Every little helps when making your home greener

Can't afford solar panels? There are cheaper ways to a greener home. Hester Lacey learns how a bit of DIY can make a big difference
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Start out with the laudable aim of making your house greener and, after a few weeks of research, you could well be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that it would be easier (and cheaper) to knock the whole place down and start again. This is particularly true if you live in an older property, and more than a quarter of British homes date from before 1919, which officially classifies them as "historic buildings". There is a wealth of eco-information available, but attempting to sift through it is confusing, and green options may be light on the environment but depressingly heavy on the pocket.

However, the new Sustainable Building Resource Centre, in Dorset, points the way towards a simpler solution. The centre is the country's first one-stop green building shop and offers information, resources, advice and design. It is aimed at homeowners as well as at builders, planners, architects and surveyors.

The centre, which opened last year, practices what it preaches: it is housed in an environmentally friendly straw-bale building, plastered with lime, alongside the Dorset Centre for Rural Skills near Blandford Forum. Among the services it offers are displays of building techniques such as timber-frame construction and earth structure; displays of energy-efficient technology; registers of builders, architects and surveyors, and design and planning application advice.

"We receive lots of calls from homeowners," says centre manager Anne Humphries. "Some people want to improve an existing building, others are turning up with architectural drawings and ideas. We get a lot of inquiries about water; rainwater recycling is very popular."

Tradespeople and building professionals are also taking note of increased interest in environmental issues, and an open day for architects was oversubscribed. "We had to turn people away," recalls centre director Rob Buckley.

These two know what they are talking about; Rob has more than 30 years' experience in the building trade, while Anne's background is in sustainable energy. Rob and Anne will visit individual homes to make suggestions for eco-improvement - bearing in mind the style of the house and the owner's budget.

"Sustainability is linked to finance," points out Rob. "You can't always ask people to do things that cost a fortune. There's no point telling people to replace their windows if they can't afford it. We can recommend simple solutions and try to be practical and specific. We don't just audit the house, we look at the whole situation."

When I first moved to Dorset six years ago, I enthusiastically looked into various green possibilities for my new home: and eventually gave up in despair. Installing solar panels was quoted at about £16,000. So I invited Rob and Anne to come and make some suggestions for greening on a budget, for a draughty old building with no cavity walls or double glazing.

Rob homes in on my pointing. I had suspected the house was slightly damp, but Rob diagnoses simple condensation, much to my relief. "When this house was built, it would have had lime plaster inside and out, so the house could breathe. Many modern buildings are too dry; moisture is a good thing, as opposed to damp that can't escape. You still have quite a lot of original pointing, which is a good thing, but externally it would help if there was no concrete pointing at all."

Next up are the Victorian sash windows, beautiful to look at but rattly and draughty. If Rob had suggested pulling these out and replacing them with UPVC double glazing, I would have shown him the door, but he doesn't. "It's lovely to see original windows," he says. "Even if the frames were rotten, I would never suggest UPVC. To make UPVC windows requires an enormous amount of energy; they are made of petrochemical-based material and are very polluting."

My best option, he says, is to keep the windows but make them more efficient. This can be done by lifting out the panels and fitting them with little brushes that will stop the draughts. "This can turn a leaky, rattly sash window into a modern, efficient window; there are some excellent systems available," explains Rob. "There are national companies who can do this or you can find a carpenter."

I could also consider unobtrusive secondary glazing, though this would be more expensive. Rob suggests glazing with a vent top and bottom, rather than sealed units; the gap acts as a solar collector and warms the air in the room.

Using sunlight to heat the house is also a possibility at the back, where there is an extension with a slanted roof. "You could use the entrance area like a storage heater that would work with the sun, if you installed some properly oriented extra glazing to replace a section of the roof," says Rob. Sadly, this is not a cheap option, but I shall bear it in mind. The angle of the roof is also suitable for a solar hot water collector. These, says Rob, are economically viable. Photovoltaic systems, however, would not be financially sound. "The payback time on photovoltaics is up to 60 years," he warns.

I'm already thinking of changing my oil-fired boiler, whose pilot light goes out when the wind blows from the wrong direction. "There are some highly efficient condenser boilers from around £600, but I would question the sense of sticking with oil," says Rob. "You have the option of a bio-mass boiler. Wood pellet boilers are most convenient. More and more organisations are producing boilers that run on wood chips and sawdust. The most efficient option is a log-burning boiler that vaporises the logs, but they are around £2,500." Gulp. This Rolls-Royce of boilers would, however, last me years.

Anne, meanwhile, has turned her attention to my loft insulation. She suggests adding an extra layer of sheep's-wool insulation, which can be dropped on to the top of what's already there. Conventional insulation material, she explains, is tested for efficiency at zero per cent humidity, a condition you don't find in any house. "If fibreglass absorbs 1 per cent of its weight in water, it becomes 80 per cent less efficient," she says. "Sheep's wool becomes more efficient the wetter it gets. It comes on battens, so it's very easy to put in as a DIY job."

Rob and Anne also suggest only heating rooms that are in use, fitting every radiator with a thermostat, putting reflective insulation behind radiators, and making sure doors fit snugly. Rob does not recommend putting a brick in the loo cistern to reduce water wastage. "People end up flushing two or three times. It's better to install a proper two-stage flush."

The charge for advice is £45 per hour, which includes a report. After a couple of hours, I am equipped with a list that I can organise into immediate, low-cost ideas plus longer-term projects. Rob and Anne provide price estimates and can recommend products and contractors.

Rob is also an expert on regulations surrounding listed buildings. And if you are going for a new build, the sky's the limit when it comes to green measures such as geothermals, underfloor heating, roof slates made from tyres, wall insulation made from recycled paper, natural wood cladding instead of plywood, and so on. The centre can advise on all of these.

Jim Knight, the Minister for Rural Affairs, has commented enthusiastically on the centre, whose initial funding included contributions from the EC and Knight's department. "The materials are here, the skills are here, and there is the opportunity to learn more about building in a way that will produce less waste and be more efficient. It's a win-win situation," he said.

For non-locals, the team can handle phone inquiries. And there is definitely a need for their kind of advice on environmentally friendly building.

Sustainable Building Resource Centre 01747 811099 www.dorsetruralskills.co.uk

Good housekeeping

If you want to make your property greener, you might like to think about...

Lime rendering (can help old buildings breathe)

Wood cladding (renewable and sustainable, wood can be treated to be chemical-free but durable. Also lets buildings breathe)

Living sedum roof (great insulation, waterproofing layer)

Insulating external walls (wood-fibre boards made from waste softwood keep the heat in)

Rainwater harvesting (filtered and stored underground in tanks)

Solar thermal collectors (using the sun to heat water)

Photovoltaic collectors (using the sun to generate electricity)

Floor insulation (using wood-fibre board or sheep's wool under floor)

Loft insulation (sheep's wool)

Natural carpets (will last longer and are greener than the cheap synthetic alternative)

Chimney (closing flue when not in use keeps heat in; an enclosed stove is even more efficient)

Grey water collection (stores water from washing machine or bath for use in the garden, but remember to use biodegradable soaps!)

Underfloor heating (low-level, low-energy and works well with solar water heating)

Wind turbines (need to be sensitively sited but are getting smaller and much more manageable for household use)