Thursday, 27 February 2014

Warm work - home insulation

The work described here is part of package of measures being embarked upon, to reduce heat loss from a 1960's semi-detached house in Frome, Somerset. The work has been jointly designed by myself and Paul Buckingham - we are both graduates of the Centre for Alternative Technology Architecture course Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies (PG Dip/MSc).

Top left shows roof plate of my 1960s semi-detached house - uninsulated and with a large area of cold wall inside above all the top floor windows. This is where condensation occurs and mould grows - a problem with all the 1960s houses built to this design.(See my post Save before Generating for more on this.) Windows are below the soffit boards at the base of the roof. Battens attached to the outer blocks support the soffits. The top row of outer blocks is has been used to close up the 50mm cavity.

The picture to the right shows the party wall with an uninsulated cavity that is exposed to the cold where it joins the roof - a major problem. To address it will require pumping insulation in via the internal wall or taking all the roof tiles off to expose and fill it that way. We are exploring the possibility of insulating from inside but have yet to find a company willing to do it. They seem to be few and far between.It is mad that if cavity wall insulation is done (often under a government grant scheme - now it is free to anyone) the party wall is not. As a consequence, this type of house will have only one brick skin between the internal part of the property and the cold winter air.

100mm polystyrene insulation has been used - cut in steps up to and including the first 500mm into the loft space. Loft insulation has then been overlapped. An air gap has been left to allow for air to circulate in the roof (inflow via vents in the soffits). Ventilation - moving air - in the roof is vital to prevent condensation occurring in the loft. A section of roof felt had to be replaced with a suitable membrane, although we were able to reuse the battens for fixing the tiles.
Vermiculite was used to fill in gaps between the steps of insulation. The insulation sytem used is Knauf-Marmorit - 100mm polystyrene stuck down with a lime-based mortar (also used to insulate the rear exterior of the house). The down side of this system is the huge quantity of polystyrene waste, and the impossibility of controlling where all the bits go. Despite our best efforts, there are bits of polystyrene all over the place in the garden. With hindsight I would in future prefer to use a wood-fibre product - much more sustainable and environmentally friendly (although nowhere near as good an insulator).

Cavity wall insulation
The house was cavity-wall insulated in 2008, but we know that the insulation did not reach many areas, including under windows and beside doors. Thermal imaging of other properties has shown that insulating cavity walls, especially those with 50mm cavities, is not an exact science. However, leaving bits of uninsulated walls means small areas of cold surface where condensation will readily occur. I have begun the process of seeking restorative work on my property by the company responsible for the insulation - there is a 25-year guarantee.However, they don't seem to be able to find contractors to do the work, as yet.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Flooding and farming: level heads are needed

Feelings are running high in Somerset as parts of the Levels continue to be inundated with deep floodwater, causing untold misery to those who live and farm there. Locals are convinced that some river-dredging would have substantially reduced the length of time the land there has been underwater and offer evidence from the Environment Agency demonstrating this. The EA did start some dredging last year at 'pinch points'. I suspect the work was delayed owing to the incredibly wet summer - a lot of land-related contract work just didn't get done in 2012 - a large area of the Levels was flooded at the time.

There's a lot to consider about how the Levels should be managed, and the debate needs to cover all bases, not just be confined to dredging. However, to date there hasn't been a rounded debate - and this is badly needed. It is vital to look at reducing the quantity of silt being eroded off farmland into the rivers - after all it is a first principle in addressing pollution control to deal with SOURCE before PATHWAY and finally RECEPTOR. Catchment Sensitive Farming initiatives aim to help farmers with this, but the initiative is inadequately funded (our R Frome initaitive is to be put into ''passive" status owing to inadequate funding) with CSF "struggling" to deliver.

In all the years I have been working in land management, many daft things have been done to floodplains and high up on the list is the conversion of permanent pasture to temporary grassland or, worse still, arable land in areas which should NEVER have been ploughed. One of the daftest examples was the construction of an embankment within part of the Nene Washes (Cambs) within which the land was pumped and carrots grown (the water being pumped on to adjacent land, making that wetter!) The Washes were designed to TAKE AND HOLD FLOODWATER and should never have been used to grow arable crops. This daftness was eventually put into reverse, but Tory MP Richard Body was one of many commentators who raised the profile about this type of mad subsidy-driven farming in his books Agriculture: The Triumph and the Shame and Farming in the Clouds. Subsidy-driven deep drainage for farming intensification in the Somerset Levels was also a cause celebre in the 1980s - and why the Environmentally Sensitive Areas Scheme was introduced here (following Andrew Lee's and other's campaigns about wetland destruction in the Halvergate Marshes and other areas). It is a tragedy that the ESA scheme is no more and a big concern that farmers could now drop out of the agri-environment programme, with the risk that land could be, once more, cultivated and intensified here.

