28 Dec 2006

Alan Teal: the single-handed selfbuilder

I think I know a lot about housebuilding. I have been involved in residential building since 1980, I have worked on site as a labourer, carpenter and joiner, roofer, electrician, plumber, groundworker, even a bricklayer occasionally, in fact every damn job there is except plastering. I have managed small building projects, have restored old buildings and built new ones. I have been a developer and seen the highs and lows of the property market through the 1989 recession. For the past ten years or so, I have written about the process and visited hundreds of selfbuilders, suppliers, professional builders and architects, really broadening my horizons in the process. I have lived and breathed the whole process for all but five years of my working life.

But every now and then I meet someone who makes me think I actually know very little. One such person is Alan Teal who I had the pleasure of visiting on December 15th. I know him through his contributions to the selfbuild forum where he has been an active member for ages, but I had never met him in person until he appeared at the Smartlife Green Day event at the beginning of this month. It was there that I arranged to visit him in his lair.

And what a lair it is. Situated in a small village, just outside Huntingdon, Alan has built the entire complex himself. Even the doors and windows have been made on site, in his workshop. Sure, it’s taken him ten years but what’s the hurry? He has also been working as a joiner and kitchen fitter, working out of the garage block, which he built first back in the 1990s. He hasn’t borrowed a penny: everything has been funded out of cashflow from his joinery business. The only help he seems to have had is from his long suffering wife and that only on an occasional basis.

In his past, Alan built two houses for fun when he was a construction student in Yorkshire. He worked for Bryant Homes for a while as a setting out engineer and saw at first hand just how plc housebuilders go about their business. And he has worked in the USA as well, and knows just how differently the Americans build their homes.

Like many other bright people working in construction, Alan is close to despair about the low standards found in the UK. This in itself became a reason to take on the development of an entire site single-handedly. “You can either do things properly for yourself, which takes forever. Or you can employ others to do it for you and spend your time trouble-shooting instead.” He chose the slow single-handed route. “Never again, it just takes too long.” Actually, it doesn’t appear to have been that bad for the pair off them. They started by constructing a small flat above the garage where they lived in cramped comfort for the duration: it’s now a valuable self-contained unit. He then set about getting planning permission for a house on the site – it had been sold off by a Cambridge College as a derelict workshop. Then he undertook the entire construction project, including making his own scaffolding. It’s still not quite finished — the upstairs room-in-the-roof is yet to be fitted out — but even so the attention to detail is amazing. The photo here shows Alan pointing out the novel method he used to make his own ash doors, using countersunk angled screws to build the frame. “I haven’t got a morticer in my workshop so I thought I would experiment with what you can do with angled screws. I have filled the screw holes with a dark coloured wood (iroko) to highlight the effect. It’s been very successful – I haven’t had any movement from the doors at all. So I have made a houseful of solid ash doors for £60 each.”

I love this sort of attention to detail. And the infectious enthusiasm of the people who engender it. I also envy the level of skill involved. In the years I worked as a builder, I always worked as part of a team and used to rely heavily on other’s people’s knowledge and goodwill. I would never have had the confidence – or bloody-mindedness – to build a house on my own like this. And yet in the past few years I have met a number of people who have risen to this particular challenge and have usually achieved spectacular results. I think Alan Teal ranks for me as the most single-handed selfbuilder I have yet come across but he’s far from unique and, as I am finding, there are a more people out there who would love to emulate him. But it is always very slow, very demanding and can be pretty lonely as well: it’s not for the faint-hearted. But it can be done, as Alan’s example shows.

21 Dec 2006

Eco Bollocks Award: The Windsave WS1000

It is now two and a half months since I tried to buy a Windsave WS1000 wall mounted wind turbine from my local B&Q. Their surveyor turned me down because our house walls are timber, which isn’t regarded as a suitable material to take the strain.

One of the interesting things to emerge from me blogging about the experience was that Windsave themselves saw what I was writing and approached me with their comments. Firstly, Nathan Briggs, who describes himself as a consultant to Windsave, commented on my second blog piece (Oct 12th) that “I'm glad we didn't try to fit a windmill (to your house) and I hope you see the sense that we didn't. With just 5.1metres/second (m/s) I doubt you would have seen anything close to 1000kWh per annum so payback would have been terrible anyway.”

