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Building the eco-friendly homes of the future



House - Alex Pepperhill via Flickr

The UK is in desperate need of new homes. Official estimates suggest that about 300,000 properties need to be built every year to keep up with demand, yet this is a rate that hasn’t been achieved in the UK since the 1970s and is two to three times the current level.

It’s a topic that is constantly on the political agenda, with the Telegraph recently revealing that the Government hopes to plug some of the gap with a round of modern day ‘prefabs’.

Yet with the scale of the housing shortage, it’s clear that there isn’t just one solution – there needs to be lots of different methods encouraged. A mass housebuilding programme does provide an opportunity, as well as a challenge.

While the housing crisis might be one of the issues that defines the next generation, the future of the planet is pretty important too. In Paris last year, countries from across the globe signed up to legally binding emissions targets, in an attempt to tackle climate change.

Is it possible to kill two birds with one stone?

According to some pioneers, it really is. There are some people who have been able to build homes that are so efficient that they not only produce enough energy for the people who live inside – but also some extra to ensure that the occupants get paid for contributing to the National Grid.

A community of two and three-bed social housing bungalows known as Unity Gardens in Long Sutton, in Lincolnshire, showcases how this bill-free world can become a reality.

These award-winning homes were the brainchild of eco-architect Dr. Jerry Harrall, who said: “If you wondered whether or not it is possible to design a building where, on an annual basis, you have no energy bills and no heating bills then the answer is yes, I have done it. We have clients who are living the dream.”

Residents in Unity Gardens use less than half of the energy of people in a standard UK home and generate about 1,500kWh more than they use.

This is achieved through smart design and the use of the right materials.

The homes are made with earth bunding for insulation, generate their own energy using a solar panel and wind turbine and deploy heavy materials to ensure the floors and walls can double up as storage radiators. They face south to soak up the maximum amount of sunshine and the most natural heat and light possible.

Unity Gardens proved the perfect starting point for one couple, who used the money they saved living there to build their own eco-friendly home.

Andrew and Jo Thompson tapped into the design knowledge of Dr. Harrall to build ‘Frankly Bee’ just down the road from Unity Gardens in nearby Sutton Bridge. The property cost just £100,000 to build and last year they not only had no energy bills, but they also received £365 for the energy they created.

Jo told the Spalding Voice: “I’m really proud of it and really pleased with the outcome. People need to know that they can do this too. If we keep buying these cardboard houses, nothing will change.

“It’s not hard, it’s not difficult – we just need to change the way we think. We chose this shape but you can make it how you like. You just have got to get the build right. We’re starting to reap all the benefits and not by the skin of our teeth. We’re a long way into making money.”

Dr. Harrall said the Thompson’s home also tapped into the research of Brenda and Robert Vale – forward-thinking pioneers who have inspired his own work over the years.

He added: “Frankly Bee really is the pinnacle of that evidence-based research.”

Not everyone matches the sorts of low energy feats managed by the Thompsons, but there are many people who are embracing green features into their homes to slash their bills drastically.

Indeed, building your own home might well be seen as the ultimate DIY project. With the right support at the planning stage and the right materials from the likes of Ken’s Yard – making your own home can be one of the most rewarding challenges to take on.

Mark and Sheila Hemingway are one couple that did just that. They led the project to build their new four-bedroom home in Northamptonshire, with support from self-build specialist firm Potton.

Their home features an air source heat pump, rain harvesting system, LED lights and a mechanical ventilation and heat recovery system. As a result, bills are a couple of hundred pounds below the £1,200 average and they get the Government-support subsidy knows as the Domestic Renewable Heat Incentive, which is worth £678 a year for seven years.

Mark said: “The temperature in the house is consistent at 22 degrees celsius. This is due to the insulation and re-used fresh air. There are no radiators and the downstairs of the house is all underfloor heated.”

“We’d not go back to a standard home now. We would definitely build an eco house again or retrofit a new one with eco modules.”

Yet, while the Hemingways and Thompsons of this world should undoubtedly be encouraged in their endeavours, it’s unlikely that the scale of the crisis outlined at the start of this article will be overcome by relying on individuals.

Yet, that’s where Dr. Harrall might have the solution. His next project is for 14 homes including one property that he boldly predicts will be the ‘most energy efficient home in the country’.

From there, he’s currently on the hunt for investors to back a new business – Indie House – that could deliver 2,000 homes in six years in the Peterborough area. If successful it would be the largest portfolio of its kind in the country.

Dr. Harrall said: “The business model is very smart and these are not estate developments. We are not building the ghettos of the future. These are houses that use no fossil fuels.”

Two birds with one stone indeed.


Is Wood Burning Sustainable For Your Home?



sustainable wood burning ideas

Wood is a classic heat source, whether we think about people gathered around a campfire or wood stoves in old cabins, but is it a sustainable source of heat in modern society? The answer is an ambivalent one. In certain settings, wood heat is an ideal solution, but for the majority of homes, it isn’t especially suitable. So what’s the tipping point?

Wood heat is ideal for small homes on large properties, for individuals who can gather their own wood, and who have modern wood burning ovens. A green approach to wood heat is one of biofuel on the smallest of scales.

Is Biofuel Green?

One of the reasons that wood heat is a source of so much divide in the eco-friendly community is that it’s a renewable resource and renewable has become synonymous with green. What wood heat isn’t, though, is clean or healthy. It lets off a significant amount of carbon and particulates, and trees certainly don’t grow as quickly as it’s consumed for heat.

