Top Tips to Get Your Home Ready for Winter

Almost overnight the mornings now have a distinct chill, the evenings are already getting darker earlier; and the warmth of the summer sunshine is becoming a distant memory.  As the evenings start to draw in, it’s time to start looking at your home and garden to see what needs organising before the chill sets in and how to make it cosier and work more efficiently for you.

Summer versus Winter
In the Summer it’s all about connecting with our outside space and spending as much time outside enjoying our gardens, patios and decking. Blinds are used to keep rooms cool and we use air-conditioning and fans in the really hot weather. However, as it cools down the opposite is true with windows being closed (also to try and keep the many spiders out) and central heating and fires being lit to warm our homes.

Move your furniture
In the warmer seasons; we tend to turn our furniture more towards the windows to enjoy the sunshine coming in, with our windows and doors all left open to let the fresh air in.  However, in the winter months furniture is rearranged for a cosier feel centred around the fireplace or another central focal point. Make sure you move any furniture away from radiators to maximise the heat coming out.

Roof ventilation
In the Summer months, the roof space can literally bake and if there is nowhere for that heat to go it will build a stack of hot air in the roof which will eventually force itself into your living space from the ceiling down. It is essential therefore, to install just enough ventilation to stop the stacking effect.  In the winter months; you have the opposite problem of all your heat rising into the loft, so it is recommended to consider insulation in the loft to stop the heat rising and the cooler loft space impacting on your downstairs space.

Adjust your thermostat
It is suggested that in some circumstances for each degree you turn down the thermostat towards the outside temperature you reduces your heating costs and greenhouse emissions by roughly 10%. Make sure though that your boiler is in tip-top condition and has been serviced within the last year to make sure it is not only safe to use but working as efficiently as possible. Bleed any radiators to make sure they are working properly.

Get snug with textiles and textures
When it starts to get chilly; we dig out our jumpers and cosy socks but the other way to keep warm and make your home look cosy is through the use of textiles and textures. You can introduce more fleeces and fake fur throws into your home to put on the sofa; along with cushions in cosy fabrics like chenille to keep yourself snug of an evening and the heating down lower.

Check for any gaps
It is a good idea to check around your doors and windows for any significant gaps and seal them to keep any drafts out (and spiders).

Close your doors
Make sure you don’t leave all your doors open, so therefore, close the doors to rooms you do not use which thereby reduces the area to keep cool or warm.

Use Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs (CFLs)
These bulbs use 75% less energy and produce 75% less heat than incandescent light bulbs which will save you money as well on cooling. Also consider LED lights as they are often cheaper and easier to retrofit. It is a good idea to consider brighter bulbs for those darker days but make sure they are energy efficient where possible.

Clothing
If you can get your family members into the habit of wearing a jumper and similar warm clothes; you will save a fortune in heating costs. You will be using your own body heat to help keep you warm, so allowing you to reduce the heating thermostat.

Use an electric blanket at night
If you don’t like a hot bedroom but still get a bit chilly, why not use an electric blanket or go old school and bring out your hot water bottle which means not having to heat the whole bedroom.

Put your Summer clothing away
Once the last of the sunshine has gone, put your summer clothing into the loft to make more room for warmer winter clothing.

Tidy your garden space
When it comes to your outside space, make sure you put your garden furniture away that is susceptible to wet weather (or frost) and could potentially crack.  Look at bringing any plants inside that can’t cope with winter or cover them with protective sleeves. 

Give your windows one last clean
Autumn is a good time to have one last clean of your windows before the bad weather sets in. It also gets rid of some of the many spider’s webs and nests that have appeared towards the end of the summer.

We hope some of these tips have been useful to help you organise and transform your home ready for the Winter 😊

Green Design, Green Upkeep: Building and Maintaining Your Environmentally-Friendly Home

Residing in an energy efficient building not only lowers your utility bills, but can add an average of 14% to your home’s value, meaning it is not only good for the environment, but also beneficial for you as the homeowner. When setting out to build a green home, there are several factors to take into account, but the most important one to keep in mind is that a green home needs to be treated as such, from inception and throughout its lifetime.