It is urgent that questions should be asked about what types of land use are appropriate to the Levels. Resilient pastures are floristically diverse, with many grass and herb species that can tolerate prolonged flooding, unlike re-seeded rye-grass leys or arable land. Listening to one farmer who had just re-seeded after last winter reinforces the need to look at just what is grown on the levels and how farming can become more resilient there. Another farmer was on the radio saying he had lost a winter wheat crop. So why is winter wheat being grown on land liable to flooding - it doesn't make sense unless you are willing to take a big gamble (and lose the crop)? Arable land on the Levels also offers a potential and much greater source of silt, than does permanent pasture, that will end up in the rivers (and thus increase the frequency for river-dredging). All these considerations must be part of the big debate about future management of the Levels. Finally, any funding from the public sector must be strongly justified. We keep being reminded we are in an age of austerity and Somerset is facing a situation where cuts in public services are deep and damaging. As a taxpayer I want to see my taxes used to protect people and property where this makes sense, but not to justify the continuation of inappropriate land use practices that are going to make matters worse. 

You can see some of my other contributions to the debate here and here.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Save before generating

Uninsulated gable end wall, 1960s flats
at Austin Close, Frome, Somerset
It is good news that local communities will be supported to develop renewable energy generation schemes if the profits are to be used effectively to reduce energy demand. There are, however, major problems with most of our housing stock that are not being acknowledged by the construction industry, the green deal tick boxes or government, such as incomplete and badly installed insulation, including cavity wall insulation. There is also a substantial pre 1970s housing stock constructed of dense concrete blocks that the Government does not include in its 'hard to heat' homes categories (which it seems to think is confined to older solid walled properties). Much of this concrete-block housing was built as council housing and a lot of it is still occupied by social housing tenants on low incomes. There is usually an uninsulated concrete slab floor (= penetrating cold),  the walls don't "breathe", the cavities are narrow and difficult to fill, and once sealed in with double glazing these properties suffer badly from condensation and mould. Residents get blamed for the latter, when it is the construction that is the issue. A response (recently seen in one property) is to make a hole in the wall for ventilation - which means a constant blast of cold air and higher heating bills. Very few people, including those in charge of managing social housing properties, have a good understanding of what measures are needed to reduce heating bills and take people out of fuel poverty in this type of property. It isn't  solar panels that are needed, but training schemes and skilled people who will design and oversee projects to make houses warmer while using less energy.
Uninsulated sections of a property that have received
cavity wall insulation (blue). Condensation occurs
in these areas (see below), with consequent rapid growth
of mould - a serious environmental health problem.
This situation is experienced in many houses, especially
those built of impermeable dense concrete blocks, but it is also
being found in more recently-built (e.g. 1980s) houses.

My colleague Paul Buckingham and I, and many other contributors to Green Building Magazine, know that there are few builders who are competent to do the necessary work to an appropriate standard, and that green deal assessments are too superficial, just like the ridiculous Energy Performance Certificates. The one done for my house was completed by someone who didn't even visit it and who failed to record cavity wall insulation and a condensing boiler had been installed. This meant I had to complain to the issuing company, which subsequently had to redo the assessment. Similarly, I am now claiming under my Cavity Wall Insulation guarantee - as we have found installation has been incomplete - with large unfilled gaps found during our own survey of the property.

Investment into making homes warmer is far more of a priority than generating energy, and I am not convinced that profits from community renewables will be sufficient to unlock enough cash to address the mountains that have to be climbed to achieve energy-efficient housing in Britain. Another option could have been to use Quantitative Easing cash for this purpose, something my colleague Ken Neal has been pushing for. By this means money would be circulated within the local economy with multiplier effects (rather than being given to banks and effecting further increases in house prices).
Mould growing where condensation is occurring on the 'cold' bridge
which is the wall area above the soffits and under the roofline. This is a tenanted house privately owned. In this case the landlord is taking the problem seriously and engaging Paul and a local builder to do remedial work. This will involve taking two rows of tiles off the roof, removing the cavity wall closer, filling the cavity with vermiculite and placing insulation above the soffit on the outside wall. Loft insulation will also be increased and will link up with the new insulation, to effectively remove the existing cold bridge. Active mechanical ventilation will also be installed in the kitchen and bathroom to reduce the quantity of water vapour in the house. In an ideal situation the use of a heat recovery ventilation system would be better, such as the Lo Carbon Tempra kit that I have installed in my own kitchen. This will all help. However, the ideal would be a complete and comprehensive whole house audit and eco refurb but most landlords and house owners are not prepared for either the cost or the upheaval involved.

Hold back the floods

Waterlogged maize field near Frome, January 2014.The area in the foreground is also contaminated by leachate originating from a manure pile (not slurry as previously stated),  so it isn't just water and soil washing off the land into watercourses. Two springs rise in this field which is located on a heavy clay soil liable to waterlogging. Maize-growing is not an appropriate way to farm this land in an environmentally sustainable way.

