Soon after I decided to leave mainstream politics – I was the deputy chair of the Liberal Democrat Party – and concentrate on becoming an eco-auditor and writer, I looked around my home and realised that, like many a politician's property, it had suffered from years of neglect and now badly needed repairing and redecorating. Knowing that more than 72 million tons of waste is produced each year by the UK construction industry and that huge resources and CO2 emissions are involved in producing new building materials, I resolved that the refurbishment should be as eco-friendly as possible. I would avoid new products and, where I had to buy new ones, would opt for those with good environmental credentials.
The interesting thing, in view of the current silly debate on whether we can afford to go green with the economy in turbulence, is that without my realising it, going green saved me a huge amount of money. If I had gone down the usual route of buying the various items new and non-eco, the materials would have cost just under £7,500, whereas buying the reused or eco-versions cost only about £1,400. The only extra costs from going eco were the £100 premium that using organic paints cost, £20 extra to use architectural-rescue window handles instead of new ones and about £400 in extra labour costs due to additional time in preparing and installing reused materials instead of new ones. I also had to pay a couple of hundred pounds in van hire to fetch some of the reused materials.
My back-of-an-envelope calculation estimates that deciding to go down the eco-route saved me a whopping £6,100.
One key thing I have found is that you have to have eco-sympathetic tradespeople. If I did not really get into the detail with them, they would be down at the local superstore buying horrible new versions of products before I could stop them. The results, not only in monetary terms, have also been really positive. A recent visitor complained that while I was always going on about how my "3 Acorns Retro-Eco House" is carbon negative, I had not told people how beautiful it was. Another visitor, who is an architect, said I had invented a new style, "warm minimalism". I love the results and feel that the reused materials really add to the sense of warmth and nourishment that I love about my old two-up two-down early 1840s inner-London home.
So here's how I fitted it out.
Windows & Curtains
I needed to tackle the flimsy cheap curtains that I had brought with me from various previous homes. There was also a set of horrible floral curtains that I had inherited from the previous owners and which I had vowed to replace the moment I moved in, but which were still there 13 years later. I had long wanted to replace them with luxury red velvet curtains, so I finally dived into eBay, simply typed in "luxury red velvet curtains" and up popped a long list. I chanced on an incredible offer from someone who, inexplicably, was removing almost brand-new curtains from a large manor house. And so, when they arrived I was able to simply drape them over the curtain rail, giving me four layers of cloth which now keep the living room cosy in winter. They were worth about £1,500 new, but I managed to get them for £200.
I similarly replaced the tacky bedroom curtains with red velvet ones from eBay for about £60. The blind hanging over the door into the garden from the dining room was a grubby obscenity that I had been long ignoring. Having come across The Curtain Exchange shops (www.thecur tainexchange.co.uk) that sell reused luxury curtains, I thought I would give them a try, as there is one close to me in Dulwich. There I found a wonderful full-length fawn set of luxury curtains, which I got double-lined to keep even more heat in. They cost £300 including the new lining and alterations, whereas a new set would have been about £1,000.
Embarrassingly for someone who advises on energy efficiency, I found a large gap in the door when we removed the former drapes, which I duly got my carpenter to repair.
As well as sorting out the curtains, I decided as part of the project to redo the kitchen to try out retro-fitting of double-glazed units to the existing window frames. I ordered the units over the phone and my handyman fitted them. They do not look quite as good as new windows, but they were about an eighth of the cost, and they help to save heat as well as preserving the existing wooden frames. I also got a lovely pair of original Victorian ornate window handles for refurbishing the bedroom window from Lassco in Vauxhall for £30. The website www.salvo.co.uk will tell you where to find your nearest architectural salvage store.
Furniture & Fittings
There really is almost no need to buy new furniture in the UK. There is an abundance of reused and antique furniture available almost everywhere. Avoiding new furniture means you do not have to worry about whether the wood has come from virgin rainforests or not. The settee had long become dilapidated and so I was delighted when the lodger's aunt announced she was getting rid of her very good living room suite – which I got for the price of a day's van hire. All I had to do was to find some throwovers that matched the living room colours and the pieces fitted in well.
Two of the mirrors came from some dressing-tables that were being thrown out, while the Art Deco chairs for the dining-room suite were a great find at Greenwich Market, costing only £50 each. The new armchair in the bedroom came from a local secondhand furniture store. I stocked up my Denby Baroque crockery set by logging on to eBay and successfully bidding for a whole range of secondhand pieces.