The first, and perhaps most important, step in building a green home is a design conducive to environmentally favourable construction. A green home is much more than simply designing the living spaces, but must also account for the mechanical systems and materials used to qualify as a green construction. Once you have your design in place, you can move on to choosing which green materials will make your home as efficient as possible.

Sustainability is Key
Choosing sustainable products is one of the most important aspects of constructing a green home. You’ll want to make sure you select building materials that are certified as such by a specialist organisation and to research those materials in terms of eco-friendliness and stability in the long term. For the larger portion of the construction, you’ll need to procure sustainably forested timber, and perhaps to look into a roofing material that can be recycled or repurposed at the end of its life cycle.

For the interior of the home, there are many green products that are aesthetically as lovely as anything else on the market. From flooring and skirting boards to countertops and backsplash tiles, there are a multitude of sustainably produced, recycled or recyclable, and re-purposed materials to select from that will fit any style. With green building being so popular now, manufacturers are quick to disclose such properties and advertise themselves as appropriate for ecological construction.

Pay More Upfront
Energy efficiency is one of the main components to green building and you’ll want to take this into account in all aspects of the home, from windows to mechanical systems. High efficiency systems may cost more upfront, but will save you energy and money in the long term, eventually paying for themselves. Many of these systems will come with a guarantee, and the manufacturers will have already done the maths on your projected savings over the life of the home, so you’ll quickly be able to see how much you’ll save.

A Finished House Isn’t the End
Once you’ve completed a sustainable, green home, you have to keep in mind that environmentally-friendly maintenance must be part of the plan. Some of this maintenance should factor into the home design, especially in terms of landscaping. You’ll want to select plants and grasses that are native to the area, therefore, requiring less water and fertilisation. Additionally, you’ll want to explore some eco-friendly cleaning solutions, as many cleaners use harsh toxic chemicals that can be damaging to the environment.

Committing to a home that is environmentally responsible is one that will last a lifetime. The process may be challenging, but keeping your goals and reasons for undertaking such a project is key. The financial commitment upfront may save you some money in the long run, but it will take more effort and money to bring your green home dreams to life, and to maintain it thereafter.

Zero-Energy
Designing and maintaining a zero-energy home takes a lot of thought and consideration as well as a know-how on the best way to get the most out of the technology involved. Technology is rapidly changing which means that the trends of today are often out of favour a few years later. Government subsidies and schemes can play a big part of how well companies market their preferred product in terms of benefits, efficiency and cost so it is important to do your research.

The bulk of the battle to become zero-energy often lies with simple aspects such as making sure the building is well insulated and air-tight. Thought should also be given to the orientation of the building in relation to the sun; as natural light can help reduce energy bills in terms of lighting, heating and cooling. Using some form of brise-soleil (an architectural feature of a building that reduces heat gain within that building by deflecting sunlight) can prevent overheating in the summer; whilst still gaining the warmth and light from the low winter sun. Trees that provide shade can also help.

Moving onto the technology side of things, there are many routes available that each have their benefits and drawbacks. Where energy is sourced from is perhaps the main hurdle to overcome. Whilst solar panels are one of the more well-known ways of reducing energy costs, other alternatives to look at include Micro CHP boilers, air source and ground source heat pumps. Upgrading appliances to more energy efficient ones is often overlooked. Mechanical Ventilation Heat Recovery can remove stale air whilst retaining some of the heat which transfers to the fresh air entering the building which reduces the amount of heating required.

Team Trip to Kingspan to Learn about Timber Frame Housing

It is always very productive and a change of scene; to get the Building Tectonics team out of the office together to learn more about particular areas that we work on.  So, on Thursday 14th March we all went on a trip to Kingspan Potton, based in Great Gransden, Bedfordshire who specialise in fabricated timber frame housing.

The walls, floors and roof of the houses are fabricated in large panels in their factory and are then taken to site and bolted together to construct a house (or other types of buildings).  Although there are several companies who already work in this area; Kingspan have moved away from the mass housing market and instead of supplying the larger house builders, now just supply one or two units to small developers or even one-off houses.

