I like to be warm at home. Not in a waft-around-in-flip-flops sort of way — I appreciate the pleasures of a thick knit — but I draw the line at being able to see my own breath in the morning. However, my house was built in 1821. It has single-glazed leaded-glass windows and solid walls made of flint and assorted rubbish stuck together with bat poop (not strictly verifiable on the faeces front but it might as well be). It’s a construction method commonly called bungaroosh and it’s a particular foible of East Sussex, where I live. It keeps my home lovely and cool in the summer, but in the winter, without heating, it can feel colder inside than out. From trying to hang a picture to preventing the ingress of damp, it’s a nightmare.

Nonetheless, seduced by its historic prettiness, when I bought it more than a decade ago I cheerfully installed underfloor heating (UFH) upstairs and down (I don’t like radiators on aesthetic grounds), and a must-have of that moment wood burner (Defra-exempt as I live in a smoke control area) in the living room, even though I didn’t really need one. There were thermostats in every room so I could target my heat, and my brand-new A-rated combi boiler huffed away efficiently to maintain a comfortable temperature on demand. More recently I signed up to Bulb, a green energy provider, so although my heating has its work cut out for it, I felt I was doing my conscientious bit.

Nonetheless, when the heating goes off, it’s only a matter of hours before all that lovely warmth dissipates. It’s hardly surprising. According to Greenpeace, the UK has some of the oldest and draftiest housing stock in Europe. In a standard uninsulated house, we lose 35 per cent of heat through our walls, 25 per cent through the roof, and 10 per cent through the windows. The final 30 per cent is split equally between floors and drafts. And yet it’s only recently that insulating new builds as standard to prevent this has been made a condition of building regulations; regardless, just 1.8 per cent of new homes meet the top efficiency ratings. Frustratingly then, despite gutting my place to install splendid new finishes — parquet, wallpaper, tiles, paint, panelling — I failed to add extra insulation. My builder didn’t suggest it, and I didn’t know enough then to specify it — not under the eaves where I raised ceilings, not behind fitted wardrobes or marble tiles in the bathroom, and regrettably not around incoming pipes running under the floor. Luckily the UFH came with insulating mats.

Renew look

2020 marked the first year that electricity supply from renewable sources outstripped that from fossil fuels in the UK. 43 per cent of power came from wind, solar, biomass and hydroelectric sources

It’s a typical scenario — a beautifully decorated but horribly energy-leaking home. According to Savills estate agents, 47 per cent of our pre-1900 housing stock has an EPC rating of E or below. And advice like having your dog sleep on your bed (hair everywhere, no thanks) or running the dishwasher only once a week (how much cutlery do these people have?!) is infuriating. It’s similarly annoying to be told to unplug all one’s devices at night. What, and reset the clocks every morning? Then again, energy consumed by gadgets on standby accounts for nine to 16 per cent of a home’s total energy bill — with TVs and games consoles being the worst, so I may capitulate on this one.

When UK energy price hikes were first announced in February, I dutifully turned all the thermostats down to 18 degrees, installed a washing line to make the tumble dryer redundant and opted to operate the UFH manually. I also built raised vegetable beds to grow my own and shredded my paper recycling for kindling thinking, finally, the wood burner comes into its own.

Take charge

Gas, at the time of writing, is capped at just over 10p/kWh vs just under 4p/kWh in January 2022. Electricity is considerably more expensive at just over 34p/kWh vs 20.5p/kWh in January

I stalked the house testing for drafts with an outstretched finger. There were plenty. Metres of self-adhesive rubber draft excluder later and every single wonky window was fixed (instant results). I nailed a fringed brush attachment to the bottom of the front door (less effective: it simply sweeps dog hair neatly beneath it, but if I leave it long enough that might improve matters). I’d always had full-length curtains to pull across the door at night for privacy, it being half-glazed, but now I’ve added a thick cotton fleece interlining (from about £5 a metre) to give it insulation welly. I also now understand the draft-capping point of pelmets.

iluustration of a house wrapped with a scarf
© Tiago Majuelos

These were the easy fixes to tackle the 15 per cent of heat lost through drafts. But what else was quick, achievable and realistic? Because, regardless of the impact on bills, such wastage has always had implications for the climate. Heating makes up 40 per cent of the UK’s energy consumption with 85 per cent of households connected to gas. As a result, 14 per cent of UK greenhouse emissions come from our homes, primarily through those carbon-belching boilers, which is, perhaps shockingly, a similar level to that from cars.

Bean counter

In 2020, the UK imported 84 per cent of its fruit and 44 per cent of its vegetables. Yet 6.6mn tonnes of food was wasted in 2018

Add to this that 80 per cent of the buildings we’ll use in 2050 already exist, and it becomes clear that if we really want to do our bit, retrofitting insulation seems the way to go. Thus, in search of the good but green, I buried myself in a mire of technical jargon and increasingly incomprehensible installation videos. I investigated cavity wall insulation (conclusion: the air gap is your friend, fill it at your peril) and myriad types of insulating lime plaster containing everything from hemp to cork (good but pricey). I looked up sheep wool insulation (naturally fire retardant), wood fibre boards (low-carbon) and even fungal mycelium boards (reputedly thermally and acoustically superior for the same thickness of plastic-based boards).

Cooking with gas

The UK received only 4 per cent of its gas from Russia in 2021. The rest comes from our dwindling supplies in the North Sea and imports from Norway, the US and the Middle East

But regardless of what’s available, the reality of stripping your house right back to its bare bones, skirtings off and everything, to cover it internally with insulation, is highly disruptive. It’s tricky to navigate existing wiring and costly to cover and finish it all back up again using ecological, breathable materials. Plus, your rooms get smaller.

