Although the Kyoto treaty acknowledged deforestation, energy generation and transport as key targets for reducing global carbon emissions, the impact of the built environment was largely ignored. Yet buildings and how we live in them account for nearly half of the industrialised world’s CO2 emissions.
Most efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings have gone into designing them to be more energy efficient in how they function or into retro-fitting them to reduce energy wastage. Much less attention has been paid to the impact of the materials from which they are constructed.
Cement, for instance, is still by far the most commonly used of modern building materials and accounts for between 5% and 8% of global carbon emissions. Conventional bricks also are very carbon heavy in the manufacturing process, requiring firing for twenty-four hours at just over 1000C as part of a week long production process.
So when, in 2000, Louise and I set out to convert a disused brick hall on the coast of Scotland into a home, we resolved, as far as our £35k budget would allow, to construct a house that was both energy efficient and mindful of the carbon footprint of the materials used.
On such a low building budget, we necessarily had to make some compromises. The seaward wall of the building was lashed by winter high tides and we needed to consider the potential risk of flooding. So, despite their lack of eco-credentials, it seemed sensible to build the downstairs inner cavity and partition walls with concrete blocks and waterproof urethane insulation, whereas the upstairs walls were stud partitions, some of reclaimed timber, with natural finishes and insulation.
Because we were building single-handed, the project took us nearly four years, and we were able to spend time seeking out reclaimed materials and taking advantage of ‘windfalls’ – such as an oak tree that fell nearby in the Boxing Day storm of 1998, from which I made the timber frame balcony, the oak front door, and numerous shelves and fittings – with enough left over for two ‘Adirondack’ chairs and a bespoke toilet seat!
The small village in which the Old Hall stands is a conservation area and obtaining detailed planning permission took some time. We investigated the history of the building and the village so as to be sensitive to its previous uses in undertaking the conversion.
Although a port serving the upriver town of Dumfries since the 1500s, the present village only came into being in the C18th when coastal trading and smuggling both flourished and an Exciseman named Robert Burns made regular visits.
The hall began life in the mid-C19th as a utilitarian warehouse. Its main claim to the local vernacular was its construction of brick made in the village’s own brick and tile works. Lime for mortar came from across the Solway estuary in Cumberland and roof slates from North Wales, both imported via the west coast sea routes that were the reason for the village’s existence.
Originally built as part of a Coastguard establishment when the port was busy with trading schooners, steam packets to and from Liverpool and emigrant sailings from the Scottish Lowlands to Nova Scotia, the hall became redundant as the expansion of a national railway network eroded the village’s usefulness as a port.
Subsequently used as a store for fishing boats and nets until the end of the Great War, an extension with a half-hipped roof and an internal musicians’ gallery was added in the 1920s when the building found new life as a village hall, hosting weekly dances and community gatherings.
The Second World War saw the building commandeered to house Italian prisoners-of-war who laboured growing barley and potatoes on local farms. Subsequently the hall fell out of use and lay empty for many years until we bought it in 1999.
Design and Planning
How to approach the conversion and restoration was not immediately obvious. The original building was a plain rectangular shell with no windows and large warehouse doors. The 1920’s extension with its bricked-up arch doorway and windows and its half-hip roof lent that aspect an industrial Arts and Crafts look which had more in common with a Surrey barn than with any local vernacular style.
The challenge was to create a dwelling that made reference to the building’s origins as part of the Coastguard establishment, whilst drawing on what was suggested by the shape of the present structure. The planners agreed a design that broke up the utilitarian look of the building by adding two small extensions with cat-slide roofs, one of these to form an entrance porch and cloakroom and the other a storage shed.
We retained the shape of the arched door in the half-hipped gable wall and constructed double-glazed casement windows in early C2oth arts-and-crafts style to replicate what had existed when the building was a village hall. A new oak balcony took advantage of stunning views across the Solway to the mountains of the Lake District and made reference to the former internal gallery. A protective sea wall was needed against high spring tides and a brick boundary wall enclosed the small garden.
The walls of the oldest section of the hall were 27 inches thick and of soft locally-made brick and lime mortar. The 1920’s extension was 14 inches thick, but because it was built of hard Dalmellington brick and cement mortar it was much more difficult to cut out the new window openings.
It was difficult to find a reclaimed brick for the new outshuts and boundary walls that blended with both the local soft brick and the hard Dalmellingtons. These were eventually sourced from the demolition of a Victorian factory in Manchester. Bricks from demolition can often be cleaned of mortar and reused but this is labour intensive so most wind up discarded in skips. Some are salvaged and crushed for hardcore but far too much still goes to landfill.
We heated the ground floor with hot water under-floor heating. Both this system and domestic hot water were heated by the boiler in an old Rayburn cooker. The Rayburn was oil-fired although, had we lived in the house on completion, we intended to convert this to burn wood.
I built clay lined flues through the centre of the house to serve the Rayburn and fitted a wood stove in the upstairs living room directly above. The solid mass of the chimney breast retained an even heat which, combined with the zoned underfloor heating and ventilation, was sufficient to warm even the unheated upstairs bedrooms.
Terracotta floor tiles were bought new but laid upside down and polished to give an old appearance. The insulated and heated concrete floor finished with tile gave a pleasantly warm easy-to-clean finish.
Making the circular head door for the south-facing arched doorway was complicated. The components for the frame were cut out on a friend’s bandsaw and then made up on site. I made templates for all the double glazed panes to be made in Glasgow and fortunately they all fitted when they arrived.
The kitchen was the hub of the house and enjoyed good light and passive heat gain from the double-glazed door and the windows on east and south walls.
Directly above the kitchen was the upstairs living room. The upper storey had coombed ceilings and I built storage into the insulated eaves and the roof apex.
Three bedrooms ran off an upstairs corridor. The main bedroom was furthest from the heat sources of the house and directly above my unheated workshop so was the coolest room of the house. But despite its full height ceiling it was well insulated and rarely needed supplementary heating. A door above the bed led to a sizable loft storage area. Paint finishes throughout the house were natural, including clay based paints for the walls.
The second bedroom had a lower ceiling because water storage tanks were housed in the loft space above.
Bedroom 3 was the smallest room so we retained the full height of the roof to increase the sense of space.
The bathroom was downstairs adjacent to the hot water system to minimise heat loss through pipe runs. The hot water system was gravity fed. We intended to use collected rainwater to flush the toilet but in the event did not set up this system before moving away. All the sanitary fittings were reclaimed items.
One external wall backed onto a neighbours land in which we were not permitted to insert windows. This was also the coldest wall of the house so we used this space for a utility-room cum larder.
I made an exact copy of the 1920’s external door for what was now the internal door from the lobby. The lock is the original fitting serviced and polished. Most of the light fittings date from the early 1900’s.
Because of the proximity of the sea, the house had wonderful reflected light, even during the grey days of winter. The sound of the sea was ever present too.
(see also eco-renovation links on Hemp, Lime & Clay page)
Association for Environment Conscious Building – AECB
Architectural Salvage & Reclaimed Building Materials – Salvoweb
Reclaim materials – Reclaimed Building Supply
Natural insulation materials – Sustainable Build (UK)
Wool insulation – Black Mountain
Wool insulation – Thermafleece
Natural clay paints – Earthborn
Organic Paints – Ecos
Tom Woolley and Sam Kimmins – Green Building Handbook –