' the Woodlouse: Progress report (there has been progress...)


Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Progress report (there has been progress...)

Apparently my last post was 10 months ago. There wasn't much to report over the winter as housing and land markets had their winter dip, then I just got a bit down and frustrated about the whole thing and didn't feel like writing the blog. Then suddenly quite a lot started happening and I thought about writing but haven't got around to it until now. I will try and update much more regularly now, at least once a month but more often when there is more to say.

As quite a lot has happened I'm not sure where to begin today. We have now bought an old bungalow to give a strawbale upgrade. I've been busy researching lots of things in relation to this, learning to use Google's Sketchup program (free 3D design software), drafting rough design possibilities for the bungalow, digging exploratory holes in the garden and more. That's easily a whole blog post in itself, so I'll return to it in more detail shortly. In the meantime, some kind of general update is probably in order.

As I said in the last blog, we decided to separate home and treatment room from pottery workshop and kiln, allowing us to live nearer the centre of town than we would be able to with kiln, workshop and home all together. The hope was that it would also make it easier to find suitable sites where planning permission was possible, and impact of any new build would be low.

One half-decent building plot for a single-storey home did come up that was outside a conservation area (see previous blog for problems surrounding conservation areas) and on paper it looked brilliant. For half a day I got really excited, thinking we'd found somewhere and would be able to crack on. Once on site it was clear that it wasn't for us - in order to orientate the building for maximum solar gain (ie: pointing as southerly as possible to maximise heat from sun) it would have faced a row of semi-detached houses that were raised up on a bank, about 2 or 3 metres higher than the plot. As soon as we stepped outside our front door we'd have been totally on display, with no privacy anywhere in the garden, and the height difference would have made screening impossible. There was also constant noise from the bypass, and this was on a low-traffic day with the wind blowing from the plot towards the bypass.

That plot already had planning permission for two semi-detached houses, crammed into the space that we saw as about right for a bungalow and small garden. There was much interest from builders and developers, who could bid more for the site than we would have been able to in the knowledge that the sale of two homes would have made them plenty of profit. The density of most new development is a major factor in driving up the cost of building plots, boosted further by planning guidance to use land "as efficiently as possible". The theory behind this seems sound, the idea being to fit as much housing into existing development land as possible, minimising spread of building onto green-field sites. In practice though, this often leads to claustrophobic new estates with very little outdoor space to play, hang out and grow vegetables in. There are rarely enough allotments to meet demand so it seems a bit daft not to provide new houses with even a small garden. Travel between homes and allotments is then often done in a car, adding to levels of traffic and pollutants, and it is clearly easier to keep on top of a veg garden if it is next to your home rather than remote.

As with many of my complaints with the planning system the problem is a lack of balance. A large part of the system is designed to prevent the worst exploitation of rural areas by limiting urban sprawl through the countryside, but the solutions push development to opposite extremes and create new problems. I'm sure there's some middle ground somewhere, that can recognise and encourage genuinely low-impact development.

Anyway, back to the update. Other sites looked at and dismissed included: a sliver of land just big enough for a home and tiny garden, amazingly cheap for a plot within the development boundary, but also without any means of access to the plot and separated from the A35 trunk road only by a thin hedge; a run-down 30's bungalow with lovely feel to it, sensible layout and light rooms, unusually big garden including massive glass-house, that would have been ripe for a strawbale upgrade and extension - but also right on top of the A35. This is a very busy road, so loud at that point even outside of peak traffic times that we had to talk very loudly to hear each other when in the garden, also bringing lots of pollution and smells. I would have been miserable there.

As it became clearer how unlikely it was to find a building plot that suited our needs (including satisfying planning committees that our plans would be right for that spot) we started to look more seriously at a back up plan: finding a run-down bungalow and super-insulating it by wrapping it with strawbales. The advantages of this are the increased chances of finding one as compared to a clear building plot, (there are many bungalow developments of various ages around Bridport, and they are mostly outside the conservation areas for fairly obvious reasons); there is no need to bring in new ground to the development, the site is already built-on; and very importantly, it's making use of an existing building and bringing it up to very high standards of insulation and low energy use. One of the biggest problems in terms of reducing national energy use and carbon emissions is exisiting housing stock, much of which will be standing for many years to come but is very poorly insulated. Although not suitable for all properties, externally insulating with strawbales is an affordable, relatively straightforward, and extremely effective way of massively reducing the amount of energy needed to heat a building.

As plans progress we'll need to have energy calculations done for our bungalow upgrade - then I'll be able to give some hard facts about energy savings rather than anyone having to just take my word for it.

More details to follow shortly...

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