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TOM FOSTER’S ARCHITECTURE COLUMN (March/April 2021)

Mon 1 Mar 2021

By Tom Foster - Architecture Column

TOM FOSTER’S ARCHITECTURE COLUMN                                                                              

01647 24436   www.TomFosterArchitecture.co.uk   info@space-and-light.co.uk

Let me tell you something interesting about this Covid era, which may not be generally obvious, but which I have been shown strongly through my architectural work.

It’s how focussed and aware people have become about the comfort, practicality, economy and health of their home environment. This is a newly comprehensive vision, for a more relaxed, happier life, and they see how making alterations or extension to their home can achieve it.

And, they add, they’d like to do it in an ‘eco-conscious’ way - but this is more because it’s the right thing to do, a bit of a sacrifice even, along with an acceptance that the age of shopping, throwing away, commuting and jet-holidays is slowly coming to a close.

It is my pleasure to see their astonishment when I show that an eco-conscious house is no sacrifice, but actually the very key to the comfort, practicality, economy and health that they desire. Below, I want to illustrate how this works – it’s high time to dispel some of the doubts people hold about ‘eco houses’.

Your eco-uprated house

First, to say that significant eco-uprating, for comfort, economy and health, is not difficult but goes well beyond current English Building Regulations and mainstream building industry ideas of adequacy.

The ultimate is the Passive House (PH) Standard. In new-build, full-PH is eminently possible and affordable. In eco-uprates of existing buildings, it is possible, but we’re more likely to achieve a ‘near-PH’ eco-house, still realising eye-opening comfort and health in use, as well as fuel/energy economy way beyond normal expectation.

The PH Standard  does not prescribe any particular building method but is a way of assessing and fine-tuning whatever method is chosen, to accurately predict minimal fuel/energy use. People do know that about eco-buildings, but often think it means living ‘inside an airtight box’ – uncomfortable and unhealthy.

Not so! “Fresh as a mountain top” is universally reported. Vastly improved comfort and health in use is at least as important in the PH Standard, otherwise occupants will fiddle with the house’s features, sabotaging its fuel/energy economy.

Here are a few examples of how a full- or near-PH eco-uprate is the best, synergistic approach to altering or extending a house for comfort, economy and health in use.

Comfort

So many houses, even in these days of replacement windows, carpets and central heating, have cold or draughty, sometimes mould-ridden corners which are useful only with reluctance.

Eco houses effortlessly and economically maintain steady temperatures and healthy humidity throughout, so every part can be used to the full. And what is felt as draughts is often in fact cold radiation from walls and windows. European-standard triple glazed windows eliminate that chilly sensation, so a child or cat can comfortably curl up on a broad window cill (which External Wall Insulation (EWI) creates) even in winter.

Health

Today’s houses are rarely healthy. Even old ones are nowadays full of low-level toxins that modern furnishings constantly off-gas, cosmetics and chemicals, even derivatives of ‘natural’ timber, like chipboard. Ventilation veers from totally excessive when the wind blows, to stagnant when it doesn’t. We exhale carbon dioxide (CO2) to 10x today’s outdoor concentration, or 20x what humans are designed for.  We have to go outside ‘to get some air’.

A Heat-recovery ventilation system (MVHR) silently extracts a trickle of spent air 24/7 and replaces it with fresh outside air, while transferring 95% of the outgoing warmth into the incoming stream. Hence the “Fresh as a mountain top” reports.

As humans spend more and more time indoors, health and wellbeing are hit by lack of daylight or greenery-view. Window cills, often waist-high due to prissy old privacy notions, are easily lowered, especially as part of EWI, to reveal flowers and grass even when seated. Eco houses welcome bigger southerly windows, to capture sun-heat in lieu of fuel burning, and European-standard triple glazing minimises their heat loss.

Economy

A PH Standard building needs no heating system; it harvests and stores enough heat year-round from the sun, our bodies’ heat, cooking and electrics – lighting, computers etc. Even a near-PH house may need fuelled heat only in the depths of winter – but often so little that simple electric-heat top-up is acceptable.

Practicality

We haven’t mentioned practicality. Household members may feel a frustrating shortage of quiet bed spaces or efficient study areas for their dreams or projects, while at other times missing a communal kitchen or flop zone that’s really convivial or relaxing.

Today’s typical house consists of room-boxes and corridors unimaginatively jammed together, when with some modification or extension their space and volume can be creatively shared out and tailored to real needs.

I wrote previously in The Cottage, about what’s possible. See below article titled TOM FOSTER’S ARCHITECTURE COLUMN (January/February 2020)

Wisdom

I hear from more and more from people who want to do something about comfort, practicality, economy and health of their home, and I feel very sorry for the many who can’t, because they can’t afford to, or because they don’t own their home.

Either way, I see a wisdom deepening, an urgency felt, the kind that has to happen before fundamental change. Change that is already creeping forward – for example devolved Welsh, Scottish and N Ireland Building Regs, not to mention Eire, are all moving as fast as possible to PH, while in England big-housebuilder lobbying preserves the weakest Building Regs in N Europe.

All over the world, Regions, Cities, Counties find they have power to push ahead and fill in for the foot-dragging of central governments, on Climate and more. We should be proud of Devon:

Exeter City Council is an acknowledged national leader with its ambitious cost-constrained Social Housing programme, as well as the huge Bus Station Leisure Centre, all built to full PH standard, requiring near-zero fuel/energy input for space heating/cooling;

At City level, Exeter, Plymouth and Torbay each have well resourced Climate plans – see Exeter’s at www.netzeroexeter.co.uk.

Devon has its own multi faceted project - see www.devonclimateemergency.org.uk , which says:

“Achieving net-zero will require the long-term participation of all of Devon’s citizens and substantial behaviour change”.

A tall order, any ‘realistic’ person would think, but we see that Covid and other recent events and movements are driving just such wisdom and changes, which seemed unimaginable only a year, or two, or five ago.

So thank you Covid, and well done, my clients!

I specialise in new, old and historic buildings, for work or home.

Expert in EcoBuilding, ‘Passive House', Planning Permission, DNPA, Building Regs, build-contract admin;

or perhaps you’d just like some can-do advice.

Talk to Tom to bring your vision closer.



Other columns by Tom Foster - Architecture Column

TOM FOSTER’S ARCHITECTURE COLUMN (November/December 2020) - Sun 1 Nov 2020
TOM FOSTER’S ARCHITECTURE COLUMN (July/August 2020) - Wed 1 Jul 2020
TOM FOSTER’S ARCHITECTURE COLUMN (January/February 2020) - Wed 1 Jan 2020


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