I replied to Nathan with the following observation. “My question back to you is this. My average wind speed, 5.1m/s at 10m height, according to the DTI windspeed database, is pretty typical of southern England and in fact is rather higher than most large urban areas. You are candidly admitting that at this windspeed my payback would be "terrible". So why are Windsaves being sold through B&Q across the country with the oft-stated suggestion that they could generate a third of your household electricity?”

But I never heard from Nathan again so the question was left unanswered. But a few weeks later, I received an email from Anya Gordon who is a sales manager at Windsave in Glasgow. She wrote: “As I am sure you can appreciate, being a new company launching an innovative product such as the WS1000 system into the UK market has not been without its trials. The product has been designed and launched on the basis that it will meet the requirements of the majority. As previously mentioned, we appreciate that it will not be suitable for every application.” Later in the same email, she added: “We have also noted your comments regarding windspeeds and effectiveness of the systems and we are currently upgrading our website and literature to further clarify some of the points you’re raised on your blog.”

There have been some changes to Windsave’s website. In particular a page has appeared called “Assessing Performance.” It says that the average wind speed across the UK is 5.6m/s at 10m above ground level. They also recommend “having our system installed in areas benefiting from wind speeds above 5.0 m/s.”

It’s hard to say what exactly this means. All places will get wind speeds about 5.0m/s at some point during a year but that is a very different thing to an average wind speed of 5.0m/s. Another critical factor that is often overlooked is the fact that the average wind speed data is given for a height of 10m above ground level. The typical Windsave will be mounted at less than half this height, in a location that is almost certainly going to prove to be turbulent. The projected power outputs are in reality amazingly low. They themselves are indicating that a WS1000 located on my house would have generated around 175kWh per annum.

Reports arriving from other sources suggest that even this sort of output is fanciful.
• The St Albans Eco House has a Windsave fitted. It’s first two weeks of operation produced just 500watts of electricity.
• Bill Dunster, the Bedzed architect and big wind turbine fan, has lived with a competitor to the Windsave, the Swift, for over a year and has yet to get any power out of it at all!
• The well-known green activist Donnachadh McCarthy found that his roof mounted turbine in London generated just 1.3kWh in two months. His comment to me: "It is a beautiful machine, it is silent but it vibrates and the output is miserably low. My view is that they are still experimental and have serious technical obstacles still to overcome. Buy them if you wish to support the research but not if you wish to save CO2.”

Which leads us to the big question that Nathan Briggs failed to answer back in October. It’s all very well Windsave selling a product of questionable provenance. But why, oh why, is B&Q pushing them out of its stores all over lowland England where they just will not work? Here is what it says on the B&Q website today: the Windsave wind turbine “could contribute to a potential saving of up to 30% for the average home if there is optimum wind speed at the site.”

It’s a very short step from that to “it can save around 30% of your electricity bill” which is what I was told in B&Q by an impressionable sales assistant. And an impressionable customer will of course hear exactly what they want to hear.

But it’s time they heard the real story. Unless you live in a very windy spot, a Windsave (or any other similar wall or roof mounted product) will not generate any meaningful power output at all. Come on, it’s time to admit that the roof-mounted wind turbine industry is a complete fiasco. Good money is being thrown at an invention that doesn’t work. This is the Sinclair C5 of the Noughties. As such, the Windsave WS100 becomes the second winner of my coveted Eco-Bollocks award.

18 Dec 2006

UK's largest green roof

If you want an example of just how stupid green architecture is becoming, take a peek at what is happening in Hemel Hempsted. Hemel Ski Centre is going to build an indoor snow complex. If you wanted to design an energy guzzling leisure facility to rival an Airbus, it would be an indoor snow complex. It’s a bit of hi-tech wizardry that would have been undreamt of a few years ago, but this one is set to be the fourth in the UK. It’s also barely 30 miles from the first one, Snozone in Milton Keynes, but what does that matter? In ten years time, we may well have 50 indoor snow complexes, because it looks as though there won’t be much snow anywhere else.

