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The grumpy environmentalist: Heritage first

Grumpy Environmentalist HomeEditor’s note: Two years ago, Stephen Waddington moved with his family from Ealing, London, to rural Northumberland. He joins the Greenbang team to write an occasional feature about his family’s attempts to renovate a 300-year farmhouse and live by eco principals.

Stephen is the managing director of Speed, a London-based multi-sector PR firm. He splits his time between London and his home in Northumberland. You can follow him on Twitter at @wadds.

Environmental planning should be incredibly straightforward. Nature has stated its case and clearly laid out the rules and it’s now a case of falling into line.

All too often, however, local agendas override macro environmental concerns. In the UK, the history of a building is placed ahead of its environmental impact.

Grumpy EnvironmentalistChasing the eco-dream

Two years ago my family bought a 300-year-old listed farmhouse in Northumberland. It sits east-to-west, facing south on top of a hill, with a formal garden at the front framed by a wall and two dove cotes. Our vision was to take it off grid insofar as possible with the target of a zero-carbon footprint.

We’ve spent 18 months and thousands of pounds chasing archaeological surveys, bat surveys, historic building reports and architectural plans to create a planning blueprint.

The good news is that we’ve received consent to undertake almost all the work we want to in order to sympathetically restore the house yet modernise its services.

The bad news? Environmental concerns are literally out of the window. Solar water heating and replacing the windows with sympathetically aesthetic double glazed units are an absolute no-go. And the viability of a biomass boiler is in question.


I’ve done the sums. Unplugging the TV at night or using eco-light bulbs doesn’t make a blind bit difference when more than 30 per cent of the energy used to heat a house is disappearing though the windows.

Both solar panels and double glazing are dismissed on grounds of authenticity. Solar I can understand, but the argument that sympathetic double glazing would change the character of the building is beyond me, especially with the quality of craftsmanship available in the UK. But, according to preservationists historical detail must be the top priority where a historic building is concerned.

A study by management consultants McKinsey more than 18 months ago found that emissions from buildings generate two-thirds of London’s CO2 and that the greatest reduction could be achieved through improved insulation. Domestic insulation makes both economic and environmental sense.

Double glazed windows would require the glazing bars between the window panes to be 5 millimetres thicker but that’s 5 millimetres too thick as far as English Heritage is concerned. And without decent insulation you need to generate a lot of heat to keep the building warm. Ground source heating is unworkable without decent insulation.

Biomass as a heating source is in question as it would require a new flue and that would have a detrimental impact on the appearance of the house — unless we can integrate it into an existing chimney. That aside, I have concerns about the viability of woodchip as a domestic heat source; biomass boilers are industrial rather than domestic products, information about the eco-credentials of the manufacturing process of the fuel is hard to come by and its undersupply in the UK means that it appears to track the oil price.

Flaws in carbon offset

With the help of some friends from the Woodland Trust, we’ve planted an orchard and native trees in a bid to grow our own fruit and offset carbon but that no longer makes me feel a lot better. Besides, our efforts are dwarfed by the Forestry Commission which maintains a 375-acre wood on our doorstep. It brings home the brutal truth that carbon offsetting so often is a mask for the much bigger issue of poor energy use rather than a solution in itself.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. We bought the house knowing that it was historically important and that, combined with its location, was fundamentally the root of its appeal. But I am grumpy. I’ve had to compromise my principals — and burn lots of oil.


  • Duofuse
    Posted July 17, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    Hello! Last time I have read quite interesting review of the White Building/Lea River Park by R. Moore. Full text of that review is available in “Art and Design” section on The Guardian website. You can find review here: In my opinion review is quite interesting especially for people interested in architecture, design, etc.

  • Neil
    Posted April 30, 2010 at 9:56 am

    You don’t have to put SHW or PV panels on the roof… Just an idea?

  • Matthew
    Posted January 11, 2010 at 9:15 am


    I run a blog about double glazing etc. Any chance I could use this as a guest post on my site, as I think you raise very valid points?


Comments are closed.

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