making environmental improvements to an old house

Environmental improvements to an old house

Our house is not a model 'green home' but an old house we bought and refurbished before we moved in. Most people in the UK buy an existing home - the opportunities for new build are very few and the refurbishment of older homes offers huge potential to reduce the environmental impact of homes and lifestyles across the country.
** 2010 update **

In summer of 2009 we had our old windows on the south side of the house replaced with Ecoplus from Green Building Store (Argon filled, FSC wood, triple glazed). These replaced plastic and steel frames and old double glazing.

In the autumn 2009 we had external cladding of 'Diffutherm' from Natural Building Technologies added to the remaining (south, east and west) walls of our house. A similar product was used on the north side in 2005. This brings the old thin brick and pebble-chalk-flint walls up to about the same insultaion standard as a modern new build in the UK. The house is noticeably warmer with walls formerly cold to touch in winter, now warm.

For a case study where reduced energy (gas) use was actually measured see

This brings an old wall up to about the standard required in the UK for new build Diffutherm is available in the UK from Natural Building Technologies at

Ours was put up by Pat Weston at Norfolk Property Maintenance: (accredited to NBT).

See this powerpoint for images

In 2009 we also joined the Good Energy 'HotRocs' scheme (see - if you have grid connected gassupplies in the UK and you buy your electricity/gas from Good Energy (100% renewable electricity) and you have solar thermal panels, under this pioneering scheme you get paid for the hot water produced. The logic is that the solar heated water displaces carbon otherwise emitted by burning gas. We also plugged in our 'Wattson' energy meter - with a noticeable effect on our children's readiness to switch off lights and electrical appliances (
We live in Wells Next The Sea in North Norfolk. The house is probably nineteenth and twentieth century, with two floors, a pantile roof, and brick walls (rebricked in the 1960s), made of three very small terraced cottages, knocked together. The changes we have made are the sort of improvements that are feasible, practical and affordable to quite a lot of people, especially if in the context of borrowing larger sums of money to simply buy the property. We have made the changes because as campaigners we feel we should 'put our money where our mouth is', and because it makes the home nicer to live (and work) in - physically and psychologically.

We would welcome feedback from others and have posted this information on the internet in case it helps others to make decisions and locate suppliers for 'greener' materials and services, which can become a time-consuming problem. A directory of suppliers compiled from our research can be seen here.

Recently we won second prize in the North Norfolk District Council's 'green buildings' awards ( but we do not want to become an exhibition - rather to encourage others to do the same.

click the pictures to make them larger


We would happily recommend our builders - Creative Construction, based in Cromer - as environmentally aware, good craftsmen and very clean, quick and careful.

Dave Garramone or Peter Oldfield
Creative Construction, 3 WestCliffe Ave, Cromer, Norfolk, NR27 9BA
Phone: 01263 519255
Fax: 01263 510968.

Please contact us at with any other testimonials for builders, or other information on 'greening' an older home, to add to this site.

Paints and fittings

We had the walls replastered (the plasterboard involved was made with gypsum from FGD - ie flue gas desuplhurisation at power stations, removing SO2 to stop acid rain) and repainted. The paints are all 'organic', and mostly the Ecotec (link) range - purchased from:

The Green Shop of Stroud
01452 770272.

Varnishes and glues came from the German Auro Paints range, obtained from:

Auro Natural Paints
Unit 2 Pamphillions Farm
Purton End
Debden Saffron Walden
CB11 3JT
01799 543 077
fax 01799 542 187

All these products decay with no persistent toxic residues in the environment and are mostly water soluble with low or negligible VOCs (volatile organic compounds - substances that help produce ozone (in 'photochemical smog') in the lower atmosphere which harms plants, eyes and lungs).

The lemon-scented paints were particularly popular with our builders who commented "these are great - we don't get a headache from the fumes". The yellow required more coats than the manufacturers suggested but red and purple needed less. The colours are intense.

The worktops and floors (birch laminate) are from IKEA, which has generally excellent sourcing policies developed in conjunction with the Greenpeace forest campaign among others. The worktops are blockwood 'Pronomen' beech/birch which needs to be treated with Auro's pleasant-smelling 'Clear Natural Resin Oil-Wax Finish Number 129' varnish once a week.

We bought a dishwasher - a Fisher and Paykel two-drawer system ('Dish Drawer') from New Zealand (DD603), allowing less water and energy to be used if the whole capacity is not needed. UK - 01962 626700

For cooking we bought a gas oven (avoiding electric cooking which is very energy intensive, as mains gas is available where we live) - a Leisure Rangemaster Zenith 55.

