Flashy, costly eco-features attached to your home might impress your friends, but they won’t help save the planet. What might is simpler and much less interesting
Twenty years ago, my private clients all wanted refurbishment work that included lots of glass and glazing bars. Fifteen years ago, it was low-voltage lights. Ten years ago, it was limestone floors and five years after that it was dug-out basements.
Now everybody wants green. (Well, except for my hotelier clients. They don’t seem to be very interested in green as they can’t sell it. Although they can sell air-conditioning.) When modish elements of building renovation first become desirable, they tend to be expensive. By the time anybody can buy them in Wickes, nobody wants them any more, or at least nobody who hires architects.
When halogen lights first crossed over from the theatrical and retail sectors into the residential market, they were not only astonishingly expensive but required an electrician with a degree in physics to install them, and a ceiling void 300mm deep to accommodate the cabling and transformers. Now, of course, low-voltage lights are almost given away free with the fittings. Things green haven’t reached that stage yet, which is a pity.
The corollary of the phrase “the high cost of cheap building” might be the accidental carbon footprint of the enthusiastic green. About four months ago, our fridge packed up. An engineer arrived and told me, almost before he looked at it, that it needed a new condenser. This would cost £200. The replacement version of the fridge was £332, so I declined his offer, although I still had to pay £87.50 for the call-out. Later that same day, a client told me that their daughter had refused to let them throw away the fridge–freezer they had replaced two months ago and it was stored in her garage. If I knocked the expenses element off my next bill, I could have it. A few days later, a battered white Transit turned up at my front door with the “recyled” fridge. It was rather more reminiscent of an eighties rough sleepers’ emergency bedsit than of World of Interiors, but it stopped food going bad.
I know the rules about doing dental work on gift horses, but once installed, the unit proved too small and to have the wrong proportion of chiller to freezer. I would probably have used less energy and expense if I had just bought a new fridge. Which, I’ve had to do anyway.
For private clients, paying for green is a bit like paying for a new roof. A £20,000 garden room impresses their friends much more than £20,000 worth of slating and sarking felt, or £30,000 of underpinning. To draw an analogy, in the fifties, the new African states wanted to be seen to be doing something to alleviate the embarrassing levels of disease in their countries. However, they were much happier about spending half a million quid on one photogenic state-of-the-art dialysis machine than on funding 50 health visitors to advise citizens on basic hygiene.
The steps that anyone can take, and where every little bit really does help, is to stop all that expensive energy leaking out
In a similar vein, what informed green people (a category that should, of course, include all of us) seem to want is rainwater harvesting, solar heating panels, wind turbines and self-treating sewage plants. The acme of green aspiration is to sell electricity back to the grid.
Unfortunately, most of these clients reside in oldish houses. It’s one thing to design a block of flats that performs well environmentally, but quite another to retrofit a Victorian terrace to do the same. Once you’ve explained to your client that they’ll need to spend £6,000 digging a hole the size of a Fiat Punto in their garden
before burying a polypropylene tank from Düsseldorf in it, rainwater harvesting rapidly becomes much less attractive. They’ll still need a mains header tank and what about Legionnaires’ disease? Thames Water isn’t going to charge them much less, in any event, and Revenue & Customs does love its VAT.
Now a big water butt in the garden costs about 5% of this and is really easy to install, especially as rainwater diverters now cost less than £20 apiece.
But the steps that anyone can take, and where every little bit really does help, is to stop all that expensive energy leaking out in the first place. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look very glamorous when you try to show your friends what you’ve done. But it does make you feel more physically comfortable and you will see your fuel bills going down (or at least not going up as much as they might otherwise have done).
To recycle the mantra of an almost forgotten prime minister, retrofitting Victorian stock is all about insulation, insulation, insulation.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London