On arrival the BTL team were greeted in the meeting room by the National Sales Manager; who gave a presentation about the different products they produce and then showed them around the factory where they are made. They saw how the process works from start to finish; from when the wood comes into the factory to when it leaves on the back of the lorry.  Following this, they drove 15 minutes away to the Potton Self-Build Show Centre in Little Paxton, near St Neots where they have 5 show-houses. The team had the opportunity to look around the show-houses; which showed them the different materials that Kingspan manufacture and the different structures that they are capable of producing.

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Kingspan can help with the design of any house and have a pattern book of designs you can choose from; but obviously being an Architectural Practice, we already do the design for our clients.  However, Kingspan can take our bespoke design plans and prepare “shop drawings” showing the panels so that they can then be fabricated in their factory. It was very interesting for the BTL team to know all about the process and the types of systems available; for those occasions when a client wishes to have a timber frame house.

There are alternative systems available from other timber frame fabricators: –

Open Panel Systems
The majority of timber frame companies use an open-panel system for the internal loadbearing of the cavity wall.  These are made in a factory from a softwood timber frame covered with a structural sheet material such as plywood or oriented strand board (OSB) and fixed into a structure on-site.  They have a waterproof membrane on the outside and are left open on the inside.  The windows and door frames are fixed on-site and when the house is watertight; the electrical and plumbing casing is installed and the insulation put in place finished off with a vapour-proof barrier and plasterboard.

Closed and Advanced Panels
These systems are used by most of the Scandinavian frame companies and are delivered fully furnished and insulated, with the services in and the windows and doors already fixed – with the advantage that it is an airtight structure that needs minimal on-site work. However, it does mean decisions need to be made early on in the design about services and outlets.

Green Oak Frame
This is the most traditional timber-frame building method and is often referred to as exposed timber frame. The oak is often jointed using mortise and tenon joints, draw-pegged with tapered oak pegs and then integrally braced with curved oak bends jointed into the frame.  Insulating panels are then infilled into the massive oak skeleton and it is made waterproof using a system of perimeter trims and water bars; before being rendered on the outside, leaving the timbers exposed.

SIP Systems
Structural insulated panels (SIPs) are high-performance building panels used in floors, walls, and roofs and are typically made by encasing a core of rigid foam plastic insulation between two structural skins of OSB, but other skin material can also be used.  The panels are manufactured under factory-controlled conditions and can be custom designed for each home.  SIPs are fixed to the outside of the timber frame, so the entire frame can be exposed in the interior or covered up, depending on the look you want to achieve.

Kingspan are first and foremost an insulation company and therefore, have naturally moved toward the highly insulated end of the market.  Timber frame housing can be extremely well insulated and this form of construction lends itself to the addition of a lot of insulation without making the walls unduly thick (unlike brick and block walls).  However, the really interesting development is the SIP technique as these panels can achieve incredible levels of insulation and therefore, are often found in zero energy projects where no heating is required; other than the heat that is created by simply inhabiting the house (possibly with the addition of some solar heating).

Building Tectonics have designed a couple of very low energy houses and are greatly interested in this area. SIP panels also offer really low air infiltration so therefore, help reduce heating bills and increase comfort as they avoid drafts and cold spots.  They can be very strong and rigid and can be used in floors and roofs; which is a real game changer in the construction of houses, but the building industry has generally not embraced this new technology.  Houses built like this can be erected on-site superfast incorporating all the services and the standard of finish can also be superior.

As a practice we would like very much to use this technology wherever we can; but the question is whether our clients will choose something brave and new.  The major practical difficulty is using prefabrication techniques for extending existing buildings, which is where most of our work lies. Ironically, the big problem would be bolting something so perfectly made (1 or 2 mm accuracy) on the side of an existing building where the building tolerances can often be measured on several centimetres. What we need are clients who can see the benefits of such new techniques and we stand ready to help in any such project should it arise.