You could, of course, stick insulation on the outside of your home, which is fine if your home was pebble-dashed in the ’70s as frankly you’d be doing yourself and your neighbours a favour. But for any brick façade of note, it’s a no-go. Or if your home is listed, forget it. And if you can only do the back of your house, it’s not worth it as the heat will simply seep out from the sides.

Five energy savers you might enjoy

Invest in a slow cooker

A baked potato may cost around 6p to cook in a microwave versus nearly 25p in an electric oven, but nothing beats coming home to the smell of a stew in a slow cooker. It’s an olfactory hug as you step over your threshold that costs about 16p for seven hours. GreenPan, the leader in PFAS-free non-stick coatings, has just added one to its range.

Wash your clothes at 30 degrees

It’s just as effective and uses less energy — ergo it’s cheaper per wash. Make sure the machine is fully loaded for maximum benefit. And hang it outside to dry if you can.

Upgrade to an induction hob

Quicker and more efficient. Add in a classic stove-top kettle such as Japanese designer Sori Yanagi’s stainless steel number, boil only what you need, and take it with you when you move. Cost? Less than 2p a go.

If you invest in a wood burner,

make sure it’s Defra-approved as burners have to meet strict particle emission standards as part of the Government’s Clean Air Strategy. You must also only buy logs officially marked “ready to burn” as they’re properly seasoned to produce fewer particles and more heat efficiency.

Embrace rugs, wraps and hot water bottles

Imagine reading in front of that stove snuggled in a blanket; hot-water bottle against the small of your back; hot chocolate in hand; dog, partner or small child optional. 

It was time to call in the experts. I commissioned a home energy survey from the Brighton & Hove Energy Services Co-operative (BHESCo), strapline “clean energy, for people not for profit”. This provided me with a strategic checklist of options “for the installation of energy saving and renewable energy measures” tabled by cost vs effectiveness. It involved several hours of an energy assessor inspecting my home and resulted in a 24-page report covering everything from the benefit of LED bulbs to the advantages of secondary glazing.

I have also learnt that old houses are designed to be “moisture-open”, meaning breathable. When it rains, solid brick or stone walls need water to be able to evaporate through them, not get trapped. In addition, heat passing from inside to out actually helps to keep everything stable. Which is a bit of a dilemma if trying to keep heat in! In truth, the more robustly you insulate to reduce heat loss, the more important it becomes to ventilate, controlling against the things inside that produce water — such as breathing, cooking and showering – otherwise, hello mould. You could buy a pricey bit of kit called a heat recovery and ventilation system, which cleverly recycles your stale air and body heat into clean dry air. Or you could open your windows.

illustration of a woman struggling against wind drafts inside her home
© Tiago Majuelos

The other complication is that many standard builder’s materials — cement, gypsum render, plasterboard and off-the-shelf petrochemical insulation boards — are resolutely non-breathable. The latter are also drenched in chemical fire retardants, which is a whole other respiratory hazard. We’re basically suffocating our houses and wrapping them in toxicity. No wonder asthma is on the rise.

But what about solar panels? Surely then, however much energy I use, it’ll be free, right? Sort of, but only after I’ve paid £10,000 to £15,000 upfront to install the system, including a battery, which stores energy during the day for the evening, not from the summer for the winter as I had optimistically imagined.

On the boil

Hydrogen boilers are the new kids on the testing block. Similar to gas combi boilers, they offer a huge advantage to consumers because hydrogen can be distributed using the existing gas network

Heat pumps, then? After all, the government has extolled their virtues as the answer to everything eco and efficient, offering installation grants of up to £6,000 per household. Except what’s seldom mentioned is that they work best with UFH, so if you have radiators, they may need to be doubled in size. Oh, and swap out your neat combi boiler for a great big water tank, not forgetting that the pumps themselves can be noisy and large. And even if your installer correctly processes the grant paperwork, you’ll still need another £6,000 to £18,000 for the privilege of drawing your heat from air or earth. Best then for your forever home.

Furthermore, klaxon: none of these options is remotely worthwhile if you do not insulate first. It’s also a requisite of eligibility for grants. Thus, while the beginning of the story is indeed to make energy ecological and affordable, the key is not to waste it.

Clean energy

One minute less in the shower a day could save a four-person family with a water meter nearly £120 a year, according to the Energy Saving Trust — and dumping your tumble dryer another £70

I’ve spun in frustrating circles, concluding that I could easily spend up to £30,000 on various measures, all to save a couple of hundred pounds per year. Financially, it doesn’t stack up, especially as I’m planning to move in two years’ time. Although by that rationale alone, my outgoings to fill my veg beds with soil and seeds would probably have kept me in monthly organic veg boxes for a decade or more. And that wasn’t really the point: the benefits of gardening go much wider than what is produced. Just as insulation is part of a bigger picture than our bills, reducing energy waste minimises our contribution to the climate crisis while lessening our reliance on gas, imported or local.

My plan is therefore to continue fleece-lining all my curtains, insulate only behind my wardrobes and pray for a mild winter while continuing to recycle, compost, save water and reduce plastic use. Ultimately it’s not about some of us doing everything perfectly; it’s about all of us doing something. But when I buy my new place, I’ll absolutely try to do it right, from the start. I’m thinking of solar panels with a hydrogen boiler for back-up, and the whole house wrapped snug-as-a-bug in naturally water-wicking sheepskin. After all, central to the very premise of home is that it’s cosy.

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