New tricks for old bricks: How an eco-refurbishment scheme helped convert a Victorian terrace into a green flagship

Maria Hawton-Mead proves that old homes can go low carbon too.

To the casual observer Maria Hawton-Mead's pretty but unsensational Victorian terrace looks like thousands of others in suburban Brighton, but it hides a secret.

Hawton-Mead is a forerunner of the retrofit revolution and, thanks to a £38,000 investment, and a good deal of aggravation, her period home has been reinvented as a thoroughly 21st-century example of sustainable housing.

The project is proof positive that you don't have to be Lakshmi Mittal or Gary Neville – both of whom are in the throes of creating shiny new-build eco homes – to go green.

It is also just the kind of refurbishment scheme the Government hopes more of the Britain's 20 million-plus homeowners – together responsible for around a quarter of the country's carbon emissions – will be inspired to embark upon as its strives to achieve its target of reducing emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

Hawton-Mead, 47, bought the property 12 years ago in a pretty grisly state – all orange shagpile carpets and no central heating. So she did what most people would do, and set about doing it up with a new kitchen and bathroom, and then got on with her life.

But over the years that followed Hawton-Mead's interest in sustainability began to grow. She already had a background in building renovation and design, and decided to take a masters degree in sustainable architecture. She now works as a sustainability consultant offering advice to individuals and businesses, and last year decided it was time to practise what she preached.

She had already adjusted her lifestyle and between 2008 and 2009 reduced the house's annual carbon emissions from 2.5 tons a year to 2 tons a year by simple measures such as keeping the heating down, switching off lights vigilantly, and taking showers not baths."It was a moral stand, I suppose," she says. "I am not a wasteful person by nature."

Then, over four months last year,she stepped things up. Double glazing, internal wall insulation, roof insulation, under-floor insulation and solar PV panels were installed at the house, which was also rigorously draught-proofed.

The project has reduced her carbon emissions to a projected 0.7 tons a year – an impressive 72 per cent reduction on where she started.

She is also confident that her solar panels will free her from future electricity bills – and she hopes to turn a modest profit by selling power back into the grid. Gas bills will be significantly reduced thanks to the insulation work. However the cost of this work came to around £38,000 and will take, she calculates, around 50 years to pay for itself.

"I have not done it for that reason," she says. "I want my home to be comfortable and I want lower carbon emissions because I don't what to have a big environmental impact on the planet and I want to be an example of what can be done."

As a means of setting an example, Hawton-Mead is one of 94 British homeowners to have joined the Superhome project, launched by the National Energy Foundation and the Sustainable Energy Academy.

Its premise is simple: by regularly opening the properties which range from 1960s semis to listed buildings to the public it hopes to inspire other homeowners to follow suit.

The superhomes are all examples of retrofit projects which have resulted in a minimum 60 per cent reduction in their carbon emissions. Last year some 14,789 people visited a superhome.

Gabby Mallett, who runs the project, explained: "They might hear horror stories – but they get to know about the pitfalls as well as the benefits. They can find out about the technologies, the costs, and the financial savings."

Research done by Mallett indicates that 27 per cent of those who visit a superhome go on to spend at least £5,000 on their own renovations. So who are the superhome owners? "They are such a mish-mash," says Mallet. "There are a few Friends of the Earth kind of people, but a lot are just people who are interested in climate change and in saving money. We do get a disproportionate number of architects. We have a house in Birmingham which had its roof ripped off during the tornado in 2005, and it was a perfect time for a renovation."

The estimated average cost of fully retrofitting a home is £25,000, and experts agree that finance is the single biggest obstacle to retrofitting.

The Government's response is the Green Deal, due to come into force next autumn, that will offer loans of up to around £6,000 for energy efficiency work. But Mallett points out that people will need clear information as well as cash.

She wants to see investment in state "show homes" to help educate homeowners and spread the word, on the basis that you can't expect the handful of private superhome owners to endlessly open their doors to strangers.