Adding Energy Efficiency to Your Home Construction or Remodelling Plan

The repair, maintenance and improvement market for UK housing is about 25 billion per year according to the Construction Products Association (CPA) economic forecasts. In fact, most homeowners are seeking energy efficient improvements as part of a larger home remodelling project according to CPA. There are a number of things you can do to enhance energy efficiency in your home during construction or remodelling.

Double glazed windows and loft and wall insulation
Put in double glazed windows to keep your home warmer, quieter and safer. You can also enhance the warmth and quiet by adding loft and wall insulation, which is much cheaper than replacing all your old windows with double glazed windows. Loft insulation is meant to stop heat from escaping through the roof while wall insulation prevents heat loss through walls. If you have solid walls, external wall insulation could be the best choice for retaining heat in your home. However, if your walls have a cavity, this can be filled up with insulation material to stop heat from conducting through the walls. Insulating your home can save you money on your fuel bills, and improves the energy efficiency rating of your home.

Energy saving appliances
Electrical appliances have made things like piles of dirty dishes very rare in most homes, and although they cost money to run there are tumble dryers, dishwashers, fridges, washing machines, ovens and other appliances that are incredibly energy efficient. For example, the Miele TMG840 WP heat pump dryer uses hot air to suck out moisture from clothes. The machine also switches off when its sensors detect that the clothes have dried.

Saving energy with the light bulb
Another way to enhance energy efficiency in your home is by installing LED light bulbs. Investing in the latest expensive LED light bulb could save you up to £240 each year according to an article in The Telegraph. You can also install smart LED lighting in your home to add to your list of control options instead of being restricted to on and off. For instance, the Lifx light bulb is compatible with the three main voice assistants, which means that you can control it with your voice. These lights also have apps that you can download on your phone and use to control the lights.

Energy saving appliances and light bulbs are reasonable options if you are renting or cannot afford extensive home remodelling projects at the moment. However, if you are constructing a new home, you can start making your home energy efficient from the moment the foundation is being laid.

Overheating

We have only just taken off the winter duvet and turned off our heating and people are complaining that they are too hot. I have to say that it is no wonder that some houses are overheating when you look at how much south facing glass, rooflights and conservatories people have installed. We always remind our clients of this potential problem when we see the design developing but I guess for some clients it is hard to take this seriously in the depths of winter when we have not seen the sun for months. Sadly some clients think that air conditioning is the answer and do not want to consider other measures. These other measures do not have to be only reducing the glazing area, although this is the most effective. Other measures include the “brise soleil” which is a fixed sunshade fixed externally above the window so that when the sun is high (as it is in summer) a large part of the window is shaded or external blinds that can be drawn across when needed. It is worth pointing out here that external shading is much much more effective than inside shading because once the sunlight has passed through the glass the heat that is dissipated by the sunlight as it is interrupted by the blind is now trapped in the building. Internal blinds help reduce the glare of the sun but that is about it. If you want to stop the heat build up through sunlight coming through your windows, external blinds are really effective. Sadly, few companies make them although Velux do but do not push them which is bizarre.

Other measures include “stack effect” ventilation which can be a chimney not used for a fire but opened up to allow heat to rise up when desired to create air movement. This works well when cooler air can be drawn in from a shady part of the garden to replace the warm air being expelled. In new buildings, this can be a design feature such as the tower we designed into the Greenleys Familly Centre. Last we heard it was functioning perfectly doing its job in the summer completely passively and in the winter it allowed light into the centre of the building reducing the lighting bill.

Stacked Ventilation

Heat reflecting glass and the use of building mass to soak up the heat are other more expensive measures but have their place but for me just a good sensible balance of glass facing East, West and South is best as it is cheaper and has no running cost ( except window cleaning perhaps).

Written by Tony Keller – Building Tectonics Ltd.

The Tiny House Movement: Ecocapsules

Following the tiny house movement, which is a movement in which people are downsizing the space in which they live. The main reason for choosing this lifestyle is financial gain. What they’re not spending on their home, they have to spend elsewhere.

A Slovakian architectural company called Nice Architects Studio have taken this idea and created what seems to be one of the next eco friendly tiny houses.

