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Stafford's 'eco' house: test bed for sustainable living

Exterior with PV panelsSARH's 'eco' house in Stafford has ten solar PV panels for generating electricity and two solar thermal panels to pre-heat hot water, thus saving on energy bills.

Many of us have wondered what it would be like to live in an 'eco house', with all the latest energy-saving gadgets and features. Would we be basking in the knowledge that heating bills were virtually banished forever, or left rummaging through our sweaters when the temperature dipped outside?

Finding this out first hand are Rebecca, Shaun and their three children, Abigail, Isabel and Harriet. They are the new tenants of a three-bed detached house that was refurbished in early 2012 by social landlord Stafford and Rural Homes (SARH). The aim was to test the latest in sustainable low-carbon design. The family's experiences will help SARH in 'future-proofing' their housing stock to meet anticipated standards of energy efficiency, and make life more comfortable and economical for their tenants.

A-rated for energy

The renovation project, costing over £80,000 and including grants of £10,000 from Stafford Borough Council, has transformed the house, both inside and out, and insulationgiven it A-rated energy performance. Externally, the original brickwork has been given a coat of insulating render and painted white, new high-performance double glazing has been installed, and the roof carries solar panels to generate electricity and also to heat water. A porch to the front entrance is also planned, to maximize heat retention.

Floors and ceilings have been insulated and sealed to minimize air leakage

Internally, all the rooms were insulated and any cracks sealed to make the house air-tight and cut heat loss to a minimum. A ventilation system draws air from the rooms up to the loft, where a heat recovery system extracts the heat and uses it to warm incoming fresh air, which is then circulated to the living spaces. The new A-rated gas central heating boiler also works in conjunction with the solar thermal panels on the roof to heat hot water tankthe hot water, and kitchen appliances have been selected for their energy efficiency.

Hot-water tank upstairs is fed from the solar thermal panel on the roof

Grounds for green living

Besides the bricks and mortar, the project also involved a complete makeover of the garden, to create a space for food growing and play that would also be attractive to wildlife. With funding from Stafford Borough Council, a team from Staffordshire Wildlife Trust designed and created a kitchen garden and flower beds. The driveway was relaid using permeable paving to allow rainwater to percolate into the ground, raised beds were constructed for vegetable growing, and a selection of insect-friendly plants was planted alongside the lawn. Four watergarden butts collect rainwater for the garden.

Next to the drive on the side of the house is a charging device for an electric car or moped, and the tenants have use of two electric bikes. The charger can take electricity generated from the solar PV panels - so a car could be 'refuelled' for free, from the sun! How's that for the shape of things to come?

The greenhouse and raised beds allow Shaun and Rebecca to grow their own food
chargerCharger for electric vehicles can
use solar electric

Living the eco life: the story so far

So, what's it like to live there? Rebecca and Shaun were thrilled and relieved to be given the tenancy; their former house was impossible to keep warm and sent heating bills through the roof. Since their move in May 2012, the heating has been on for just two spells of 10 minutes each - in spite of some very cool unseasonal weather. The ventilation system works silently in the background, although they occasionally use the 'boost' button to clear steam from the kitchen or bathroom. Rather than being too cold, as in their old house, the new house quickly heats up in warm weather, and they have to open windows to stay cool. The thick layers of internal insulation have produced low ceilings with low-hanging lightbulbs that easily get damaged. And the solar thermal panels alone do not heat the water sufficiently for a bath; the boiler does the rest. No longer having a combi boiler does mean that when the hot-water tank is empty, the next in line for a bath has to wait a while for the water to heat up.

garden beforeThe garden before work on the house was completed

Despite never having been into gardening, the family is getting to grips with the great outdoors, and they have grown some delicious salad crops and veg in just their first few months. The children, not to mention the dog and two cats, spend a great deal of time in the garden. Rebecca and Shaun are doing a gardening course, to help them brush up their skills. So, on the whole they love the house; as Rebecca says: " I can imagine being here when the kids are older, and all their friends want to come round. It's so nice here..."