Of course, wood is a much less harmful source of heat than coal, but for scientists interested in developing green energy sources, it makes more sense to focus on solar and wind power. Why, then, would they invest in improved wood burning technology?

Homegrown Technology

Solar and wind technology are good large-scale energy solutions, but when it comes to small-space heating, wood has its own advantages. First, wood heat is in keeping with the DIY spirit of homesteaders and tiny house enthusiasts. These individuals are more likely to be driven to gather their own wood and live in small spaces that can be effectively heated as such.

Wood heat is also very effective on an individual scale because it requires very little infrastructure. Modern wood stoves made of steel rather than cast iron are built to EPA specifications, and the only additional necessary tools include a quality axe, somewhere to store the wood, and an appropriate covering to keep it dry. And all the wood can come from your own land.

Wood heat is also ideal for people living off the grid or in cold areas prone to frequent power outages, as it’s constantly reliable. Even if the power goes out, you know that you’ll be able to turn up the heat. That’s important if you live somewhere like Maine where the winters can get exceedingly cold. People have even successfully heated a 40’x34’ home with a single stove.

Benefits Of Biomass

The ultimate question regarding wood heat is whether any energy source that’s dangerous on the large scale is acceptable on a smaller one. For now, the best answer is that with a growing population and limited progress towards “pure” green energy, wood should remain a viable option, specifically because it’s used on a limited scale. Biomass heat is even included in the UK’s Renewable Heat Initiative and minor modifications can make it even more sustainable.

Wood stoves, when embraced in conjunction with pellet stoves, geothermal heating, and masonry heaters, all more efficient forms of sustainable heat, should be part of a modern energy strategy. Ultimately, we’re headed in the direction of diversified energy – all of it cleaner – and wood has a place in the big picture, serving small homes and off-the-grid structures, while solar, wind, and other large-scale initiatives fuel our cities.

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7 Benefits You Should Consider Giving Your Energy Employees



As an energy startup, you’re always looking to offer the most competitive packages to entice top-tier talent. This can be tough, especially when trying to put something together that’s both affordable but also has perks that employees are after.

After all, this is an incredibly competitive field and one that’s constantly doing what it can to stay ahead. However, that’s why I’m bringing you a few helpful benefits that could be what bolsters you ahead of your competition. Check them out below:

Financial Advising

One benefit commonly overlooked by companies is offering your employees financial advising services, which could help them tremendously in planning for their long-term goals with your firm. This includes anything from budgeting and savings plans to recommendations for credit repair services and investments. Try to take a look at if your energy company could bring on an extra person or two specifically for this role, as it will pay off tremendously regarding retention and employee happiness.

Life Insurance

While often included in a lot of health benefits packages, offering your employees life insurance could be an excellent addition to your current perks. Although seldom used, life insurance is a small sign that shows you care about the life of their family beyond just office hours. Additionally, at such a low cost, this is a pretty simple aspect to add to your packages. Try contacting some brokers or insurance agents to see if you can find a policy that’s right for your firm.

Dedicated Time To Enjoy Their Hobbies

Although something seen more often in startups in Silicon Valley, having dedicated office time for employees to enjoy their passions is something that has shown great results. Whether it be learning the piano or taking on building a video game, having your team spend some time on the things they truly enjoy can translate to increased productivity. Why? Because giving them the ability to better themselves, they’ll in turn bring that to their work as well.

The Ability To Work Remotely

It’s no secret that a lot of employers despise the idea of letting their employees work remotely. However, it’s actually proven to hold some amazing benefits. According to Global Workplace Analytics, 95% of employers that allow their employees to telework reported an increased rate of retention, saving on both turnover and sick days. Depending on the needs of each individual role, this can be a strategy to implement either whenever your team wants or on assigned days. Either way, this is one perk almost everyone will love.

Health Insurance

Even though it’s mandated for companies with over 50 employees, offering health insurance regardless is arguably a benefit well received across the board. In fact, as noted in research compiled by KFF, 28.6% of employers with less than 50 people still offered health care. Why is that the case? Because it shows you care about their well-being, and know that a healthy employee is one that doesn’t have to worry about astronomical medical bills.

Unlimited Time Off

This is a perk that almost no employer offers but should be regarded as something to consider. According to The Washington Post, only 1-2% of companies offer unlimited vacation, which it’s easy to see why. A true “unlimited vacation” program could be a firm’s worse nightmare, with employees skipping out every other week to enjoy themselves. However, with the right model in place that rewards hard work with days off, your employees will absolutely adore this policy.

A Full Pantry

Finally, having a pantry full of food can be one perk that’s not only relatively inexpensive but also adds to the value of the workplace. As noted by USA Today, when surveying employees who had snacks versus those who didn’t, 67% of those who did reported they were “very happy” with their work life. You’d be surprised at how much of a difference this could make, especially when considering the price point. Consider adding a kitchen to your office if you haven’t already, and always keep the snacks and drinks everyone wants fully stocked. Doing so will increase morale tremendously.

Final Thoughts

Compiling a great package for your energy company is going to take some time in looking at what you can afford versus what’s the most you can offer. While it might mean cutting back in other areas, having a workforce that feels like you genuinely want to take care of them can take you far. And with so many different benefits to include in your energy company’s package, which one is your favorite? Comment with your answers below!

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