2:21pm Friday 19th October 2007
By Jenny Lunnon
Last year. I decided to replace a worn-out carpet with cork tiles. Having done some research, I felt that cork was my best option, partly because of its environmental credentials. It is harvested in a sustainable way in southern Europe and buying cork products helps to protect unique ecosystems and endangered species.
I also appreciated the material's inherent properties - it is a good sound and heat insulator and is water-resistant, easy to clean, long-lasting, and biodegradable.
But it was not easy to find someone to fit my new floor. One tiler I found in the Yellow Pages said: "Cork tiles aren't fashionable, no-one wants them any more," and declined, as did others.
Eventually, I discovered Cowley-based Classic Flooring, which had replaced the cork floors in the Bodleian Library, and did an excellent job for me.
Many people who are trying to eco-retrofit their homes face similar problems, whether they are planning something modest, such as changing to energy-efficient light bulbs; a more ambitious project, such as fitting a solar photovoltaic cell-tiled roof to generate electricity; or a complete refurbishment.
Such measures are urgently needed, because around half the UK's carbon emissions come from building and using our houses and other buildings, and the construction industry makes a significant impact on the environment in many ways.
But while public awareness is growing, it can be hard to obtain accurate information about the relative benefits of different improvements, the best materials to use, and the whereabouts of local suppliers and suitably-qualified architects and trades people.
To inspire people and share ideas and information about best practice, the Oxford-based organisation ClimateXChange, in partnership with the Climate Outreach Information Network (COIN), are running the country's first Open Eco-houses Weekend on November 24 and 25.
Owners of new-build and eco-retrofitted houses across Oxfordshire will invite visitors to go and see exactly how they have achieved substantial reductions in their carbon footprint and general environmental impact, and what they learned along the way.
One house belongs to Gavin Killip, a senior researcher at Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute.
His expertise lies in environmental architecture and, putting his research into practice, he has eco-retrofitted his own Edwardian terrace in Headington, Oxford.
The work included insulating walls, lifting floorboards to insulate beneath with four inches of recycled newspaper resembling freeze-dried porridge', and creating a loft conversion insulated to a standard higher than current building regulations.
He said: "My main learning point was stick to your guns'. If you have an idea how you want your home to be, you have to be very confident and determined. The things I now regret are those where compromises were made."
He pointed out that project management may be more complicated where environmental considerations are being given priority.
For example, uPVC windows may be available off the shelf from a firm around the corner, whereas bespoke windows made from sustainably-grown British timber will have to be ordered three months in advance. If you have engaged a firm of builders for a fixed term, you have to plan ahead.
Another learning point was: "Try to find people who will work with you."
He found a plasterer who was prepared to learn how to use lime plaster strengthened with fibreglass mesh, even though he found it tricky to get the hang of it at first.
Mr Killip wanted this kind of plaster because it breathes' and helps to control moisture.
Sometimes it is necessary to challenge current fashions. For example, recessed lighting in a ceiling can create holes in your insulation: He explained: "It's like walking around in winter in a cardigan with the buttons undone."
Mr Killip would like to encourage builders, plumbers, electricians, architects, designers, and project managers, as well as the public, to take the chance to visit these eco-houses.
Members of the building trade can potentially influence large numbers of people, by understanding and responding positively to clients' ideas and proactively suggesting alternatives and improvements.
Mr Killip said: "Small builders need to become positive agents of change in a programme of low carbon refurbishment for the whole of the UK's housing stock."
The weekend will showcase up to 15 houses from different historical periods, built or renovated using a range of techniques.
COIN and ClimateXChange are planning a follow-up workshop to bring together people in the supply chain to discuss the challenges and potential of working in this field. They are also publishing house case studies on their websites and lists of specialist materials suppliers, retailers, architects and tradesmen.
"There's a business opportunity definitely. I think the Government needs to work with business to make these things more mainstream" said Mr Killip.
For more information about the open weekend and house case studies: Climate Outreach Information Network (COIN): 01865 727911, www.coinet.org.uk Ecovation: www.ecovation.org.uk ClimateXChange: www.climatex.org
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