How we developed our green building project

So what happens next when you have just bought a farmhouse, circa 1800, with attached barns two other collections of outbuildings and 10 acres of land? This was the wonderful opportunity and challenge facing me and my partner Sarah Brown in November 2003. We had both renovated properties before including another barn conversion, a terraced house and a detached house but this was on a completely different scale.

I started to research ways of tackling the project and was soon spending hours at exhibitions, reading magazines, watching programmes such as Grand Designs and searching on the internet. It didn’t take long for me to realise that we would have to take a radical approach to the renovation if the family were to live in such a large property sustainably.

Walking into the National Homebuilding and Renovating Show at the NEC in 2004 I was completely overwhelmed by a vast range of unfamiliar technologies such as heat pumps, under-floor heating, electricity generators, mechanical ventilation and insulation systems. Piles of leaflets returned to Sheffield, followed by more research and meetings with potential suppliers until an outline plan started to emerge.

A core part of the plan was to put in under-floor heating driven by ground source heat pumps which I installed with the help of a friend, Clive Quarmby. We spent many weeks digging trenches, laying pipes, soldering, fitting valves etc., using 8 different diameters of pipe in the process.

Sarah was pregnant with Arthur (now 6 – birthday in February), while all this was going on. By the time she returned from hospital with Arthur most of the heating was working and some of the floorboards in the bedroom had been restored. She was not happy.

Heat pumps need electricity to work and so we decided that we would have to make our own (we are all electric) to meet our objective of becoming energy neutral. I researched solar and wind power during 2004. Solar panels were about 5 times more expensive than they are now and were much more expensive than wind turbines compared with the amount of electricity they were likely to make. So, we bought a 6 kilowatt Proven wind turbine expecting it to make about 10,000 kilowatt hours per year. It didn’t. It made 14,000 kilowatt hours per year – fantastic.

The only trouble was we were using a lot more electricity than I had anticipated despite investing thousands of pounds on insulation and high-tec glazing. More investment was needed – more insulation and more energy generating technology.

For the last 18 months we have had a 4 kilowatt solar power system which generated 4100 kilowatt hours in its first year and have just installed a 10 kilowatt Xzeres wind turbine which is on target to produce between 25,000 and 30,000 kwh per year. As a result, our electricity production is greater than our electricity use which means that we are saving tonnes of carbon from entering the atmosphere. The energy saving, together with Feed In Tariff payments, also mean that we now make a profit from electricity rather than having a bill.

There is still a lot to do as a part of the house does not have any wall insulation. Once this and other improvement works are done we will save even more energy.

Tough Times

Times are tough. Both parents have serious illnesses in a Birmingham hospital and I am visiting them 4 days a week from here in Sheffield.

My mum has had Alzheimers for some time now and has been looked after during this period by my father. Both are 83. My dad has had to do much of the nursing care for my mum as she has gradually lost functionality. He has been fantastic. He has developed his cooking skills and, prior to the hospital admissions, was confidently producing very good meals including traditional Sunday lunch. For him, anything less represented a decline in standards.

My mum used to become anxious if dad was absent from the house and as a result he rarely managed to pursue his own interests and activities such as going to concerts/theatre and playing golf.

Dad has also been the rock for my brother who was born with partial deafness and some learning disabilities. David lives independently and also has very good support from a good friend, Mick, but it is my dad who has been the key person in helping him to live something like a functional life.

In July this year, my mum developed a circulation problem in her right leg. While waiting for an investigative procedure the leg deteriorated and had to be amputated. She has been in hospital ever since though with her Alzheimers, she usually thinks she is somewhere else – on a train, on holiday etc.

While our family was in Toulouse in August, during our house exchange holiday, I received a phone call saying that dad had been taken into hospital. Within a week he had been discharged – they thought it was a bladder infection (in royal good company there).

I brought him home and stayed with him but it was soon apparent that all was not well. An ambulance took him back to hospital where they treated the symptoms of an infection but otherwise could not explain why he was still feeling ill.

At the point of him being discharged again, he suddenly declined badly and on September 13th was admitted to intensive care. By the time I reached the hospital that evening he was on a ventilator and had wires and tubes all over him. He had Pancreatitis and I was told that it was unlikely that he would survive.

