The process of a green renovation can be mind-bending. That’s why our Sustainability Director at Charlie Laing Project Management has put together a list of 10 commandments of your eco renovation. From survey through to finishing touches, ensure your project will be the success you’ve dreamed of.
Always have a survey done before buying a property to renovate. A basic survey will only tell you what is immediately apparent – you need a full structural survey to confirm whether or not the building is sound. Only a trained eye will be able to tell if a bit of bad workmanship has been cleverly covered up.
You also need to know what materials the building is made of. Lime mortar requires special treatment as it is breathable and you must maintain this ‘breathe-ability’ when making alterations to prevent harming the building’s fabric, for example. Certain timber types can disguise many serious issues. Elm for instance can literally be ‘eaten’ from the inside, leaving the outer husk looking completely intact. Lead pipes can be potentially toxic or you may find that the house contains asbestos insulation.
Consider a specific survey on drains, and an inspection of the heating system by a professional heating engineer. These are just some examples of the issues that could have a huge effect on the cost of your project.
You need to work out what the objectives for your project are. You can do this by defining what is important for you and for the building.
Repair: The object is to replace or fix broken and damaged elements to make them functional.
Conserve: The building is of historic value, so decide what is important and preserve it.
Restore: This is where you bring the building back to its former glory. If the important aspect of the building is an architectural feature, for example, you need to reinstate that element.
Renovate: A renovation is where the building is updated to modern standards. Most elements are replaced, often with more modern materials and finishes. Some historical features can be maintained and contemporary aspects added.
Set a realistic budget. Get more than one quote from contractors and perhaps seek independent advice – salespeople primarily want to sell their own products. Be aware that the majority of the work needed won’t be apparent at the outset. It is only once you have stripped back the fabric that you will expose the depth of the job that you face. You may find that you require specialist finishes or skilled craftsmen. It’s only when you reach this stage that you will be able to set a finite budget.
Introducing more insulation will reduce your heat loss and reduce the amount of energy used to heat your home. However, before specifying insulation you must first look at your selection of heating systems and choose an insulation product that’s appropriate for both the system and the breathe-ability of the structure of your home.
Also be aware that insulation takes up space. Some of the more efficient insulation products could require an air gap around them, which defeats the object of having paid a premium to save space, for example
If the wrong type of insulation is used you can end up creating a dew point in the fabric of the wall. Interstitial condensation could develop, which in turn could result in mould growth. Do your homework and consult specialists before installing anything that could actually end up doing more damage than good.
5. Heating Systems
Boilers are designed to provide a lot of high-temperature heat in a short space of time, whereas renewable heat sources, such as heat pumps, provide low temperature heat over a long period of time. It is this conflict of principle that makes it very difficult to retrofit renewables into existing buildings.
Introducing low-grade heat means that you need to replace almost the entire heating circuit. Your radiators will need to be replaced by underfloor heating specially design for low-grade heat, or with fan-convector radiators. Low-grade heat will also require a good amount of insulation and a reputable heat loss calculation.
The financial viability of renewables is going to be the biggest hurdle and this aspect needs to be carefully considered from the outset. Your payback is really going to be determined by the fuel that you are displacing and the quality of the installation and design.
One person’s rubbish is anothers treasure. If you can, re-use any materials that are already on site and if you can’t use them, then advertise on a recycling website rather than throwing them in a (rather expensive) skip. If your project is over a certain size, you will need a site waste management policy in place. By thinking carefully about recycling and making sure you don’t order too many materials, you can save money, time and energy.
7. DIY or GSI (Get Someone In)
Do not underestimate the importance of a good finish. Tasks such as tiling, joinery and plastering should be done by professionals. A bad finish will lower the standard of the whole project. Before tackling a job, find out if there are any legal restrictions to prevent you from working on it. You can carry out some aspects of electrical wiring yourself under the guidance of a qualified, competent professional, but you must not carry out any gas-related work, not even on the pipework, unless you are Gas Safe registered.
8. Windows, Doors and Airtightness
Natural daylight is rightly considered an important part of the design of your home, but windows are also the most inefficient element. Apart from insulation, air-tightness is the biggest contributor to heat loss from the home.
If air is allowed to pass through your building, it will take the heat with it. You therefore need to take a controlled approach, ensuring that both windows and doors are good quality, airtight units.
Double glazing now has become the industry minimum standard for most buildings. The glass is often coated with a reflective low emissivity (low-e) coating that helps to keep heat in, or out of, the property. The cavity between the sheets of glass is often filled with a gas, argon being the most common, to further reduce heat loss.
Triple glazing performs better than double glazing, especially acoustically, but weigh up the cost/benefit ratio within the context of your project and your budget. Listed, heritage or conservation properties are sometimes restricted in the type of replacement windows allowed so do make sure of the rules before going ahead and replacing the windows.
9. Project Management
Fail to plan and you plan to fail. Decide which aspects of the job you can do yourself but do not underestimate the scope of works. A renovation can very often involve quite a few specialist tradesmen and they will need to be scheduled in to the build programme. This could make it unsuitable to use a main contractor and you will need to consider a trade by trade approach.
You will need to have an understanding of the budget and stages of the build and what timings are for each of those stages. You certainly do not want to incur expense by sending trades home and rescheduling them. And disturbing finished work because you forgot an aspect or two is disruptive and expensive.
If in any doubt seek professional help. Many project managers will fit in with your skills and availability, and that could certainly benefit as well as ensuring the efficiency of the project.
Choose your finishes carefully. The eco credentials of many finished products are really stacked up according to their manufacturers’ interpretation. Eco paint could have latex in it as a binder, and this in itself is not a bad thing, unless of course you’re allergic to latex. Certain natural products could have travelled thousands of miles to reach your project, or perhaps has been subjected to energy intensive work to get them into the form that you require. Do not risk using a product that may need to be replaced in a short space of time. You need to determine your own eco-rules. Are you aiming for great performance, low embodied energy, and avoidance of volatile organic compounds (VOC) or do you want to stick to natural products with a traceable chain of custody. What is important to you in the project and how do you lower your impact through these rules? It is the end results that really matters.