Now there were problems with the planners. They didn’t like version one which had an aluminium roof. “Too big and shiny”, they suggested. So the aluminium was ditched and instead….hey presto….version two has a green roof. Not just any old green roof, but the biggest green roof in Britain. Well it would be, wouldn’t it? I mean these indoor snow complexes are the size of a small mountain.

We are told the “revolutionary roof” will “blend in” with the horizon, it will help insulate and it will collect rainwater for re-use in the design. In other words, it’s been given a green makeover to add leverage to the revised planning application.

Call me an old cynic, but I keep seeing more and more of this stuff: developers shoehorning sustainability into projects that are essentially unreconstructed 20th century gas-guzzlers. Out-of-town shopping centre anyone? Fine, if it’s got a wind turbine. New hotel? Just make sure it’s on a bus route. Egged on by the government, the planners lap this stuff up. Dacorum Borough Council duly accepted the revised plan last week and the Hemel Snow Complex is set to fly. Dacorum Councillor Derek Townsend commented to the local paper: “One thing I do look at is the green roof — I think it’s a wonderful idea.”

The Stansted airport expansion plans were not so lucky. Last week Uttlesford District Council rejected plans for a second runway at the airport. Perhaps BAA, the owners and developers, ought to reapply with a version where the planes land on a limecrete runway laid out under a grass covered tunnel, to disgorge their passengers into a straw bale terminal building. You never know.

13 Dec 2006

Pellet Boilers: the Okefen examined

To Welshpool, to take a look at Europe’s most advanced pellet boiler. I am guest of Andy Buroughs and his company Organic Energy. Andy Buroughs has been in the renewables business for 20 years, mostly in solar panels, and has recently got interested in pellet boilers after visiting Austria and tracking down Okefen. He has become the UK agent for Okefen and also for another Austrian company, solar panel maker Gasokol.

Now the Okefen pellet boiler is a very impressive piece of kit. I instinctively feet that a pellet boiler is a sort of upmarket wood stove but I am surprised to see just how upmarket a wood stove can get. This is, as Andy points out, the Mercedes of wood-fuelled boilers. It doesn’t actually burn the wood pellets, it gasifies them and then burns the resulting gas at something like 93% efficiency. As there is as much heat value in a wood pellet as there is in heating oil, by weight, you can see that it is a very efficient method of extracting heat from wood. And, of course, the pellets aren’t shovelled in by hand: they are fed in automatically by an auger or a vacuum tube (you choose). And the grate doesn’t need riddling out every morning – the residue can be cleaned up once every few weeks. Indeed, on a forthcoming model, available sometime in 2007, things should have moved on to such a point that the proud owner of an Okefen pellet boiler can get by with an annual visit from someone who a) delivers a year’s worth of pellets into the hopper b) empties the ash can for the year and c) carries out the annual service.

Wow, that really is hi-tech. Renewables without tears.

However there is a big ask here. The cost of the kit comes to around £12,000. From this you can deduct a £1,500 grant from the Low Carbon Building Programme, but even so, that is a ball-achingly large amount of money for what is, after all is said and done, a boiler. This price would include the pellet hopper arrangement but doesn’t go anywhere downstream from the boiler itself. No hot water tank, no radiators or underfloor heating system.

The Okefen is competing with such kit as oil boilers — cost maybe £2,500 including storage tank— and ground source heat pumps — perhaps £8,000 up to £10,000. OK, you get to burn a green fuel, unlike the alternatives, but even if pellet supply turns out to be as cheap and as plentiful as promised, it is never going to stack up financially. One of the very first things Andy said to me was that the Okefen “was very much an aspirational product.” I didn’t quite understand what he was on about until I got home and processed all the cost information. Now I see what he means. It’s a hell of a big ask.

But I have no doubt that there will be a number of well-heeled selfbuilders who will see the Okefen and fall in love and just have to have it. It’s a bit like that. It may even become the Aga for the Zero Carbon generation.

Although I wouldn’t try cooking on it. But then, I wouldn’t recommend cooking on an Aga either.

6 Dec 2006

Renewable Energy Subsidies

The Low Carbon Buildings Programme (LCBP) has been running since April this year. It’s a DTI funded grant scheme to encourage people to fit renewable energy technologies into their homes. It replaced an earlier scheme called the Blue Skies Grant.