Britain is once again under deluge. Prolonged bouts of heavy rain over the past couple of months mean the ground is waterlogged and low-lying land flooded.  Across much of the country, more water is reaches the floodplain more quickly because of land drainage in the catchment to enable more intensive farming. This has effectively removed the capacity of semi-natural vegetation (much of which has been removed or significantly reduced), such as associated with deep-rooted broad leaved herbs in pastures, wetlands, hedgerows and trees, to hold water back. Along with these land use changes, modern farming continues to cause vast quantities of soil erosion from fields and into watercourses. Even now, during heavy rain, slurry from dairy farms is also washing off fields – and this is another source of nutrient-rich silt entering rivers. This situation means many West Country rivers are now in a dire state and are failing to meet quality objectives for nitrogen, phosphate and fish. Watercourse maintenance is a vital tool in the box for reducing flood risk but it is overly simplistic, as many have suggested, to claim that all the problems being experienced now in the Somerset Levels and other flood-prone areas are due to a lack of river dredging. Moreover, in the past, over-deepening and over-widening rivers to facilitate drainage off low grade farmland and thus intensify farming practices have exacerbated flooding downstream. Some blame therefore lies with the former Internal Drainage Boards, the farming industry, National Rivers Authority (and predecessors) for colluding to create this situation that cost taxpayers dear, for the sole purpose of enabling landowners to reap agricultural subsidies for creating arable land, reseeding pastures and destroying flower rich meadows and other semi-natural vegetation – often in or adjacent to floodplains. The Somerset Levels is an area where this happened big time and tensions here in the 1980s and 90s led to farmers burning the effigy of a local Nature Conservancy Council official and then to the introduction of the Environmentally Sensitive Areas scheme. But this was the past and everyone needs to look at the now. Today, politicians, planners, the farming industry and all those involved in flood-risk planning, need to take a breath and work together to develop holistic, landscape-based measures that will overall improve the resilience of areas prone to flooding and treat a major part of the problem - runoff and silt from farmland at source. Such plans must also sit within a longer term adaptation strategy that will enable communities to adapt to climate change – including higher winter rainfall and sea level rise. 

The Somerset Levels is low-lying, most of it only just above sea level (20% is below mean high tide), necessitating pump drainage at times of high rain and high tides. The rivers also outfall into the Bristol Channel, which has the second greatest tidal range in the world. No amount of dredging will move water off from the area when it is underwater and when tides are high. Owen Paterson, having visited the Levels yesterday, has come in for a lot of flack from locals who are baying for the blood of the Environment Agency (apparently it is all the EA's fault the water hasn't disappeared) and want the rivers dredged. Paterson is correct in seeking to get organisations together to come up with a holistic plan (albeit on an unrealistic time scale). Work to alleviate flooding in all areas must get away from the old dredge, drain and pump approach and look to a much rounded set of long term measures. It is, however, a tragedy that the shambolic Common Agricultural Policy will continue to give money to farmers with hardly any strings attached. That is the money that could have been used to achieve the necessary land use change.

The Wildlife Trusts ( and Chartered Institute for Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) issued press statements in January, calling for the authorities and agencies responsible for managing flood and coastal erosion risks to prioritise natural and sustainable solutions in rural and urban areas. A spokesman from the Environment Agency said that there needed to be a pond in every field in areas where flood prevention is needed. Yours truly piled into the debate via Farmers Guardian’s 10 January leader article (see while George Monbiot’s treatise (“Drowning in money, Guardian, 13 January) had received over 800 comments within a few days of it being published.

Progress on implementing natural solutions has been painfully slow, despite “upstream” measures having been a key recommendation of the Pitt Review of flooding, published in 2007. There have been a few pilot projects, but funding and difficulties of landowner/farmer engagement continue to be major stumbling blocks, while further agricultural intensification in recent years in some areas has led to more runoff and silt entering rivers. Mark Fisher, commenting on George M’s feature, lamented experience from the Ripon Multi-objective Project, saying that, “Despite ... positive findings ... the landowners proved unwilling to submit an application for planting floodplain woodland at any of the identified sites and a decision was taken to close the project (after 15 months).” He said that a primary reason for their recalcitrance was “the lack of sufficient payments/incentive to compensate for the perceived reduction in capital value of the land and loss of agricultural income, as well as for the increased risks associated with land use change”. Monbiot rightly turns the table away on the whingers who say that too little is spent on flood defences, highlighting the excessive spending on policies (especially the CAP) that make flooding worse. It all comes back to money. There is a lot of it around, but most of it (88%) will be used to support farmers' incomes, which will in turn keep agricultural land prices high. Delivering the necessary land use changes to deliver 'ecosystem services' will be unable to compete on price.