We have one open fire and one refurbished old French cooking stove - both of can supply some heat but are mainly there because we like them. We use wood cut from a local estate. The main house heating system is a gas boiler that was there when we arrived, and the radiators all have separate temperature controls. 'New' shelves were made from old builders planks planed down, and bookshelves from builders planks and an old wooden ladder. The kitchen table frame and legs are from driftwood.

Our fridge is a Bosch 'greenfreeze' type (KDL 195-), using hydrocarbons rather than HFCs, which are potent greenhouse gases. Our freezer is a hydrocarbon Bosch GSL. Other suppliers of such fridges include Iceland, with their (cheaper) Kyoto range. Ask a supplier if the fridge re freezer uses hydrocarbons (eg isobutane R-600a) or HFCs (usually HFC 134a) - don't buy one with HFCs. Ours also has a top energy rating.

Cleaning materials

We use cleaning materials, washing liquid, and dishwasher liquid from:
01892 616871
Natural Eco Trading Ltd
PO Box 115
Tunbridge Wells, Kent

These are non toxic, mostly citrus based and usually more effective than 'conventional' synthetic products. We use Ecover floor cleaner.


Our lights are recessed high frequency halogen spots and energy efficient bulbs throughout the house.

The largest single expense we incurred was to replace PVC ducting with steel ducting when we had the house rewired. This would not be worth doing unless you were going to have the wiring changed anyway. PVC is an appalling environmental problem - in its production and disposal it creates furans, dioxins and other toxic pollutants, especially if burnt. (See under 'toxics' campaign) Anything 'vinyl' has PVC in it, or is PVC. The steel ducting added several thousand pounds to the cost because of the channelling into walls that was required. Steel ducting in new walls would be much cheaper.

The wiring itself is 'non halogen' or 'halogen free'. Ask for that and electrical firms will know what you want. (Chlorine is the C in PVC and that is a 'halogen'). Such cabling costs about the same as PVC and is available because PVC is dangerous in fires - as was shown in the Kings Cross fire - where it produces hydrochloric acid. Greenpeace have a useful online 'PVC-free' database at (also look under >campaigns>toxics>polyvinylchlorine for more general information on alternatives).


In the loft we added a thick layer (about 6 inches) of cellulose 'Warmcel' insulation above the ceilings, and rolls of Thermafleece made from herdwick wool, in the ceilings of the loft (between the rafters) and over the 'cathedral-ed' rooms upstairs where we had removed existing ceilings. Herdwick wool has been in surplus and is marketed by the National Trust and others as a way to boost farm incomes in the Lake District, where the Herdwick is an ancient breed with a unique attachment to the fells it is born on.

Developed by Leeds University and a Cumbrian farmer,, 'Thermafleece' can be used in place of sheets or rolls of rockwool or foam blown from petrochemical products - presumably it will have a low embedded fossil energy as it is grown from sunlight via grass and sheep, hopefully not on intensive pasture. Ours came from natural building suppliers Earth and Reed (01449 722255) contact

Technical information on this and 'woolbloc' is at Natural Building Technologies Ltd. Cholsey Grange, Ibstone, High Wycombe, Bucks. HP14 3XT Tel: +44(0)1491 638911 Fax: +44(0)1491 638630 e-mail: This site has a very large store of information on 'greener' building materials - paint, varnishes, insulation, structural materials, citrus thinners etc.


Timber for cupboards, floorboards, new rafters and shelves came from B & Q and a local supplier which claimed to have fully certified timber (but we are doubtful about some if it). In our view the only reliable certification is FSC Forest Stewardship Council (, and the easiest source of supply for that is B & Q whose sourcing and custody chain work is good (but whose store staff often don't know anything about FSC - look for the labels yourself, and ask). B & Q also stock quite a lot of other 'alternatives' eg natural rubber in place of PVC for draft excluders. FSC is developed in close cooperation with WWF.

We are currently working on a 'green' garden shed being designed by John Wyatt of Wyatt and Wyatt ( ). John says that anyone looking for FSC timber should persist, and not believe timber retailers and yards who may tell you that while it is ok/ suitable for joinery and other low volume non-structural work, it is unavailable for carcassing with structural timbers for buildings, etc..

"This is a myth" says Wyatt. "They may claim that it's too fast grown with open rings and isn't strong enough but in fact they've just not 'graded' it, and a structural engineer could do stress test it. In reality there's nothing to stop anyone making a whole building from FSC timber, and it is cost competitive with uncertified timber, especially if you buy in volume". Wyatt cites Bristol suppliers Clarks Woods, who even have a Brazilian sourced FSC plywood. (See Clarks Wood Company Ltd Silverthorne Lane, Bristol, BS2 0QJ. Tel: +44 (0) 117 971 6316 Fax: +44 (0) 117 972 3119 )

John Wyatt adds "Don't be put off by the claims of timber merchants that all certification systems are the same - it's baloney and a deliberate ploy to confuse. Only accept FSC".

