I consider myself a really committed environmentalist, and I’ve worked for environmental charities, mainly in education, in an attempt to ‘make a difference’, such as I can. Part of my learning about the environment, however, has led me to look at my own home and its impact on the environment. I discovered that nearly 30% of the UK’s CO2 emissions are from housing, and 27% of our national housing is old (considered to be built before 1919). This makes addressing the emissions of our own housing one of the best things we can do as individuals to mitigate climate change.
When we bought our beautiful house in February 2013 we were in love with its age, the Englishness of it: its quirky corners, the unexpected staircase, understated stained glass, original fireplaces and moldings. There are even the original stone floors. This should have all pulled in a very pretty penny indeed, and the fact that it was actually within our price bracket seemed like a miracle. We didn’t actually ask ourselves why, at the time. The EPC was given as 51, an embarrassing orange E, with a potential of 83, a cheerful mid-green B, which us eco-heads could be proud of. We told each other cheerfully that potential was everything (having seen grand designs, etc.). It’s the gap between the actual and the potential that we’re steeling ourselves to address now.
Part of my attraction to the house is that it speaks to my middle-class identity: like many middle-class Londoners I feel a deep affinity with London yellow brick and Victorian and Edwardian cultural objects (if not necessarily the values of those ages). In many ways, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were where the British bourgeois culture was forged, explaining perhaps the widespread attachment to ‘the look’. Which is lucky, as the greater part of London is swimming in it.
In terms of retrofitting, however, it’s a nightmare. These Victorian houses are no better than ‘brick tents’ (as George Monbiot, I believe, once described them). They are also full of ‘period features’, which, I’ve discovered, I’d rather freeze than part with.
The weekend we moved in was the first in March of 2013, when a ferociously cold snap gripped London. We turned on the central heating and nothing much happened. There is no double-glazing, the walls are a mere two bricks thick and the windows rattle in their ill-fitting sashes. The first few days we slept in our clothes and awoke to see our breath in clouds. We couldn’t believe it.
Since then we’ve substituted a horrible old water tank in the attic with a new condensing boiler, and we’ve had an attic extension which includes the now requisite 27cm of insulation in the roof, and built-in wall insulation. I’ve also lined most of the curtains, which makes a big difference on winter nights. We’ve also covered a few strategic points with both Perspex secondary glazing and the cling-fim-like stuff which you need to hairdryer on. That works patchily and can sometimes billow and crackle eerily in the draft. Really, what the place needs is an eco-make-over.
So, after some negotiation, we are to have internal wall insulation in the bedrooms upstairs. It has been a journey to arrive at this point, and it’s not over yet. Watch this space for more.