How to be sustainable in Sloane Square

Wormeries, water butts and hens on the roof – Julia Stephenson tells how she went from It girl to green goddess
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The Independent Online

In 2005 I embarked on an ambitious project to extend my top floor flat in Chelsea by knocking into the eaves of the roof and the loft, creating 200 sq ft of carbon-neutral space.

Despite living on a busy road in central London, my plan was to eventually manufacture my own energy, grow fruit and vegetables, and keep chickens – an inner city version of The Good Life. Indeed a good friend once remarked that as a mixture of Margo Leadbetter and Barbara Good from the eponymous BBC series, if anyone could embrace the challenge of sustainable living in Sloane Square, it would be me.

I determined to do this in the thriftiest, most sustainable way. So, instead of ripping everything out and then bringing in brand new materials, as is the way with modern building, I decided to take the slow route, re-using what we had. This would cost more in labour, but less would end up in landfill. Extending my roof area meant I'd have enough space to install solar panels, wind turbines and even a hen house.

I'd already made great efforts to reduce my energy needs as well as cut back on my wasteful habits. Frugal measures like turning off lights, installing a water meter, and cycling may not have the James Bond thrill of seeing turbines whizzing on your roof, but are just as important. Three experimental compost bins and wormeries took care of all my kitchen waste (having run out of space on my roof terrace I had begun to colonise my neighbours, indeed I am the Bernard Matthews of factory worm farming).

Changing my lifestyle was one thing, but I didn't have a clue about how to go about installing renewable energy. It was obvious I needed help – and needed it fast.

First up, I called in "ecotect" to the stars, Alex Michaelis, and green guru Donnachadh McCarthy, who successfully negotiated planning permission with the terrifying officials of the Kensington and Chelsea planning department. The three of us practically fainted when we were granted full planning permission for three wind turbines, solar panels, a rainwater harvester and a rainwater flushing loo. Surprisingly there were no objections from our neighbours, but my hunch was that they were all away skiing when the planning signs went up in the street, so our plans slipped in under the radar.

Now I had to find a green builder. This was tricky. Reliable Reg, my usual builder, expressed qualms about my purported green methods. "What?" he spluttered. "You want me to save every slate when we're dismantling the roof?"

Most fortuitously I had just begun dating a builder, Al Reygan, who apart from his penchant for cheap Teletext holidays appeared to share many of my green ideals, happily peeing on one of my three compost heaps to aid decomposition. He insisted he would save me a fortune as all his family are involved in the building game. Despite general insistence that the volatility of our relationship might not survive the stresses of building work, after two years of dithering, I couldn't resist the prospect of a cheap deal and we began.

Things started off very well. The weather was fine and Al and all the brothers were working in fraternal harmony. They quickly knocked through into the loft and built a new roof over the existing one, saving me the expense of building a tin roof. With eco building advisors, Russell and Barry Smith from Parity Projects, on hand to answer all our eco queries, it was all going well.

That is, until brother Ken had a blistering row with Al over my MDF ban and stomped off site. Morale hit an all-time low. It was raining constantly, and the men were covered in mud. Then brother Tel, fed up with having to pull nails out of bits of wood for reuse, soon followed in sympathy.

Fortunately another brother was drafted in and things got back on track. The new roof was finished, the old one was dismantled with the waste wood re-used or stacked for use in our wood-burning stove. A sunpipe, a marvellous way of harnessing and magnifying natural light, was built into the roof, bringing brightness to a dark downstairs.

Parity Projects sourced eight solar panels and, once connected, we were pumping out 1,500 watts worth of electricity on a sunny day and providing roughly half our electricity needs. We had, however, decided to forgo the wind turbines as the wind speeds on my roof made them fairly useless.

Eco nirvana was reached when we installed a rainwater flushing lavatory. Forest Stewardship Council certified oak flooring from France, low energy light bulbs and several licks of eco friendly paint were the final touches.

The conversion took seven months, around 40 per cent longer than a normal job, and came in at around £40,000.

I now have a light, bright bedroom. Three rescue battery chickens live happily on the roof competing with the worms for our leftovers, along with various tubs and boxes where we grow herbs, fruit and vegetables. The brothers are now on speaking terms again. Al and I survived the traumas and are now engaged. When he's recovered I am hoping he will build me a house.

'Letting go of the Glitz. The true story of one woman's struggle to live the simple life in Chelsea' by Julia Stephenson is published by Crown House Publishing Limited (£8.99).