FSC has a UK website with a listing of 21 categories of wood or timber building certified materials and over forty companies (as of 2001) (see below). It also links to where an international database allows searching eg for 'retailers' under 'Europe' and as of July 2002 listed three UK retailers (see below) and 26 UK wholesalers. The

Heating & Electricity

Our rooftop solar electricity (pv photovoltaic panels) came from Solar Energy Alliance of Lowestoft ( 015025 15532, contact Chris Goodings. They worked with Natural Energy Systems of Norwich (contact Alan Parsons, 01603 661863 fax 01603 618145, who installed a rooftop hot water 'Thermomax' solar hot water system using 30 evacuated heat-pipe tubes heating a 270 litre (60 gallon) twin civil solar hot water cylinder. This an 'active' system involving a heat exchanger to move the heat from the panel into the hot water system. The water heating system had performed brilliantly and provides hot water for bathing, washing-up etc. In sunny weather and with longer days it produces enough hot water for four of us for free, without any additional use of gas. In cloudier and darker conditions it still heats the water well above ambient temperatures - so significantly reducing the amount of gas we need to use. On New Years Day our hot water system reached 34°C on our roof, while still covered in icicles. In June it reached over 70°C and on the day of writing it raised the tank to 63°C.

(Our hot water system was upgraded with a larger pressurised hot water tank, a fully pumped instead of gravity system. There are many other types of solar thermal water-heating systems - contact installers to see what is available and suitable for your home. One is solar twin

One word of warning - there are various post-code selling schemes which offer you a 'special' opportunity to buy a 'discounted' panel or installation. We can't give definitive advice but be wary of these - the prices may not be much lower when a higher starting point is taken into account, and the low cost may be achieved by very quick installations. Horror stories include people with two hot water taps where there was previously one cold and one hot, and water pouring through ceilings. Our advice: use a local supplier who will be around to fix any problems, and/or take up references.

The electrical pv system (photo-voltaic) which converts sunlight to electrical energy has been more problematic - mainly due to our electricity supply company TXU, rather than the installers. We have a grid-connected system which exports solar power to the grid while we buy in power from the grid, and a 'two way' import/export meter with a SMA 700 sunny Boy inverter (we get a cheque from the electricity company - we are a power station !). This avoids setting up a dc direct-current system with a bank of batteries and other extra equipment. On the other hand it does nothing for your energy self-sufficiency. Ours is has six Unisolar US-64 panels producing 384 watts (maximum) - ie enough for about 38 energy efficient lightbulbs.

Anyone considering such a system, - which we still recommend on environmental grounds, contributing to a renewable Britain- should contact the Energy Savings Trust to look into the grants now available under the photo-voltaic major demonstration programme (which did not exist when we bought our system and now applies to households, businesses, and other organisations). Contact EST at (or or email Another well-established solar firm is Jeremy Leggett's Solar Century

Our solar electric panels are the type which best performs in lower-light conditions. Other types perform better than them in very bright light but cut out more quickly as light reduces (hence are less suitable in the uk). The panels are not affected by cold (in fact they are more efficient then) and do not need 'sunshine' - they still work on cloudy days.

Our reasons for 'going solar' are environmental. We spent the sort of money on a solar system that others might devote to a new car, or a few expensive holidays. We see it as an issue of priorities rather than economics. In terms of 'payback' (a question almost nobody asks about cars), putting in insulation, selecting efficient appliances (eg a good high-rated fridge rather than the cheapest one), and solar thermal (hot water) will have a big impact and save you money faster than solar pv will. Turning off unwanted appliances (eg tvs on standby costs 'nothing' and is most 'cost effective' of all). But prices for pv will only come down much faster if more people use it. Putting it on your roof helps make people think about energy in a different way. In future we'd like to have an electric car and a solar car port to charge it up - but we can't afford that.

Under the government solar grant scheme home owners can apply for grants of up to 50% of total installation costs, Housing Associations and public authorities can apply for grants of up to 65%, and commercial organisations up to 40% of total installation costs.

Buying your electricity from renewable sources - there are many schemes compared at the EST website (which is very hard to navigate - look for 'accreditation' under 'future energy' and 'working with us'), is another major contribution you can make to reducing the environmental impact of your lifestyle/home and changing the future of Britain's energy supply (list posted here at directory). If we had room in the garden we'd put up a wind turbine - highly cost effective and there's lots of unused wind out there!

