Crossing the threshold: open eco-home events in the UK

Rachel Francis visits an ‘open eco homes’ event along the Welsh borders, one of a number of such schemes to have now taken place in the UK

Up the hill, just past the Co-op, third on the left… wherever we live there are homes being specially built or carefully adapted, so that they become low energy, low impact, eco-houses. While some seek high-tech solutions to cut carbon, others prefer to focus upon self-reliance, cooperation and living in balance. It’s important that we honour the right of each home to choose; the principal is simply to make a sustainable choice each time.

A well-planned ‘open eco homes’ event is a great way to show what’s possible and inspire others in the community, and now the idea is taking off at local hubs across the country. Following events in places including Brighton, Oxford, and Stroud, the first such event along the Welsh borders took place this summer.

Organised by the Household Energy Service (HES), a community enterprise helping people reduce their carbon footprints, local businesses were brought on board as sponsors. The weekend of 9-10 July 2011 saw a range of around 30 homes opened up to the public, giving people the chance to get practical advice on systems, products and installers direct from the householders and to learn from their experience about practical solutions to particular problems.

At ‘Brooklands,’ a home near the market town of Bishops Castle in South Shropshire, visitors were able to view an air-source heat pump working as a whole house ventilation and heat recovery system. Solar thermal panels, a wood-burner with a back boiler and an immersion heater, all feed into a central heat store for water.

“The heat recovery system keeps the whole house warm with much less effort than hauling coal and wood,” says the homeowner, Helen Fairweather, “although it doesn’t cope very well with very cold weather and is difficult to understand. Solar thermal means I use hot water when it’s there, in the evening, rather than when I necessarily want it, such as for showers in the morning.”

Fuel poverty is partly a result of mass produced housing projects, built on the cheap for maximum profit, which are poorly insulated and expensive to keep warm in winter. During the open eco homes weekend, there was a great example in Prestigne of an ex-council house that has been transformed into a cosy and energy efficient home.

The transformation began by installing cavity wall insulation, loft insulation and draught excluders which, “make the house feel as if it is wrapped in a warm blanket,” says resident, Tania.

The coal-fired central heating was then replaced by a modern wood-burning stove and a mains gas-condensing boiler, with solar thermal panels to heat the water.

“Best of all is the pleasure I get from soaking in a hot bath of liquid sunshine at the end of a hard day,” says Tania. “As I lie there relaxing, I contemplate those hot rays travelling through 93 million miles of space and via the solar panels into my bathwater.”

Just outside Presteigne was one of the more unique homes on show. Willey Chapel, having an unfelted roof and lead lined windows, needed a sympathetic approach to eco-refurbishment that would also protect the character and original architecture.  Loft insulation made from 85% recycled plastic bottles was used because it is effective in damp conditions and wooden shutters were made by a local craftsman to protect the windows on cold winter nights.

Inside, the eco-ethic continued, with a ‘self-reliant kitchen,’ where the focus is on replacing electricity with elbow grease. The open eco home visitors learned to grind flour, knit dish-cloths and bake bread. Some, who dropped by just to have a look, were discovered several hours later sitting in the kitchen happily churning butter.

“Open Eco Homes was really a great success,” says Prue Dakin of HES. “We had 330 visitors, most of them very focussed. They knew what they were looking for and they made good use of our website and leaflets beforehand. Above all, people appreciated being able to talk with other home owners, to exchange ideas and to discover how things work in practice – it’s the unvarnished truth.”

When we are invited to cross the threshold into somebody’s home, we enter into an unspoken bond of friendship by accepting another’s hospitality. Authentic hospitality is an ancient part of human culture that has, for many thousands of years, been a way in which people form new bonds of trust, facilitating exchange and the sharing of knowledge.

Open eco home events embody this spirit of hospitality, this invitation to cross the threshold. As our response to media spin and sales techniques, they can help us share our own ideas and see them brought to life; help us to witness change and help to drive the great shift towards low carbon, low impact living.