Now for Suma-thing different

It feels like today, many of us are becoming quite distant from the origins of the food we eat. We’re not shopping in the butcher’s, the baker’s and the grocer’s, and this means in general our food is travelling further to get to us, and we know less about the wellbeing of the people who make it and how they make it. It’d be easy to bemoan the march of the supermarkets and a valid response could be to only shop local for some. However there are other factors here: mass food has become more varied, less expensive, and its quality is policed with exceptional rigour (…even if taste is occasionally the innocent bystander hit by this focus). Thankfully there are lots of gems of local producers all around the UK, but I’ve found since moving to London trying to shop local now carries a hefty price tag. It seems to have become a pretension. Shopping eco and organic similarly can get pricey very suddenly, with alternative supermarkets like As Nature Intended and Wholefoods stocking hard-to-find eco goods in London but also charging well above the odds for them also.

So, how do you get your diet and groceries to be low food miles, fairtrade, organic, low meat, eco-friendly, varied and exciting, and yet not cost you an utter fortune?

What is Suma?

Time for a clever co-operative to step in. Suma have been running since the 70s and they are one of the most successful workers co-operatives in the UK. Their business model is very interesting; their main purpose is to sell organic, fairtrade, and environmentally friendly groceries wholesale to shops. However they also actively encourage sales to food-buying groups; individuals banding together to get to the same Minimum Order Value (MOV) as a shop would have, and then sending through one group order. Suma have strong principles about what they will and won’t stock; they are strict about products being environmentally sensible, paying a fair price to those who grew/made the food (whether that is Fairtrade label or other forms of worker protections), they don’t stock meat, and most (but not all) of their food is organic.

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A selection of organic & wholefood goodies – Credit: Suma.coop

Over the years Suma have grown and are now an experienced brand in their own right; many of their staples are Suma branded and sourced. Suma practices what it preaches by paying all of its staff an identical basic wage of £15.60 per hour (~£32k p.a.) regardless of role, and all staff equally share profits and have equal stakes in deciding how the business develops. Staff are encouraged to turn their talents to whichever combination of roles they prefer; this radio program said tasks like picking and stacking are partially on a rota, but equally some workers are more accounts-based and others are more packing-based. I’m really fascinated by their model; it’s unabashedly utopian and logically one would say ahh, economics will mean one day they won’t be able to fill a skills gap and will have to pay one person more, then it will all fall apart. However they’ve been doing just fine for the past 40 years. My instinct says the answer to the puzzle is they’re offering a model of diversity and equality that really is worth more than money to some very capable people out there. Well, anyway, if you just read that and want to join the utopia, they’re over in Elland, West Yorkshire, and they’re hiring as I write this.

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The Suma Co-operative team – Credit: Suma.coop

Back to the food; Suma stock a huge range of grains, staples, canned vegetables, nuts, fruits, drinks, oils, dairy goods, toiletries and cleaning products. If you have a special diet eg. low meat, dairy free, gluten free, vegan, they have a ton of specialist foods and meat replacement foods. Quality is very high and prices are comparable with budget supermarkets, i.e. it may not necessarily beat Aldi/Lidl/Asda/Morrisons but it’s great quality and great ethics for that same price. It’s excellent value.

There are a few other co-operatives doing something similar: Lembas in Sheffield and Rainbow Wholefoods in Norwich are notable examples and similarly have an ethos of equality and co-operative running. They’ll also sell in bulk to food buying groups. I believe there are a few more but I don’t know them by name, feel free to comment and flag some others up.

What is a Food Buying Group?

A food buying group is where a bunch of individuals get together and place group orders for food, so that they can access it cheaply. Some food buying groups can be purely cost motivated, but around the UK there’s a really big trend of these groups also being about getting more environmental, more ethical products, particularly if you live somewhere where those items are not in the shops around you. The group normally has a focal point that makes it a natural little community; a certain cafe, or school, or allotment site. The group can be a co-op, with a constitution, members, bank account – or equally it can be a Whatsapp group and one person willing to have a pallet delivered to their house now and then.

Deliveries come via Suma’s own fleet of green machines – Credit: Suma.coop

When I was little we used to get our Rainbow Wholefoods supplies (inc. soya milk and un-sulphured apricots) from the delightful Fruits Of The Earth in Upper Orwell Street, Ipswich. It was my favourite shop because its smell was just incredible, all of the cooking spices oozing together, and to a child it seemed stunningly exotic. I have a treasured memory of watching the Chinese New Year parade passing whilst we stood on the high doorstep of the shop. Unfortunately for us this rarity in Ipswich disappeared, leaving us without a particularly good source of wholefood products for a while. A few years later my parents joined the allotment’s food group – this is a really popular type of food co-op – and used to order in all the bulk items that a big family gets through; pasta, laundry liquid, loo roll, tinned tomatoes.

