For the next two weekends a few private households in the ancient University town of Cambridge will be creaking open their doors for an eco-home tour (you need to book).
People will be traipsing through a family living room near Wisbech, to admire the solar panels as much as the wood paneling. The owners, Sarah and Paul Bearpark will explain from their nineteenth century Pulpit how and why they installed energy saving measures, which ones were most cost-effective and what they plan to do next.
The new condensing boiler, for example (£1,800, replacing their old “below G-rated” one), and the extra loft insulation were, they say, “easy wins” where improvements in comfort and the reduction of energy bills were cost-effective and instantly noticeable.
Before, those icy Cambridgeshire winds used to scythe through their poorly insulated loft. Now, they no longer feel them. After the coldest winter for 30 years, they have just had a letter from British Gas informing them that their account is £377 in credit.
“It has been a bit hit and miss, even though I’m an environmental engineer and Paul is an electronics engineer,” says Sarah.
“Sometimes builders haven’t known what to do, or known about some of the technology.”
Sarah and 14 other home owners around Cambridge are throwing open their doors to inspire others to follow.
Brighton and Oxford have had similar events and Cambridge Carbon Footprint, the charity organising the Open Eco Homes, hopes other towns and cities will follow suit.
Mary Geddes, from Cambridge Carbon Footprint, says: “Our homes guzzle energy. Most Cambridge houses were built before people were concerned about climate change, and in an era of cheap fuel. Many of our houses are cold and draughty in winter and overheat in summer. Many people would like to make their homes fit for 21st-century living but don’t know where to start.”
The aim is to show examples of successful eco-renovation and give details of costs, technologies, suppliers and installers.
Paul, who confesses to having been a sceptic until a few years ago, is now a convert and says the project is not just about plugging away about fuel efficiency.
“If we think about what we want from our homes, high up on the list is comfort and cosiness, followed, probably, by lower energy bills. Being fuel efficient means you get more comfort, at lower cost.”
There will be a range of homes on show, from those that have gained big savings by using simple DIY measures, to others that have used extensions and refurbishment to install energy-saving measures. They range from a listed Victorian terrace to a 1947 excouncil house and a three-storey Edwardian pile that has reduced its bills by a third. There are also newly built modern homes that the owners have planned themselves.
Sue and Ian Collins and their daughter Sophie, for example, have built a brand new eco home in their back garden near the famous Cambridge “Backs”, opposite Churchill College, and move in this week.
The south-facing, L-shaped, single-storey house has a “living” sedum roof, a 4,250-litre underground rainwater tank, solar thermal panels, a wood-burning stove and is completely off-grid for gas. It cost £600,000 to build and, says Ian, a retired engineer, the planners were “unanimously enthusiastic” about it, thanks to its low-energy usage.
The house blends with its environment: mirrors in the roof lights reflect the surrounding trees and the large southfacing windows give a view to a beautiful liquidambar and a wild flower meadow. The tree provides shade in the hot months, and in the winter its bare branches let light and warmth into the house, warming the basalt floor tiles and yellow clay wall blocks which absorb the heat, acting as a thermal store.
Cambridge has had more than its fair share of pioneers, from Newton, to William Wilberforce, to Rutherford. Who knows, we could be seeing more of them next weekend.