But he did! A week later he was moved onto a ward where he remains. He is in a poor physical and mental condition, he is more confused than my mum at the moment, and is still in danger. At least he recognises me and is sometimes able to talk lucidly.

All of this means that I am visiting Wards 305 and 726 of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital 4 days per week and have taken over the management of my brother too. (Fortunately my father had the wisdom to set up powers of attorney for me with regard to both him, my mum and my brother to assist me if a situation like this arose – it has been a great help.)

Also of great help have been my family. Partner Sarah has a full time demanding career which now involves more jobs on our small-holding and more taxi runs with the children. The older children have been great too in both moral and practical support (notably Frankee looking after Arthur, our 6 year old). Lots of other help and support has come from friends such as Sam who has picked up Arthur from school on several occasions.

Under these circumstances it is a great source of upset for us to be put under pressure by an officer of Sheffield City Council’s Environmental Protection Service.

Earlier this year, after many installation problems, our 10 kilowatt Xzeres wind turbine finally started working. It has been producing electricity very well since but for some reason, in doing so, it is making more noise than other Xzeres turbines. This has induced a complaint from the couple who are our immediate neighbours.

Although the matter of noise nuisance is subjective and in this case our turbine’s noise is less than the traffic and other common machinery and wind noises, we agree that the issue should be resolved for everyone’s benefit.

To this end we have co-operated fully with the officer to get noise reduction action from Xzeres. Much success has been achieved, but further work is necessary. Action from Xzeres has not been as effective or timely as it should have been; however, an action plan is in place and the latest work will start on October 3rd and be finished in a few weeks. Despite this, the officer has told us to turn off the turbine. This will punish us for matters beyond our control at a time when we are already under duress.

In Short:

  • An action plan is in place to resolve the issue
  • The action plan was provided to the officer before he issued his ‘advice’ to shut down the turbine
  • We have been totally co-operative with the officer throughout the process
  • While the turbine makes more noise than it should, it is not as noisy as a car, lorry, tractor, chainsaw, strimmer etc., all of which are common sounds in this environment
  • There are two complainants in this case one of whom has a history of anti-social behaviour, all our other neighbours are supportive
  • We have had no complaints from any other members of the public
  • We receive a huge amount of interest in the positive impacts of our turbines and other renewable technologies and do a lot of work to disseminate this information as widely as possible to encourage others to take action on climate change
  • The turbine produces, and therefore saves, about 2000 kwh electricity per month and a CO2 saving of around 3 tonnes
  • The financial value to us of the turbine is around £600 – £1000 per month through electricity that has not had to be bought and Feed In Tariff (FIT) payments
  • In the week September 23rd to September 30th, 2012 the Xzeres turbine produced 644 kwh. The FIT payment for this is £188.69 and the electricity bill saving (@12p per kwh) is £77.28 – total benefit – £265.97
  • We are a family who have invested in excess of £100,000 and immense amounts of time to install renewable technologies for our benefit and for the benefit of the wider community.

The officer says that he has not taken the decision to shut down our turbine lightly and yet he has chosen to act at this precise time despite having received a plan to resolve the issues from the manufacturer, and having full knowledge of my parents’ illnesses with all its emotional and practical implications. He even telephoned me while I was in the intensive care unit of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

We are good citizens of this city. Our mission is to reduce our carbon footprint and by doing so to make a positive contribution. The carbon reduction plan has been running for several years and we are succeeding. We produce more electricity than we use (we are all electric) and through energy saving and generation we prevent around 35 tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere each year.

We are strongly of the view that the officer’s ‘advice’ is therefore ill-judged, inequitable and partial. Furthermore it is undermined by his unprofessional and insensitive behaviour.

I can’t imagine that the workload of the Environmental Protection Service officers is comfortable. Therefore, why has so much time be devoted to our turbine when

  • no one is resisting the call for the noise issue to be resolved
  • the positive aspects of the turbine outweigh the negative
  • the negative impacts are short term
  • there must be far more pressing issues confronting the Environmental Protection Service about which other citizens are desperate for intervention

The action of the officer is therefore not only inequitable and disproportionate, it is also a tremendous waste of public money.