Diary Of An Eco-Builder

Yes, we're moving in - to the sound of birdsong and all our hi-tech gizmos whirring away
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The Independent Online

When daily routines are disrupted by stressful events, personal environmental behaviours are often the first to fail. This is famously true at Christmas when the overflowing recycle bin quickly gets ignored and a mountain of stuff gets bought and immediately thrown away.

Moving house is one of life's most disruptive and stressful activities, with a very high attendant risk of overflowing bins. So, as we prepare to move into Tree House, we are doing what we can to avoid a spike in our output to landfill, not least by exploiting the excellent environmental resources of eBay and local charity shops. It doesn't help that we're moving into a house that is still being built: if the schedule for this project has sometimes been a little loose, it is now as tight as post-Christmas trousers.

One of the rooms unlikely to be 100 per cent complete is our Engine Room, where all our specialist technical kit is housed. Its contents include the inverters that turn the output of our photovoltaic roof into 240V AC, the pump for our solar thermal panel, the ground source heat pump that extracts the sun's warmth from beneath the house and the mechanical ventilation unit that takes the heat from the outgoing stale air and transfers it to the incoming fresh air. There is also a highly insulated hot water cylinder, a communications hub and a bundle of meters and wires designed to tell us if all this kit achieves our "zero carbon" goal. Master plumber Mick Nolan is doing his best to connect up the massed pipes and drums but, unfortunately for him, our prior assessment of the space required was not very accurate (Edinburgh Castle it isn't).

Every piece of technology is there for a good reason. Nonetheless, I fear this room would turn some eco-builders green with horror rather than envy as it epitomises a hi-tech approach, in stark contrast to traditional, passive buildings. Some argue that the more gizmos you have, the less ecological the final result is likely to be.

I have some sympathy with this position. In one of the more remote valleys of the Scottish Borders, there is a house made from cob (packed earth) looking south over a deciduous wood. The walls absorb the heat of the sun, keeping the house warm in winter and cool in summer. Heat comes from a wood burner, fuelled by local tree thinnings. The water tank is fed by a stream higher up the hill, and a compost toilet is one of the many nutrient sources for the verdant kitchen garden.

This, perhaps, is the house we will build next, if we ever tire of city life. But it is not a specification that suits the centre of London. In Clapham, we can only dispense with fossil fuels by combining a very high performance building with technology appropriate to a small urban footprint.

Eco-technology is problematic when it gets stuck on a building like a flagpole, waving green credentials regardless of what lies below. When technology is used more carefully, as part of a holistic approach to environmental design, it definitely has its place. In particular, I believe that the more we take control of energy generation by doing it ourselves rather than leaving it to distant power stations, the more we will take seriously the challenge of a very low carbon future. Check out the debate on "eco-minimalism" in the online archive of Building for a Future magazine ( www.buildingforafuture.co.uk) for more on this issue.

It will be some time before we establish a new domestic routine in Tree House, but hopefully our stress levels will get through this week's peak and we will soon be enjoying our ultra-low impact life in comfort, listening to the birds sing and all the gizmos click and whirr.

If you are in London today or tomorrow, check out the Ecobuild exhibition at Earls Court ( www.ecobuild.co.uk).

'The Complete Diary of an Eco-Builder' is to be published by Green Books in May. See www.treehouseclapham.org.uk