 

Scoop food co-op logo – Credit: scoopyork.blogspot.co.uk

When we lived primarily in York, we were part of the University of York People and Planet Student food co-op (SCOOP, @YorkSCOOP). They have a sophisticated setup where they run a price-by-weight shop called SCOOP at cost out of the University. Most food groups don’t have enough admin people to do this, but the students provided a big enough group that it made sense to “pony up” for the bulk and let people come and grab what they want. If you wanted something rare you might have to commit to taking a whole case of it before they’d order it in, but most stuff was very easy to get from there.

Now we’re in London and surprisingly we’ve not naturally drifted into any food groups here. It seems to be a bizarre desert for food groups. For a while that puzzled me, but I’ve noticed a few factors in the dearth of food groups here:

Free from foods – Credit: lemenu.co.uk

Specialist diets have become normal – It used to be difficult to get dairy free/gluten free/meat replacement/vegan fare in most UK shops, and seeking out somewhere that would sell these to you would be the thing that originally nudged you into the wholefoods universe. Now Quorn is everywhere, and with 1/3rd of British customers now buying Free From products, even my convenience shop stocks soya milk and gluten free bread. It’s far easier to get this stuff.

Combo of availability and money – London already has a lot of shops catering to eco food and cleaning products, they charge a lot but they are convenient and people here get constantly psychologically battered into thinking food costs a lot of money, so they don’t seem to notice the markup.

Don’t talk to other Londoners – our rep across the UK for ignoring each other in London is not entirely undeserved. Our community is simply too large to emotionally cope with, so I’ve noticed socialising becomes more focused; there’s a club for literally any activity, but x club only does x activity specifically. Food groups seem to arise more naturally where the community is smaller so a successful club/society needs to accommodate a more disparate group of people attending and be a focal point for a broader range of activities. People then chat more about neighbouring interests and work out they’d like a food group.

What do you need to start a food group?

  • £0 – no startup costs
  • A group of people who can all communicate easily
  • Enough interest to generate orders of minimum value £250 (total, not each)
  • Someone who can drive a spreadsheet and knows super-basic accounting (i.e. if you do your own bills, you are totally qualified enough for this)
  • Someone who feels confident reminding people politely to pay (can be consolidated into the same human as above skillset)
  • A bank account to marshal the money up in
  • Somewhere that a huge Arctic lorry (think double-decker bus size) can drop a pallet off

Read through Suma’s “Start your own Food Group” guide to find out more. I used their web resources for lots of advice and help and found they were excellent. They had a “Top 100” list, which helped me show the possibilities to people unsure about jumping in.

Our food co-op: Musette

Our order arrives!

Musette is the food co-op I set up for the employees of Brompton Bicycle Ltd. I’m really proud of being able to set up a co-op of our own, and I’m thoroughly impressed with how enlightened an employer Brompton has been through the process. I’m also just blown away by how stunningly friendly Suma are as a company, and as individuals, which I’ll say more about in a second.

I’ll do another post sometime describing the nuts and bolts of how we run, and how orders come together, but for now I want to just chat a bit about how Musette came to be.

The food group grew out of necessity; LittleEcoFlat gets through lots of TVP, soya milk, Boullion powder, Ecover washing and cleaning things, tinned chickpeas, and we were getting this all from SCOOP. As we spent more and more time in London we were having to take more and more of these foods down on the train from York. It’s a ridiculous situation that this was still so much cheaper than buying those things here. So we had a think about who would make a good group; we thought maybe the allotment, but we were concerned on two counts. First was we are newbies. Rocking up and then starting to organise people who’ve been doing this a lot longer than you is rarely wanted or needed. Second is the allotment group is quite loosely connected and its organisation appears mysterious from the outside. Our secretary clearly has an excellent handle on things, but we really lacked the confidence that we could get this gang pulling together, communicating well, and placing big enough orders.