Sept 2004 Update

This year we added a couple of things. We belatedly discovered that part of the house has cavity walls and we got those filled with 'white wool' (mineral fibre), with part of the cost met by a grant. To find local installers visit

We also switched from our old electricity supplier to Good Energy (formerly Unit[e]) who have been very helpful - and buy the output from our solar pv panels. Good Energy is the only UK supplier that supplies only 100% renewable products and it actively encourages micro-generation. Good Energy is also the only 'green' electricity seller which won't sell on the renewable 'certificates' that it gets from you purchasing renewables, in the electricity system - consequently it's the only one to use if you actually want your purchase to create more renewables generation. 0845 456 1640

For an evaluation of electricity companies see

Lastly we got a new gas boiler: a Celsius 24 Keston Condensing Gas Boiler, when our old one finally gave out. This is supposed to use 30 - 40% less gas. Rated 7 - 25kw the only thing we don't like about it is the pvc flue pipe -- according to Keston it is unavoidable as PVC is the only plastic (seems hard to believe) which will resist the high temperature that will result if the boiler malfunctions. In normal use it is so efficient that you can comfortably put your hand on the exhaust flue. (We had hoped to fit a wood burning back boiler and connect this also to underfloor heating in a proposed extension and to our solar thermal system but that would have involved getting rid of our relatively new copper tank and a lot of incredibly complex plumbing, and might still not have worked, so we replaced the gas boiler to run the central heating only more efficiently. We now plan to add two small woodburners for space heating to cut the need for gas. Our wood comes from local estates and woods.)

(Note - this applies to the UK specifically but some of the links are international and the principles may be useful elsewhere. In general the UK is much less advanced than for example Germany or Sweden in these respects).

Dec 2005 Update

We've kind of finished our house now. For the time being. We've built a conservatory, balcony/deck and extension, and insulated the exterior of the north-facing wall. (We couldn't afford to go all the way round the house).

We used the builders Creative Construction (David Garramone - 07776 178979), who put up Thermowall 040/045. This is available from Construction Resources -

ThermoWall 040 and 045 boards are rigid insulation boards. They are manufactured from the by-products of sawmills in southern Germany. The softwood chippings are pulped and soaked in water, then mechanically pressed into boards, dried, and cut to shape. Boards thicker than 20mm are made up of 20mm thick laminations. ThermoWall boards are usually sold together with a mineral-based render system. Ours was blue - it has to go up in dry weather but apart from that, there didn't seem to be any problems, once the builders figured out the instructions in German .... There are seven layers to the product.

view from our office window residents on the deck grasses on shed roof crested dogs tail on shed roof conservatory from Green Building Store
sedum on shed roof vipers bugloss on shed roof cornflower, corn marigold and grasses on shed roof adding blue final render to the externally insulated walls fixing the external insulation - requires several layers
click small pictures to see big pictures
The conservatory has electric (renewable) under floor heating and comes from the Green Building Store (, factory built to order. Apart from relatively long lead times and delays caused by having to replace a broken window unit, it seems fine and is much admired. It has FSC wood, non toxic wood treatment etc and very efficient window insulation. The Iplus S glazing system, incorporates a patented low-E coating and inert gas fill. The manufacturers say "With U values starting at 1.2 w/m2k, superior light transmission and optical clarity, Iplus S puts Ecoplus System at the leading edge of thermally efficient design" (better than Pilkington-k).

We've added a couple of rainwater butts and our shed 'green' roof is accumulating species of flowering plants, fungi, lichens and mosses. We've also removed a lot of ground floor radiators and replaced our old gas boiler with a Keston 'Celsius 25' condensing gas boiler [], and put in two wood burners. This seems to have halved our gas consumption (unless we get visitors who run away all the hot water ...).

Most of the year our solar thermal system seems to provide the majority of our hot water needs. We considered a wood fired back boiler but it would have been too complicated to organise in our old home.

Aug 2006 Update

Energy Efficient Appliances

Since we started refurbishing our house there has been a veritable explosion of websites and advice systems for 'green' building and appliances. If I was starting again I'd use as my main source for looking at things like washing machines, faxes, computers, lighting, even cars - all rated on energy-use and CO2 emissions. (in various languages but not yet English). Follow the links to the different national sites to see the whole range of rated products. For lighting I'd try to investigate LEDs rather than halogen spots - in retrospect I think we made a mistake in using those.

For computers you can also look at the Greenpeace 'toxic tech' website to assess them on company performance in terms of removing toxic components such as PVC, heavy metals and brominated flame retardants - see