Their product, the eco capsule, could become the next big thing in the tiny house movement. It’s 86 square feet of eco friendly space, off the electrical grid, and it’s also portable. Each capsule has solar panels across the roof of the egg shaped exterior, and a retractable wind turbine so you can get power in all kinds of weather. If you are in very poor conditions and need backup power there is a high capacity battery built into the structure which you can use, so that hopefully you’ll never be without power. The design of the capsule allows rainwater to be caught on the surface, and run down the side into a space at the bottom where there are filtration systems in place so that the fresh water is safe to use, hot or cold.

They would also fit into a ship container, and so could be taken overseas if the owner were a keen traveller, or a scientist, explorer or anything which required being out of the country.

These will be available to pre-order at the end of 2015 with shipping starting in early 2016.

Written by Jade Turney – Building Tectonics

Renewable Heat Incentive.

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is the first government funded scheme of its type in the world, in the sense that it is the first long-term financial support programme for renewable heat. It’s an incentive from the government which is designed to reward people who use renewable energy to heat their buildings. This scheme was put in place to attempt to help us reach our goal of around 12% of heating coming from renewable energies.

  1. There are two phases of the scheme for this incentive: The first phase is for the non-domestic sector; the industrial, commercial, public sector and community organisations.AND
  2. One which is for residential dwellings. This one is expected to go live in 2014. The Renewable Heat Incentive will offer regular tariff payments for 7 years to people who choose to use certain technologies to heat their homes with. The amount of money which is paid depends on what technology is used to heat their homes, such as solar thermal water heating panels, heat pumps and biomass boilers (which use wood pellets, chips or logs).

Some of the technology which is eligible includes:

  • Air to water heat pumps.
  • Biomass – only boilers and biomass pellet stoves with back boilers.
  • Ground and water source heat pumps.
  • Flat plate and evacuated tube solar thermal panels.

The RHI is similar to the Feed-In Tariffs, which is a financial support scheme for people who create their own electricity. However, there are some massive differences between the two including:

  • This will be paid for by the Treasury rather than energy users.
  • There is no ‘National Grid for Heat’ so importing and exporting heat is irrelevant.
  • It will be introduced in phases, residential schemes will not be eligible until Phase 2, in 2014.

Written by Jade Turney – Building Tectonics Ltd.

Photo-voltaic Panels

Photovoltaic panels are a highly efficient way of lowering your electricity bills. If you had these installed, you would be generating your own electricity, therefore you would not need to pay for as much energy.

In fact, you could be getting paid for producing your own electricity! If you join the scheme, your energy provider pays you for every unit of electricity which you produce, and any electricity you produce but don’t use yourself can be sold back to the national grid.

Photovoltaic basically means converting light to electricity, with “photo” meaning light and “voltaic” meaning electricity. So I guess you could say that they do what is said on the tin, so to speak.

Back in the 1950’s, this technology was almost exclusively used for powering electrical circuits in satellites, but the range of uses for solar energy has grown considerably now, for example we now use it for calculators, electric vehicle charging stations. On a bright and sunny day, the sun can produce up to 1000 watts of energy per square meter of the surface of the planet, if we could harness this, we could easily power our homes and offices for free.

Photovoltaic cells are made of special materials, which are known as semiconductors, such as silicon which is currently the most commonly used. The flow of electrons from sunlight creates the current, and by placing, metal contacts either side of the photovoltaic cell, we can draw that current off of the panel for external use, powering things which require electrical energy. This current, together with the cells voltage defines the wattage which the  solar cell can produce.The panels don’t necessarily need direct sunlight, therefore they would work on cloudy days as well as sunny ones.

Architects are beginning to suggest using these sorts of technologies when designing projects for clients, as what they would pay for the installation now would be saved many times over as time goes on.

Written by Jade Turney – Building Tectonics Ltd.

Ground source heat pumps

Ground Source Heat Pumps (GSHP) use pipes which are buried underground to extract the constant heat which is generated in the ground, hence the name “ground source” heat pumps.

