31 Dec 2010

Lynne Sullivan, OBE

I've been meaning to write about the work of Lynne Sullivan for some time, ever since I happened upon the Sullivan Report back in 2007. Lynne produced a really good guide to show how Scotland could develop its sustainable built environment, and it contrasted with many of the dubious outpourings from Westminster and Watford at around the same time. I've met her a few times since and been impressed by her understanding of all these issues that feature here on this blog, and she has helped me with one or two leads.

She now runs her own consultancy called Sustainable By Design and in truth she doesn't need bigging up by me because she has a CV that might be described a glittering if you were that way inclined. And now to top it off, she has been awarded an OBE in the New Year's Honours List. Well done, Lynne.

26 Dec 2010

Biomass splits the AECB

It's not often that a magazine makes news for what's not in it, but the winter 2010 issue of Green Building has set tongues wagging in the normally polite debating halls of the AECB, the UK's main green building movement. And at the heart of it all is our old friend biomass.

Here's the story in a nutshell. AECB founder and magazine editor Keith Hall is a big fan of biomass. He lives on a smallholding in Wales and is self-sufficient in fuel, having access to his own timber. In September, two AECB stalwarts, Alan Clarke and Board member Nick Grant (aka the PassivHaus gang) published a "discussion paper" — whatever that is — on AECB headed notepaper called Biomass - A Burning Issue. It gently but firmly put the boot into the pro-biomass argument, pointing out that burning timber actually releases far more CO2 than burning the equivalent amount of gas. The paper argued that it would be better for the environment to encourage the growth of new timber, and its use as a carbon store (in buildings, furniture, whatever): anything in fact, except burning it. And to incentivise the burning of biomass — which is what the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is setting out to do — is just plain nuts.

This was too much for Keith Hall. He wrote on the Green Building forum (which he moderates): I'm appalled that the AECB has chosen to publish this document without a wide membership review. It is a manifesto for heat pumps and fossil fuel use. Clearly they seem to think there is no place in their passivhaus doctrine for woodburning. Well that’s clear enough.

Then Keith uses his clout as editor of Green Building to put together a “Biomass Issue” which manages to all but completely ignore the Clarke & Grant paper. It's not quite been airbrushed out — it's referred to in a feature on the online forum debate — but the central argument made by Clarke & Grant is just nowhere to be seen. It’s like someone has let off a real stinker in a crowded lift and everyone is just too polite to mention it.

But the biomass debate is not going to die down just because Hall and a seemingly large cohort of AECB members don't like it happening. With the final announcement on the RHI expected shortly, the rights and wrongs of burning timber for heating are occupying the corridors of power in Westminster. It may seem all just a little obscure to ordinary mortals, but the decisions made in the coming months will set the tone for a very long time. My worry is that the agenda is being largely driven by vested interests — forestry providers, biomass plant manufacturers, power producers who want subsidies — and that the cold, hard logic of what should be done about climate change has somehow been sidelined.

I’m not exactly an objective observer here. I’ve made it plain already that I broadly agree with the rebel paper. A little wood burning here and there isn’t a problem but switching to biomass burning on an industrial scale (which is what this is all about) is illogical and counter productive because there will never be enough timber to supply more than a tiny proportion of our heating needs and the idea that it can be seen as a little closed loop all on its tod is unrealistic.

Or to put it another way, it’s fine to live a self-sufficient back-woodsy lifestyle and to use near-free biomass to heat your smallholding, but it doesn’t begin to address the global problems we are having with our carbon burning habits. If anything should be subsidised, it should be using timber in buildings, a perfect working example of carbon capture and storage. Burning it is just undoing all the good work.

Where this leaves the AECB is something which will have to be worked out next year. But the current split is — dare I say it — totally unsustainable.

23 Dec 2010

On wood pellet prices

Info from Nottingham Energy Partnerships

Wood pellets prices
Nov 2007 17p/kg
Nov 2010 25.2p/kg
Increase = 48%
Current price per kWh inc allowance for boiler efficiency: 6p

Standard heating oil:
Nov 2007 43p/lt
Nov 2010 47p/lt
Increase = 9%
Current price per kWh inc allowance for boiler efficiency: 5.3p

Mains gas:
Nov 2007 2.72p/kWh
Nov 2010 3.58p/kWh
Increase = 32%
Current price per kWh inc allowance for boiler efficiency: 3.9p

Nov 2007 8.87p/kWh
Nov 2010 10.92p/kWh
Increase = 23%
Price per kWh: 10.92p

6 Dec 2010

Are there any architects out there?