Ellie Austin, campaigns officer at the UK Green Building Council, advocates financial incentives – perhaps a council tax or stamp duty rebate – for owners who have upgraded their properties.

A more controversial option would be setting a minimum legal standard of energy efficiency for properties before they can be put on the market. "Having the Green Deal finance will help," she says. "High street retailers such as B&Q and Marks & Spencer are looking at offering packages, and it will become more and more mainstream." Until then the weight of responsibility for leading the way is being left largely on the shoulders of people such as Peter Downs, 60, a retired management consultant, and his wife Lis, 62, an academic.

In 2004 they left London for a converted watermill in the village of Itteringham in north Norfolk. The couple have never been especially green, and were hoping simply to run a bed and breakfast and enjoy a quieter pace of life at Itteringham Mill (www.itteringham-mill.co.uk).

But a £1,500 electricity bill in their first year prompted them to start researching alternative fuel options, and they found the solution their garden. They harnessed the power of the river which once ran the mill by installing a £30,000 hydro turbine. A water-source heat pump and under-floor heating cost another £30,000.

They now produce 20,000kWh of power per year and are paid 9p per unit they produce by the Government, which adds up to around £1,800 a year. They export another £150 a year's worth to their electricity company.

The investment was substantial and the saving calculations are complex, but Downs estimates the pump is worth £6,000 to £7,000 per year.

Emboldened by the success of the turbine the couple have since invested in solar panels for hot water (£7,000), and a comprehensive programme of insulation. Their eco retrofit was topped off with a rainwater recycling system, which cost £1,000, and provides "grey" water for the flushing of lavatories. The project has saved 66 per cent of the mill's original carbon emissions.

Working on an old building – the present mill was built around 1778 – was not without its challenges. The floors, for example, had to be raised so that the under-floor heating could be fitted, but Downs is confident the project has not compromised the building's charm.

"We recognised that we had a historic building but it looks as it ever has from the front," he says.

A Green Deal loan will clearly only go a tiny way towards retrofitting on a grand scale like the superhome owners, but Hawton-Mead is keen to stress it doesn't have to be done that way. "Even just by changing your behaviour you can save nearly half a ton of carbon a year," she says. "Low-energy light bulbs, energy-efficient appliances, draught proofing and loft insulation are all easy things to do, and if everybody did them it would make a huge difference."

Of course the Government is hoping for more than baby steps, and would like people to followHawton-Mead's example.

"It is going to be bloody difficult to get them to," she says. "I was very fortunate to have the money to invest but everyone's house is different and people don't have the money. The only way it's going to happen is if it's free, and easy to organise, and at the moment it is expensive and complicated."

Useful contacts

* For information on the superhomes project see: www.superhomes.org.uk

* For information on how to green your home see www.greatbritishrefurb.co.uk or www.r-e-a.net

* The UK Green Building Council is another excellent source of impartial advice: www.ukgbc.org

* The BRE, the Government's sustainability think tank, offers simple ways to assess and improve your home's carbon performance at: www.tzero.org.uk

* The Energy Saving Trust (www.energysavingtrust.org.uk) has a carbon calculator plus information on grants and how you can sell power back to the National Grid.

* If you are going to install micro generation technology, avoid the cowboys and use firms covered by the Real Assurance Scheme (www.realassurance.org.uk). Also make sure your technology and installer is accredited by the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (www.microgenerationcertification.org)

New rules for new builds

* By 2016 carbon-neutral homes will be the norm, when it comes to new-build properties at least.

* Housebuilders will have to achieve level 6 of the Code for Sustainable Homes, which measures everything to how water-efficient a property is to whether there is space provided for recycling bins.

* They will have to be highly insulated, virtually airtight, produce a substantial amount of their own energy, and minimise waste of water.

* The code works on a point system, and to reach Level 6 developers can pick up credits for a whole series of green features: they could earn one point for providing a home office, two for providing cycle storage, four for providing recycling facilities and six for using sustainable building materials.

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