New lamps that fitted in with the old style of the house were picked up in a curiosity shop in Islington and from the Crusaid charity shop in Pimlico for a song. As cotton is responsible for more than 25 per cent of pesticide used globally every year, reducing the large amount of cloth needed for the curtains helped me to avoid becoming responsible for even more. I likewise avoided new cotton by buying lovely luxurious soft new bamboo fibre towels for the bathroom from www.natural collection.com
One thing I did not need to do was to renew the carpet in the front room, which was replaced when I moved into the house, but I am proud that even then I chose an underlay from John Lewis that was made from 100 per cent recycled consumer waste, did not cost more than the regular alternative and is still great 16 years later.
However, the carpet tiles in the kitchen were "disgusting", according to my more blunt friends and needed replacing. It just so happened that my handyman's neighbour was replacing his kitchen wood flooring and it is now gracing my kitchen floor. The bathroom and reception lobby were covered by thin, depressing tiles without insulation. I decided this time to try out the www.freecycle.org website, which helps people to get rid of unwanted items for free, and was delighted to have someone who lived in nearby Kennington reply to my posted request looking for flooring, saying that he had a large amount of flooring in his garage which was I was welcome to have. Three weeks later, it was installed over wood-fibre insulation made from FSC certified wood (Forest Stewardship Council – www.fsc.org). The bedroom had already been done years ago with recycled solid oak flooring left over from the refurbishment of a house in Hampshire.
To be frank, by the time I got around to putting the house back in order, the bathroom was a disaster area. Both the roof and the water-tank, which, bizarrely, had been inaccessibly locked into the bathroom ceiling, had been leaking for some time and so the plasterwork was a mess. In addition, there was only a plastic-tube shower attached to the bath's taps. The handyman went about ripping off the roof and replacing the timbers and plaster. He rescued as much of the existing joists as he could and even reused the wood from the pallet on which the new plasterboard was delivered in the roof repairs. I grabbed the opportunity to install Warmcel insulation (www.excel fibre.com), made from mineralised recycled newspaper, in the flat roof above the bathroom.
Nicholas, my multipurpose handyman, then installed a proper shower in the bath, which would be supplied by my solar hot-water panels. I got the shower-head at a local architectural rescue shop for a tenner. However, Nicholas said that despite my determination to do everything as eco-responsibly as possible, I had to bite the bullet and buy a new plastic shower-wall unit for the bath.
I muttered reluctant agreement, but said I had to go out and get my daily Indy. I returned triumphant: by an extraordinary coincidence, one of my neighbours had thrown out a perfectly good glass-topped dining-room table. The reinforced safety glass was exactly the right size for my new shower-unit and now resides there proudly.
The wooden panelling that had some years previously replaced the unpleasant Formica original bath surround, had been found thrown away in our local park by some illegal tipper who had been refurbishing a local pub. Its deep brown tones add warmth to the room. A magnetic soap holder was one of the very few new items that I bought during the refurbishment. This is because it ensures that the soap does not melt in a puddle and so slashes the amount of soap I have to buy, again eliminating waste.
Walls & Ceilings
When I told my mates that I was going to paint the dining room walls acid yellow, lime green and burnt sienna, they thought I had gone completely off my rocker. After all, how could I break with the current minimalist orthodoxy of having everything white?
However, having looked at the really handy website for the organic paint company Ecos Paints (www.ecos paints.co.uk), where you can mix and match your colours using a virtual on-screen room, I was determined to risk being different. The resulting colourful room is absolutely glorious when the sunlight floods in and is echoed in the yellows and greens.
My painter, who had never used organic paints before, told me when I got home that he never again wanted to use chemical based paints again. Most high-street gloss paints contain appallingly high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), some of which may be carcinogenic.
I will admit that I went for a palette of softer, contrasting creams and fawn for the bedroom. However, in the kitchen, while I used organic white emulsion on three of the walls and ceiling, we decided to strip one wall back to the original bricks and not paint it. It adds a pleasant warmth to the room and, of course, used no resources at all to create, aside from the necessary labour.
Donnachadh McCarthy FRSA works as a business, school and charity eco-auditor and is author of "Easy Eco-auditing". www.3acorns.co.uk