In my unofficial role as selfbuild agony uncle, I get some interesting and sometimes off-beat requests. But Janice Diamond's email last week stands out from the crowd. She's had such trouble finding the right architect that she's built a website to advertise for one. It's here. And it looks like a fantastic site as well, deep in the heart of the Lake District. She writes:

I was hoping that you may be able to give me some advice about how to find the right architect.

For some years I have been looking for an architect to design a new home on an existing plot in Rosthwaite in the Borrowdale valley in Cumbria.

The site is in a National Trust area, a very sensitive area. At present on the plot is a pre-fabricated building built in 1921. I have spoken to the planning officer so I know that I will be able to build a two story dwelling.

I have spoken to quite a few architects in the region. I specifically wanted the architect to use 3D technology and this ruled out quite a few. A few that were recommended were too busy even to get back to me. One told me that there was over a two year waiting list, and I couldn't get back to speak to him.

One architect that I contacted did go as far as doing an outline design , did all the measurements etc but had not understood me when I said that I wanted the best of the views. He put the ensuite and walk in wardrobes for the main upstairs bedroom where the view should have been. Downstairs he put an open fire where you would want the glass windows to look at the view and insisted that this was a good idea.

I thought that I'd found the right architect when I found one that was brilliant on the 3D. However, to cut a long story short he was already very busy with too much work and I didn't feel that he had the time to spend the time on my project.

It seemed to me that the work that most architects in the Lake District are fully occupied with renovations as well.

I next contacted RIBA and they sent me some contacts in the Lake District. Two of these I had already been in touch with. I phoned a third who was based further down in Kendal and they weren't really interested as they too were very busy with renovation work and suggested I try architects further South, like Lancaster.

Please could you advise me on the best action to take, ie would it be best to advertise ? and if so where would the best place be to do this.

1 Dec 2010

Low energy homes - they don't always work

I've been banging on about low energy homes on this blog for years, and promoting the concept to all who come here. Whether it's the full blown PassivHaus standard, or a less taxing version with maybe SIPS, MVHR and a wood burning stove, it seems to me to be a no-brainer.

But sometimes it's good to pause and reflect. And it has to be admitted that building a low energy house is not always as plain sailing as advocates would like to admit. They don't all work as planned, and sometimes it's hard to put a finger on exactly what has gone wrong.

Yesterday I took a phone call from a selfbuilder in Oxfordshire who has just built a massively insulated, near airtight timber frame house which is heated by underfloor heating on the ground floor (powered by a heat pump), a wood burning stove in the living room and an MVHR ventilation system to distribute the heat around the house. All indications were that the house was well built and it had achieved an airtightness score of 1.7a/c/hr@50p (which is extremely good). Yet whilst the heated downstairs of the house was basking in temperatures in the 20°Cs, the upstairs rooms were stuck at 14°C. All that acoustic insulation put in the floors to meet Part E of the building regs was stopping the heat rising into the bedrooms, and the MVHR system simply wasn't redistributing the heat as had been hoped for. The ventilation system even had a 1kW post-heater installed in the inlet ducting, and yet still the upstairs was still freezing.

And that wasn't all. The wood burning stove was also causing problems. Despite having an airflow ducted directly to the stove, it wasn't burning efficiently and was smoking through the vent hole. And when the door was opened to re-fuel, large amounts of smoke were escaping into the living room - the so-called spillage problem already discussed on this blog. And the heat generated from the wood stove wasn't finding it's way into the bedroom upstairs.

This wasn't as it was planned. The finger of suspicion would seem to point at the commissioning of the MVHR ventilation, and the suspicion must be that the system hasn't been balanced correctly. But the installers were adamant that it wasn't their fault and were proving difficult to deal with. "We told you it wasn't a heating system, " they said, "you are expecting far too much from it." Which leaves the selfbuilders here in a bit of a hole, because what they have designed is in effect quite a complex, interactive building which depends on several different elements working well with one another. And when the outcome doesn't meet expectations, then it's damn difficult to know what to do about it.

The fallback is always to install a central heating system throughout the house. But a lot of low energy designs sell themselves on the fact that they will cope with the severest of conditions without recourse to conventional heating, and it's difficult not to be tempted by this logic. I've spoken to many selfbuilders who have done away with conventional heating systems and been delighted by the performance of their homes - incidentally the Denby Dale PassivHaus is just such a case, performing really well during this prolonged cold snap - but it's good to bear in mind that not everyone who tries this route is delighted with the results, and that if things don't work out as expected, then it leaves the client in a hole.