It’s been heavily oversubscribed. It was anticipated that the funding for the scheme would be £3million over three years but this figure has already been surpassed and they have had to raise monies from other kitties to keep it going. Renewables are fashionable, as never before.

This table is drawn from the LCBP website. It shows just how the money is being distributed. It is interesting because it shows which technologies are the most popular (the No of Projects) and which are attracting the most money (Money Committed). They are not one and the same.

Quite why PV cells should be so heavily subsidised is a good question. In terms of bang per buck, they are easily the most expensive of the options. They account for just 11% of grant-aided installations and yet account for 55% of the grant money. Even with these large grants, they are still a hell of a long way from having a sensible payback.

I have ignored the UK outside England. This is because both Scotland and Northern Ireland have separate— and more generous — schemes that are available for some technologies but not all of them, so their inclusion would tend to skew the figures.


Low Carbon Buildings programme for all UK

Action Renewables for grants in Northern Ireland

• Scotland has a grant programme called the Scottish Community and Householder Renewables Initiative (SCHRI). They like snappy names in Scotland. It handles grants for everything except solar PV. They don’t appear to have a website, or at least I can’t find it, but there is a very helpful lassie on 0800 138 8858.

• VAT position on renewables: On new builds, solar panels are zero-rated, as are the great bulk of fixtures and fittings. If fitting solar panels onto an existing house, the VAT rate is 5%.

• Subsidies: the government pays a subsidy to all generators of renewable electricity, whether grid connected or not. This is known as the Renewables Obligation Certificate or ROC. The value is driven by market forces but is currently around 4.5p per kWh or unit of electricity, equivalent to £45 for a megawatt hour.

5 Dec 2006

Runway battle is taking off

Airports are where the debate about global warming will be fought most keenly. Of all the aspects of modern living, flying is the one that seems to be completely unreformable. It’s not simply that planes use masses of fuel — they do — but the existence of commercial airlines offering relatively cheap flights across the world encourages us to travel. And we have become a world addicted to travel.

Interesting then to see Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways, complaining about the eco-lobby “doom-mongering” over global warming (Daily Telegraph 5 December). Willie’s idea of airport heaven is Dubai where they are currently building a six-runway airport that will be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No whingeing residents there to stop night flying, then!

He also moans about the UK slipping down the route network league. Apparently, dear old Heathrow is down to 5th place in Europe behind Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Munich. Sounds awful, but I think what he is saying is that you can fly to more places from these airports than you can from Heathrow, not that they are busier – they aren’t. Heathrow remains the World’s No 3 in terms of passengers processed, some way behind Chicago O’Hare and Atlanta.

Then Willie goes on the offensive. “People are not going to invest in the UK if the transport infrastructure continues to fall behind.” That sounds a bit rich coming from a Dubliner who has seen hi-tech investment pour into Ireland despite it having a transport infrastructure that has barely changed since independence.

It’s very hard to reconcile this bluster with the government’s stated aim of reducing carbon emissions. Willie Walsh accuses the eco-lobby of ignoring the realities of modern economics. But whilst a few years ago I would have had a lot of sympathy with such a view, I can’t help feeling that it’s maybe Willie Walsh who is now out of touch with reality. Whilst there are potential techno-fixes for many aspects of our carbon usage, there is nothing much we can do about the carbon emissions from flying except doing less of it. That is a conundrum that the capitalist world, built on the nostrum of continuous growth, has yet to confront.

But only yesterday, my brother-in-law’s family of five flew off to Colombia to spend Christmas with their extended family. If we hadn’t been living in the era of mass air travel, I doubt he would ever have met his Colombian wife. But having done so, and having had three children together, they are set to make numerous transatlantic trips to keep both sides of the family in touch. Yet the carbon-free future, which is what the scientific community is beginning to demand, more or less rules out discretionary air travel like this. In theory, it sounds fine, but in practice it will cause a lot of hardship and disruption. That in turn is a conundrum that the eco-lobby hasn’t really confronted either.

So when the battle lines are drawn, it won’t just be Willie Walsh and the unrepentant growth monkeys on one side and George Monbiot and the green utopians on the other. It will be much harder than that. It will divide families and split communities. There will be a few winners and lots of losers. In short, we will return to an era where politics really counts.