The St Albans Eco House
It's not easy being green?!
We re-visit the St Albans Eco House to see if green living is all it's cracked up to be!
About 15 months ago, St Albans City and District Council turned one of its houses into an energy efficient home, in what was believed to be one of the first projects of its kind.
A traditional 1950s semi council house was literally packed with energy and water saving features including a solar panel, a wind turbine and a 4,700-litre underground rainwater-recycling tank.
At an Open Day for the newly converted house in October 2006, Paola Munns, the Asset Manager at St Albans District Council explained what they hoped to achieve:
"We've been doing cavity wall, loft insulation works and double glazing for a long time on our stock" she said.
"We're looking at moving up a step and looking at alternative technologies and what else we can do to make our homes more energy efficient, and also to use less energy, because as you can appreciate, our residents don't have that much disposable income."
The energy use in the house is constantly monitored remotely so that after 12 months the Council will have a set of results that they can look at to see what has worked.
Well, what has actually happened since? A few months after that open day, the Keys family moved in. They knew that they would be in a special kind of house and hoped that it would save them money. The family of six have now been living there for about 11 months so we decided to go back and see how they were getting on.
From the outside, the house in Sleapshyde, St Albans, looks pretty normal, until you take a closer look. Peering upwards to the roof you can see a solar panel and a sun pipe, but these are the only real visible signs of the Council’s project to make its homes greener.
In the back garden a large plastic disk in the ground is the only evidence of the huge water tank which collects rainwater that feeds into the family’s toilets and washing machine, but on the extension roof you can see a blanket of sedum which not only provides insulation but also changes colour throughout the seasons.
Inside the features include dual flush toilets, double glazing, special vents which open and close according to humidity and radiators that cool when rooms get to a certain heat.
All the energy-efficient features have monitoring equipment attached that beams the results direct to the Council’s offices and their effectiveness will be assessed to help the Council to decide which elements should be installed in other Council houses.
Mum Debbie Keys explained what her favourite features are:
“I like the sun pipes” she said, “because they do throw out a lot of natural light so you don’t need the lights on upstairs, and we’ve got a nice sedum roof which looks pretty and changes colours throughout the season.
“And I suppose the solar panel” she added, “it doesn’t look as unsightly as you might think, and it does heat up so much of the hot water.”
On a practical living level, she also revealed that the equipment doesn’t really affect their daily lives.
“No, not really” she said.
“We thought it would be really quirky but it’s not – it’s just like a normal house. One thing I did notice is the dual flush toilets [because] compared to my friend who hasn’t got them, we do notice the amount of water that you waste on a normal toilet. It’s just little things like that that you notice, but no, it’s not much different to living in a normal house really.
“In our bedroom there’s a monitor” she continued, “and all the energy that we use is all transmitted and somebody works it all out, so technically we don’t have to do anything, it’s not an interference to us at all.”
However, Debbie did say that there were a few teething problems at the beginning, the main one being with the underground water tank.
The recycling unit
“All the rainwater from all the guttering from our house and from next door goes into this tank underground” she explained.
“That then goes into our toilets and washing machine, but if there's not enough water from the rain then it's topped up with mains water and unfortunately I think the pump broke so we had mains water ploughing into this tank for weeks on end.
“We kept saying I don't think it's right, but eventually my husband went out there and we actually shut the main valve off ourselves, hence we got a £700 water bill! And going from £100 to £700 was a bit of a shock!”
And that feature, although now fixed, has still not proved to be economical yet. Debbie has just received another water bill and it’s slightly higher than it was at their old house.
They have also had some problems with the vents opening with humidity but not shutting again and the wind turbine had a manufacturing problem so was taken down and they are not sure if it will be replaced.
“I hope that these are just teething problems” said Debbie, “hopefully, once the people come round it will be sorted but at least we don’t have condensation or damp anywhere in the house!”
“But the Council have been great in that the minute something goes wrong I ring up and there’s someone at the house within 24 hours trying to sort it all out.”
The key question of course is – are they saving money? As a family of six, Debbie said that the main reason for trying out this house was to save some money. They are always conscious that they don’t want their bills to be extortionate and try to budget all the time, but so far, they haven’t noticed a lot of savings.
“I actually think that my bills have gone up” revealed Debbie, “compared to us in our previous house.
“That was a three-bedroomed newer build house and I think in new builds they have a lot more insulation so therefore you don’t need the heating on so much. You come into an older property and it hasn’t been insulated, the roof has but the cavity walls haven’t, therefore I am using my heating a lot more, so my bills have slightly increased I feel.
“They are comparing us to a house down the road that hasn’t got this equipment and so their [bills] could be higher but I’m just comparing myself to our previous property. It’s a bit of a disappointment really, I don’t know what I was expecting but I thought I was going to save a lot.”
However, she did say that she thinks they have saved slightly on electricity, what with the sun pipes and energy efficient light bulbs, and they are also quite conscious about not having televisions or computers on standby.
The family are hopeful though, that a bit more time will see them making more savings.
“For me, from an average person’s point of view, it hasn’t done what I expected it to do which was save some money but we’re getting there slowly, all the equipment works and eventually it will happen.”
So the jury seems to be out on the bills. Debbie feels that she is paying more, but the house does need to be compared to a similar one in the same road as David Bennett, a Building Services Surveyor from St Albans District Council explained.
“The intention at the outset was to compare the results with a house down the road, so that we had something that was already working and then we could compare the two” he said.
“Until the 12 months is up it’s not something we can readily look to, but the important thing is that we’ve got all the information on this property, everything that provides heat and water has already been monitored so we’ve got all the records.
“[This property] is in a different location and obviously has different usage [from their previous house], so you’ve really got to look at this house as a one off and say ‘OK, what’s the general usage for this property?”
Nevertheless, even though the year of monitoring isn’t quite up, the Council’s aim of looking at new technologies and seeing what works so that they can be used in other Council houses seems to be coming to fruition.
4,700-litre rainwater-recycling tank
They were disappointed with the wind turbine but feel that the sun pipes are doing very well with not much electricity being used in the bathroom, and the sedum roof on the extension is saving water and it’s also insulating. And the solar panels have definitely been a success!
“It’s not a case so much of what’s working and what hasn’t worked, it’s really what’s economical” continued David.
“As a Council we have to watch what we’re spending and whatever we do spend must be worthwhile. We’ve moved the solar panels onto another estate now because we know that’s one technology that has definitely worked. We’ve certainly got good results from the solar panel.”
And what about the future?
“I would like to see any of the technologies that work adopted by the Council but as a Council we do need to make sure that money which is spent is well spent and the solar panels have certainly proven that” he added.
And of course, while the Council is trying out these new technologies, they must not forget that families are living in these houses. David says that it is something that they are always mindful of.
“Again we’re having to be very careful because we’re dealing with people’s homes” he said.
“They might be our houses but they are people’s homes and we don’t want to put in something that obviously causes grief and we’re very, very careful and mindful of that before we make decisions.
“At St Albans we realise that if we do a project like this then we need to have the back up and support to residents. If something goes wrong we need to deal with it very quickly.
“I think it’s just given us a great insight into ground breaking technology and that things aren’t always as easy as they appear to be” he concluded.
“It’s given us an opportunity now to see how things go and put into practice what we found has worked.”
last updated: 11/04/2008 at 14:05