Instead I started to think about my workplace. The factory is massive; pallets and lorries coming and going is the day-to-day reality. My immediate colleagues include several who love to cook and like good quality ingredients, and the wider company is big and could get a minimum order together even if it’s only a small % buying one or two items each. My colleagues include people who eat low meat, no meat, organic, palm oil free, and who use environmentally friendly laundry liquid etc., making them a decent fit for Suma’s catalogue. Brompton isn’t a campaigning organisation and doesn’t have an environmental agenda, but the staff is heavily made up of cyclists and that has a correlation with many of us feeling quite environmentally conscious.

My first step was to gently float the idea hypothetically to a couple of close friends at work. They seemed keen and thought others would be too. After building up my confidence a bit, I went to our MD and pitched for permission. My argument was that his employees get access to a seriously good deal on good quality food, and all it’s going to cost him is a pallet spot for 1-2 days which isn’t even going to be a hassle. He didn’t know much about Suma or food buying groups but was immediately keen. He gave me permission and said this is the kind of employee community activity they want to have, he was really encouraging. I’m glad I spoke to Brompton’s management really early; if you are considering doing something similar, I would recommend doing it this way. I felt it was important to show my respect for the company before steaming ahead, and it definitely set the right tone of enthusiasm. I also appreciated that the MD showed his support by making sure he joined in on the first order, and spreading the word about Suma.

The first order was a solo affair on the admin side; I phoned Suma and set up an account alone, and did the promoting, order collection, money admin. When I first spoke to Suma the size of the task felt really daunting. But I needn’t have worried – I had the pleasure of Lynne (from the New Business Team) taking me through the process with warmth and charm. She signposted me to all the info I needed and it genuinely was really easy to get started. Something I hadn’t anticipated was Suma were so excited by Brompton getting in touch. Lynne was really impressed that our staff were up for this sort of thing, and Suma staff have a great love for cycling. Regardless of that, everyone I’ve had contact with at Suma has made it clear that they’re so happy to have us, and that they genuinely love new customers coming along and getting to include them in something everyone at Suma deeply believes in.

Some of our items stacked up for collection

My first order was a bit gunky, I made mistakes, I didn’t know which foodstuffs were VAT chargable (it’s seriously weird). I didn’t check if things were in stock, and on the first order you don’t have a credit line yet which means you need to pay for everything and then process a refund for anything which isn’t able to be sent for whatever reason. But Brompton staff were excited and positive, whilst Suma staff were quietly efficient and dealt with everything very smoothly. The order was a big success overall, people loved it and made it immediately clear that they wanted to do it again. Meanwhile, the lady who packed our pallet for us slipped in a handwritten note which we proudly put up on the noticeboard:

Big love to Brompton Bicycles! Best in the world! Jane, Suma xxx

Thank you Jane!

After that there was a long hiatus due to me getting married, which rather maxed out my admin capabilities. But when I got back, we set about creating Musette. It’s a constituted co-op with four Brompton employees making up the management committee. I’m chair and realistically I still do most of the order side, but it’s lovely having the others to seek advice from, to help publicise the group, and to help me split out the goods when they arrive. I wanted to set up a full-blown co-op, rather than an informal group, partly so that the admin wouldn’t all fall on one person, but mostly so that I’m not handling loads of my colleagues’ money all on my own. The orders can easily break £1k each, and whilst my colleagues clearly have trust in me and have been happy with my management of the money, having a co-op means it’s more accountable and transparent if any confusion ever did arise. Best to keep a healthy boundary between work world and money world.

A musette bag – Credit: bicycling.com

The name refers to a musette bag from the world of road cycling, which is a light cotton bag with a very long strap so it’ll sit on the rider’s back easily, filled with snacks that gets chucked to pro riders in the feed zone, or generally taken on rides to snack from (See also: nosebag, bonk-bag). It took us a long time to come up with it, we were initially trying for a bad pun or slightly naughty acronym, but being a co-op based on the intersection of bicycles and food, Musette is such an appropriate name.

Together with the committee it’s going really well. The hardest thing about it is that it involves payments and so people forget, or don’t really want to pay, and you have to keep firm about the boundaries there. We’ve set a simple rule of payment before order, and the order’s on a hard deadline. If anyone misses payment, their stuff doesn’t get ordered, but we’re really gentle about it and encourage them to try again next order.

Overall this experience has been excellent. LittleEcoFlat has enough food tucked away in it to weather the apocalypse, and I’ve gotten to see the enthusiasm from both Brompton and Suma employees. It reinforced my feeling that I’m really lucky to work at a place where people are interested in having a community, and are interested in having integrity and principle in how they live. I had no idea how a community that isn’t primarily eco-focused would take to Suma; but it turns out my colleagues are open-minded and interested in the world, and they bloomin’ love cut-price pine nuts.

