How to make a period home eco-friendly

To transform a historic farmhouse into an environmentally-friendly home, the Tarrys went back to basics
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The Independent Online

With ancient draughty windows and gaping floorboards, period homes are charming but you wouldn't expect them to make the perfect venues for green living. Yet Alex Tarry, a property developer from Suffolk, says that period properties can be highly eco-friendly: the key lies in the renovation.

Alex and his wife Naomi own several Suffolk properties, which they let as holiday cottages through their rapidly expanding business, Best of Suffolk. Their portfolio includes several fishermen's cottages and their own home, a Grade II listed farmhouse, which have all been lovingly renovated by Tarry, each boasting green credentials: "Most people don't associate eco-homes with period properties yet if you restore them carefully they can be perfect examples of sustainability," he says

Tarry is passionate about green restoration but he is refreshingly jargon-free and likes to debunk certain myths: "When you get down to it it's all very simple. Most of it is about not using horrible chemicals and simply taking properties back to what they were like when they were originally built. This was when they functioned perfectly." As Tarry walks around his 16th-century farmhouse, set deep in the Suffolk countryside, he explains how they came to buy it in 2004: "We are fussy about our environment; we couldn't find exactly what we wanted so knew that we'd have to create it."

With its sumptuous views across the valley and not a neighbour in site, the farmhouse exactly fitted their brief but, in its state of dilapidation, Tarry took it on without fully knowing the extent of the work which lay ahead. The property cost £395,000 but restoration added another £250,000 over a gruelling 12 months. Throughout the process Tarry carefully preserved as much of the oak framed building as possible while avoiding using any materials which did not exist when the house was built. "I'm very keen on historical renovation. It's all built out of sustainable materials achieved without the use of heavy machinery which come from the locality," adds Tarry pointing to bricks locally sourced from a clay pit which has operated for almost 700 years.

Throughout this reconstruction and his other projects, Tarry has built up a team of skilled crafts people who work as individuals rather than as a company. "It's easy; we are all passionate about the same things." One of Tarry's particular passions is paint. Walking around the house you appreciate the subtlety of the natural shades of limewash which cover the walls, as Tarry is disdainful of chemical-filled modern paints: "In most Victorian homes, owners strip off the wallpaper and underneath find what they see as a horrible mess of old looking plaster which they plasterboard over or skim. I can get that surface looking beautiful again, back to its original state and then I mix up a limewash with no horrible chemicals. I can do a whole house for £15 where expensive paint companies charge you £50 for a tin. It's a piece of cake."

Tarry points out that as well as avoiding potentially hazardous chemicals, which can be irritants, limewash allows properties to breathe which eliminates any need for damp coursing. When he bought them, Tarry found damp in every property he has renovated to date. All are now happily damp-free. Insulation is key and there are no membranes around the house. Rockwall has been used to insulate the wall structure and a multi-foil system is incorporated into the roof. Although the Tarrys replaced the electrics and installed a new heating system, the house is largely heated by a wood burning stove, which Tarry supplies with logs from his own four acre-garden: "I've got enough wood for 20 years," he says.

All joinery in the property has been lovingly repaired. Tarry abhors the use of PVC windows, which he regularly comes across. "It's much more eco-friendly to repair existing joinery. Often you might just need to replace a sill; after all, they've served their purpose for close to 150 years. How many plastic windows do you see that are older than 15?" In Alex and Naomi's house, the original oak mullion windows are now in perfect working order. Part of the property consists of a new addition which houses the kitchen and utility room below and a master suite complete with bathroom above where Tarry installed oak mullion windows with steel casements and leaded inserts.

The couple's holiday lettings business is growing rapidly, Tarry is currently restoring a cottage in Aldeburgh to add to the collection, but do guests appreciate the effort that goes into making these period properties habitable and sustainable? "People definitely do," he says: "Often they don't know exactly why a house feels right but they appreciate the authentic atmosphere. We've got people who've been coming back to stay in the same place for 10 years and people who've honeymooned in our houses. Today's climate is good for business as more people are holidaying in the UK and want somewhere special to stay."

Tim Pullen was also a property developer but gave it up five years ago to set up green homes consultancy, Weather Works. Since then he has seen a significant increase in numbers of clients seeking advice on eco-friendly measures for build projects and renovations but the difference he says is that clients now act upon it. "Five years ago only 20 per cent would actually do something; today it's more like 80 per cent." Pullen still sees clients with big intentions to install energy saving measures but finds that escalating build costs often scupper them. His top tips for cheap and relatively easy green measures are draught proofing and insulation: "These aren't the sexy ideas that you might talk about down the pub, such as solar panels, but they can make a significant difference to your fuel bills" (see page 6 for more on insulation and heating).

Typical draught proofing for a three bedroomed Victorian semi costs around £150 yet reduces fuel bills by up to 15 per cent. Insulation typically costs around £500 but Pullen says: "It can have a dramatic impact and you'll see payback in two to three years." Pullen advises all homeowners to approach their energy suppliers, who carry out free energy surveys, as most are eligible for grants toward insulation. "You can get up to 70 per cent, it's very generous and most of it is not means tested, but this is rarely advertised so most homeowners don't know that they are eligible."

Best of Suffolk: 01728 638962; www.bestofsuffolk.co.uk

Weather Works Limited: tim@weatherworks.co.uk

Tim Pullen is one of the panel of experts presenting seminars and master classes at The National Homebuilding & Renovating Show on at The NEC from 19-22 March. Tickets are £10 in advance or £14 on the door. Call 0871 945 4546 or visit www.homebuildingshow.co.uk for further information

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