A GSHP pumps a mix of water and anti-freeze around a loop of piping, which is called a ground loop which is buried wherever you have decided to have the system installed. The ground stays at a reasonably constant temperature under the surface, so the pump will be effective throughout the year, including in the middle of winter.  The heat in the ground is then absorbed by the passing liquid which then passes through a heat exchanger into the heat pump.

The length of the pipe is determined based upon two main factors; the size of your home, and the amount of heat which you need. It goes without saying that longer loops can draw in more heat due to a larger area from which to absorb, but they also need more space to be buried into. If you have a limited amount of space available, you can always have a borehole drilled instead.

After passing through the heat exchanger the liquid is cool again, so it goes around the loop again, picking up more heat on the way. This is a continuous process, which goes on for as long as the heating is required. The loop is usually laid flat or coiled in trenches which are dug to a depth of around two metres, but if there isn’t enough room for this, you can have a vertical loop instead, this can go up to around 100 metres deep for a typical domestic residence.

GSHPs don’t need fuel, just a little electricity to keep the pump going, but this is a very small amount of electricity compared to an electric heating system. For every unit of electricity used for the pump, three to four units of heat are returned, so it is very efficient. This type of renewable energy can heat your home and give you hot water as well as lowering your fuel bills and your homes carbon emissions, but by how much depends on what fuel you are replacing.

If you are thinking about getting this system installed for your home, it is imperative that your home is properly insulated and the building envelope is completely sealed. This is because the ground source heat pump produces heat at a lower temperature than traditional boilers. They can perform better with underfloor heating, or warm air systems because lower water temperatures are required of it. It also doesn’t require much attention in the way of maintenance, it’s called ‘fit and forget’ technology.

Getting a ground source heat pump installed could also provide you with additional income through the governments scheme ‘Renewable Heat Incentive’ (RHI).

Written by Jade Turney – Building Tectonics Ltd.

Borehole Thermal Energy Storage

Borehole Thermal Energy Storage (or BTES) is basically an underground structure, usually quite large, which is used to store large amounts of solar heat that was collected in the summer, for use in the winter time. You could think of it as being a massive underground heat exchanger.

Wherever boreholes can be drilled, these systems can be constructed. The system is usually composed of anywhere from one to a few hundred vertical boreholes. Warm temperature seasonal heat stores can be created using borehole fields to store surplus heat which is captured in the summer to actively raise the temperature of large thermal banks of soil, so that heat can be extracted more easily (and more cheaply) during the winter.

A ground source heat pump will be used in the winter, extracting the warmth from the thermal bank (the soil which absorbed the summer heat) to provide heating to a space via underfloor heating. Boreholes are filled with grout or water, dependent on the geological conditions, and they usually have a life expectancy in excess of 100 years. They don’t impair the use of the land in any way, as they can exist underneath buildings, agricultural fields and car parks.

In terms of heat storage, the flow of heat transport liquid in the summer comes from the center of the structure, and travels to the outer edges, by doing it this way the heat is transferred through conduction to the surrounding soil. When winter comes along, the flow direction is reversed, so the liquid flows from the outer edge of the system to the center, drawing in heat. By traveling in the reverse direction, the heat which was stored in the soil is then transferred back to the liquid running through the system.

The ground heat exchanger for BTES systems is designed and operated in such a way, so that the heat is stored or abstracted, seasonally whereas conventional GSHP systems are designed to simply dissipate heat or cold into the subsurface. BTES essentially uses the Earth as a giant thermal battery as opposed to a radiator.

This system typically involves design and operation of the Ground Heat Exchanger (GHX) in a manner so that the heat is sequentially built up in, or abstracted from a cylindrical column of rock or soil. This system usually consists of a number of boreholes resembling dry wells, and after drilling this hole, a plastic “U” pipe is inserted down the borehole. To provide a good thermal contact with the surrounding soil, the borehole is filled with a high thermal conductivity grouting material.

When solar heated water is available to be stored, it is then pumped into the center of the BTES field and through the U pipes. Heat is transferred to surrounding soil and rock, and the water gradually cools as it reaches the edge of the structure and returns to the energy center.

Written by Jade Turney – Building Tectonics Ltd.