the house makes the most of passive solar heating through large A rated timber-framed windows, with thick dense block walls (made from 100% recycled aggregate) creating a high thermal mass (with sheepswool insulation in the roof) and reducing noise and vibrations from the abutting railway line. We wanted to build a house that was cheap to run and simple to maintain, only using technology we could understand and if necessary learn how to fix. The house remains at around 17 C without heating, even in winter, though we do have a Clearview wood stove as a back-up. Our solar thermal evacuated tube arrays also work all year round, and when the sun is not shining we heat water either by the wood stove or an efficient electric immersion. Our rainwater harvester feeds the toilets (low-flush IFO CERA from the Green Building Store) and washing machine, and we have low-flow showers to reduce water use. Energy use is much reduced by an induction cooker, A+ appliances, low-energy lighting and the bright aspect reduces the need for lights to be on. A couple of years ago we also installed photovoltaic panels and now (averaged over the whole year) we generate roughly the same electricity as we use.
We tried, wherever possible, to source reclaimed, local, and untreated material. Our reclaimed pitch-pine floors came from an old Liverpool factory via the local salvage yard, our reclaimed-pine kitchen units and internals doors were made in Lincolnshire, our Douglas Fir deck has been left untreated, our jute and wool carpets were ordered from the local shop. We, of course, carried on using existing furniture, rescued some pieces from a tip, made some new pieces with help from my father, and added colour by painting tiles ourselves.
We developed some golden rules during the build: we would choose environmentally-friendly products over visual looks; we could not buy anything for the house without mutual agreement; we would worry more about cost than time taken to complete things; local suppliers and workforce were best; just because it was not the conventional way of doing things did not mean it would not work.
We struggled, at times, to communicate to others what we meant by eco: it took a while for my dad to understand reclaimed, native, or FSC wood and eco-varnish; the plumbers questioned what our washing would turn out like if we used rainwater; and the painters objected to using Osmo and ECOS paint. Early on we met plenty of patronising builders who advised us to ‘forget all that eco-stuff’ and raised eyebrows when they understood we were two women building a house. But with a highly supportive eco-architect (Andrew Yeats of EcoArc) and a knowledgeable project manager willing to engage with eco-ideas we eventually found suppliers and stockists of the things we needed. My partner, friends and family were invaluable in helping is complete the build – with seemingly endless shelving to put up, a woodshed to build, furniture to strip, and gardens paths to lay. Since moving in a local carpenter has agreed to drop off his off-cuts which we use to supplement our homemade newspaper logs and purchased logs for the wood stove, and a neighbour has offered us free seedlings for our garden. Our house has started all sorts of conversations and we have often invited in passers by who have stopped to ask us questions.
At times we have to remind ourselves why we made certain compromises (often due to a lack of money or plot space). Now the project is complete we have the confidence in our choices to wonder if we couldn’t have been bolder in some of our earlier decisions. Externally the house has a big visual impact on the landscape (ironically a result of the planning permission which stipulated that it replicate the look of the previous house demolished by Network Rail). We have tried to mitigate this impact by covering the lower external walls with red cedar cladding and choosing a dark slate-effect roof (using Ardesia recycled tyre roofing), but we could have been more radical in our design. We now have the confidence to follow our gut instincts and compromise less in our search for environmental solutions. We only hope that our house will inspire others to follow their dreams too.
A verion of this article first appeared in Permaculture Magazine