This is the story of how we took a very ordinary English terrace 1930s house and set out on a limited budget to turn it into our dream eco-house: comfortable, clean, healthy, beautiful and a model for low impact living.
I am an environmental campaigner working with the Climate Outreach and Information Network, a registered charity working on climate change and energy efficiency (www.coinet.org.uk). My wife Annie seeks to return to an abandoned art career. We have two young children, Elsa and Ned. We believe passionately that the world will be in a terrible mess for Elsa and Ned, and their children, unless there are dramatic changes in the way that everyone in rich countries lives. At the same time, we didn’t want to throw out all the benefits of living in the early 21st century- appliances, central heating, artificial lighting- all bring a lot of freedom to our lives. The challenge was to keep some of these good things whilst very significantly reducing our impacts.
Our overall goal was to find ways to reduce the house’s consumption of electricity, gas and water by two-thirds compared with its average over the previous four years. In the first year of living in the house we have met that goal with water consumption, and have halved our energy use. We keep working at it and are confident of reaching the overall goal within a further year.
Neither of us has any training in architecture or interior design, let alone environmental design. I gave myself a two year crash course in environmental design, exhausting first the library than the local book shops, and then visiting other eco-buildings. I have written up the main principles I learnt in the section principles of environment design.
The actual design was a combination of many ideas we found in these books plus the experience and creativity of Bill Frizell, a local builder, greenie and man of many talents. Every week we would go to Bill with yet another crazy idea and each time he would seize the challenge and make it work. I have written up the whole design process so people can see how we decided what to do. I have also written up a guideline of what insulation values you can reasonably ask your builder to design around.
Many of the ideas come from Bill and the whole project is very much a joint project in which everyone played a role. Our thanks to everyone who worked on the project- Karl, Simon, West, Bob, Katie, Anna, Mick, Duncan, Paul, and Bomber.
The idea behind this web site started with my frustration at never finding an environmental manual which fully met our needs- they would be too hippy, or too technical, or, most often, assume that we were building from scratch. Renovating an existing property has its own challenges and whilst the work was going on I started writing up our experiences to share with other people.
Like the house, this website has also been a team effort. Undercurrents helped me to obtain Lotteries Commission funding to hire as web designer our dear friend Jess Wenban-Smith. Jess, like everyone involved in this project, has done a great job and put in far more time than asked. Many thanks are also due to Adrian Arbib who took the photos of the original house and lent us his very fancy digital camera for the photos on this site.
Please write to me if you have any comments on the site. We are happy to show people around the Yellow House but PLEASE only by appointment. Drop me a line if you would like to look around.
George Marshall, June 2002
THE HISTORY OF THE HOUSE
The yellow house sits on the edge of a 1930s council estate in Oxford. Strangely, although identical in every way to the adjoining houses, it has been in private ownership since it was built in 1937. All houses on the estate have three bedrooms. There are four terrace houses in each block with a passageway through the middle to allow access to the back. The yellow house is one of the mid-terrace houses flanking the passageway.
The houses on the estate are built from concrete block. The structure was experimental for the time with cavity walls and a reinforced concrete ring beam that surrounds the whole building under the first floor. To strengthen the walls, every other concrete block crosses the cavity. Unfortunately these blocks function as cold bridges and destroy the insulating value of the cavity. As was typical of the period, there is no floor insulation. The kitchen floor is a bare concrete slab without insulation or dampproof membrane. The front floor is suspended four feet over bare earth, often with standing water in winter time.
Originally the houses had a lean-to at the back to cover a small area for hanging clothes and providing covered access to an outside toilet. Like every other house on the estate, the Yellow House lean-to had been walled in at some stage to make a permanent extension, thus bringing the toilet indoors. The workmanship of this extension was extremely poor with cheap thin materials that were rotting through. It was a phenomenal heat drain.
The bathroom was originally squeezed into a small block that adjoined the toilet. It was constantly cold and water leaked through the walls. Placing the bathroom alongside the kitchen was common practice in the 1930s when water was heated on the range or in a back boiler. In the 1990s, though, it was inconvenient and uncomfortable.
In the 1980s the house was owned by an overzealous do-it-yourselfer who wrought further havoc on the original building with extensive home “improvements”. These included: ripping out or boarding over the original fireplaces; creating a flimsy plywood and false brick-effect breakfast bar in the kitchen (which wasps nested behind); gluing polystyrene tiles to the ceilings of the kitchen and one bedroom; cladding the kitchen and living room walls with pine tongue and groove panelling; and painting the bathroom and one bedroom with Artex.
Sadly he also paid out good money to replace all the windows and front door with aluminium double glazing, and cover the front and rear walls with Cotswold effect reconstituted stone cladding. The double glazing, though superficially a good idea, was ugly, poorly designed, and singularly ineffective as insulation. The stone cladding was an outright disaster. Within ten years it was peeling off the wall and in 1998 most of it fell off one dark night.
In short, the house was a catalogue of misguided home improvements. The thousands of pounds poured into the house with the best intentions had succeeded only in making it uglier, less energy efficient, and more dangerous. The house was sold to a student at the university who subsequently rented it out to friends of mine. In 1997 they told me at a party that their landlord was going to sell the house and make them homeless. I knew the house and the road well, and in an alcohol induced impulse decided there and then to buy it. I was working in New York at the time, and buying a house whilst living in another country was guaranteed to be a complete nightmare (as indeed it turned out to be). However, I needed to take advantage of one of the only periods in my life when I was earning enough to be credit worthy. I paid £72,000 for the house and all fittings. The price, ludicrously high though it seemed at the time, was still relatively low for Oxford and reflected the fact that a minimum of £15,000 would need to be spent on the house to make it habitable.
I kept the existing tenants on a low rent in return for which they put up with house’s shortcomings and helped with the renovations. They stripped the living room and front bedroom and had them replastered. Oliver Tickell, our ever helpful nextdoor neighbour, managed the project to insulate the front of the house to cover up the horrible mess left after the stone cladding fell off.
In 1999, I returned to Britain with Annie my new American wife and set about turning the house into a home that could meet our needs and the projected needs of our expanded family (then hypothetical).