Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Can a bathroom makeover be eco-friendly?

I was recently asked to write an article on “How to Give Your Bathroom an Eco-Makeover”. My first reaction was to blanche. How can anything as superficial as a “makeover” be eco-friendly? The eco-cause, green building, sustainability, these are important issues that cannot be taken so lightly as to be associated with a quick lick of organic paint and some recycled batik cushions.

But then I paused and thought a moment. I have for a long time believed in the maxim that change is a process, not an event. I also believe that we have to change the way we build houses and live in them. If for no other reason than that there is no good reason to go on the way we are. Maybe its is a generation thing (maybe I am just mean), but I abhor waste and the way we build houses is massively wasteful. They waste materials, many of which are from finite resources, they waste energy, again mostly from a finite resource, and most importantly they waste money. And they produce waste, and lots of it.

The Government is forcing the change with the Ecohomes standard, The Code for Sustainable Homes and significant stiffening of the Building Regulations. Mark Brinkley has written at length in this blog about the anomalies in these new codes and how they are more or less ineffective. Most of which I agree with. But he makes my point for me. These new standards are making the necessary change an event – zero carbon by 2016 – without winning the hearts and minds necessary to make it happen. They certainly haven’t won Mark Brinkley’s heart or mind, and as I travel around speaking on sustainability I find he is not alone.

I am about to make a presentation to a group of building control officers on the Ecohomes standard. The reason? Their boss had caught another of my presentations and had not realised what the standard entailed or how building control officers would be involved. Again, the change has been dumped on them without any attempt to justify its aims or to win them over to the cause – or, it seems, even to provide them with basic training as to what the standards contain. What will happen is that the building control officers, upon whom the self-builder or developer will depend, will be poorly informed and resentful. As a consequence they will, at best, be unhelpful and maybe even obstructive.

I have experience of other quality management systems and what happens is that people do as little as possible to comply and spend all their time, and money, finding ways around each particular requirement. That already happens with Building Regs and always has. It is a fence we have to jump over and obviously we clear it by as little as possible. Very rarely, almost never, do you find any attempt to voluntarily exceed the standard. The same is set to apply to the Code and Ecohomes, although the opportunity still exists to “sell” the idea as something more than a minimum standard that we are dragged, kicking and screaming, to. We could be encouraged to take it on with enthusiasm; as a means of building better homes, less wasteful homes, homes that will last 100 years.

To take an example, I have a client who is converting a cob barn to what will be a lovely home. The problem he has is that building control has no knowledge of the thermal performance of a cob wall (for the uninitiated, cob is a mixture of clay and straw formed into walls 500mm to 700mm thick and rendered with lime. It is a building method some 400 years old that is still fairly common in the South West of England). Cob is know to provide a relatively constant internal temperature and consequently needs little energy to heat – the cob providing good thermal mass. What my client has to do is pay Plymouth University to test the cob walls and arrive at a U-value to convince building control that this 200 year old building is good to go. Not only that, but everyone, wanting to use cob has to do the same thing. You would think that building control would learn that cob over 500mm thick complies, but no. BRE has not tested it so it does not appear in the tables, and therefore has to be tested afresh every time.

The Code is about building sustainable homes and here is a family trying to do exactly that and being stymied at every turn.

There are anomalies in the standards, bits that are unworkable and requirements that appear to make no sense. But there is also a lot that is good in them. Measuring the amount of energy and water we use has to be a good start. Raising the standard of noise insulation and encouraging the use of brownfield sites also have to be good ideas, as does encouraging the use of materials from sustainable sources. But of course this great Government of ours is deaf to the pleas that the anomalies need to be addressed. Thereby condemning the Code to be no more than another pile of bureaucratic paperwork that has to be complied with.

If, like me, you believe that changing the way we build and power our houses is a good idea – because it is a good idea to leave something for our children’s children to build with – then embrace the Code. Work round the anomalies, step over the unworkable bits and move on. In essence it provides the basis for a new way of thinking about how to build, and in time, maybe, it will evolve into a useful document.

Have thought all these thoughts, I returned to the article with a fresh view. Change is a process and it has to start somewhere. A small change that is successful is more likely to lead to more change than a big change that fails. So giving your bathroom an eco-makeover is actually a great idea. It enables the homeowner to address all the key issues – energy, water and materials – in microcosm. The project is likely to be successful as it is doable, affordable and the changes wrought will be effective. It is to be hoped that the success will lead to further projects, more success and a realisation that the eco-cause is not exclusively for people with beards and open-toed sandals.


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