Lots of lovely pine nuts – Credit: sumawholesale.com

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Allotmenting pt. II – A quick update

Since our last allotment post we’ve obtained and reclaimed the second part our allotment plot. This adjoins to the north of the bit we already had. We’ve managed to grow a few things and eat them. Here is a little update on our efforts and some of what we’ve learnt so far…

The empire expands! – taking over the 1/4 plot next-door

So, we got the second part (1/4) of our allotment, making us up to a 1/2 plot, or 5 poles. For reasons of demand, allotments are split typically into 1/4s and 1/2s these days with only veterans really having whole 10 pole or multiple 5 pole plots. Annoyingly if we’d known we’d expand I wouldn’t have wasted 1/2 a day re-building the beds that slightly went over the half way mark. Regardless actually wrestling the site to a state where things could grow took several cumulative days of effort. From speaking to others, this is pretty much always the case…

Allotment friends!

As well as a really interesting and lively group of local people who have allotment plots, we got a few critter friends too! We have numerous slow worms, birds, frogs, pretty insects (inc. dragonflies), and even a cat. We are particularly fond of our frogs, who seem to be very happy with our pond (made from an up-cycled bath as discussed in our last post). I was less positive about the allotment cat (as they are responsible for a vast amount of bird deaths – see CSE’s graph comparing to death’s from buildings/wind turbines), but after noting how many mice it caught (who might eat our mange-tout!) I might be slowly coming around.

Cooking from the allotment

We are amazed about how much we’ve got off the allotment so far. We are well on track to beat the money we’ve spent on the allotment with worth of crops off. A lot of it has been fortuitous, we’ve cashed in on what was grown in the soil previously and that amazingly survived our rebuilding of plots and re-taming the space. The highlight of this was a surprise asparagus, that provided many happy additions to dishes over a month period.

We’ve grown a ridiculous amout of courgettes and marrows.  As you may have seen, we even posted the favourite three of the marrow recipes we cooked (blog post: “Don’t feel Marrow-se about your courgettes!”).

 

Pestos & salads…

We tend to prefer lightly cooked vegetables anyway, but particularly from the allotment we’re finding the tastes and textures of them raw a real delight. Our first red cabbage went into a huge coleslaw, and we’ve already had an experiment with making a herb pesto using marjoram, oregano and garlic from the herb bed crushed up with bulk-bought pine nuts (from the lovely guys at Suma) and olive oil. Major plus point; you can make it dairy free, if you are lactose intolerant, as long as you put in some salt – we discovered the cheese is counterbalancing a lot of sweetness from the pine nuts. We’re now working on a little basil factory on our windowsill at the flat where it’s warmer in order to do version 2.

A spiraliser proved to be useful and we did a huge salad of courgette, onion, cabbage (all from allotment) with carrot, cashew, and sweet chilli sauce (not from allotment).

Finally, sorrel is a bizarre, intense and lovely lemon-tasting leaf which has really thrived and we’ve enjoyed flavour-bombing salads with.

The kindness/glut of others

In addition to our own growing, we’ve been kindly given a variety of things from other allotmenteer’s gluts. This has included parsnips, beans, and raspberries; all have at become the foucus of a meal. We’ve enjoyed returning the favour ocasssionally, but the the largest glut we’ve had was courgettes/marrows (there are still >10 marrows in our kitchen) and nearly everyone had enough this year (but we did manage to give a few to friends and family). Foraging bushes near the allotment has yeilded many kilos of blackberries, which hopefully will remain a nice addition to breakfasts and smoothies for many months.

Lessons learned

My wife and I have a rather low opinion of our gardening knowledge and general green fingered-ness, but as we keep up our ~2hrs each per week we are pleasantly surprised at how much we seem to be able to grow. Slowly we seem to be making progress and working out how to get more out of our space. A few things we’ve realised:

  1. Things grow. Particularly potatoes. Often the things you didn’t intend to grow do the best and you just have to work with that.
  2. Research is good. Getting allotment was a surprise and we decided to just take the chance and run with it, rather than our normal approach of hitting the books/internet beforehand.
  3. The more setup your site is the easier it is to look after and therefore the less time per week you need to spend on it.

So we went with the flow with (1) and are working on some plans for (3). For (2): We’ve slowly doing more research, but a lot of the big lessons learned have been experiential and on our plot.

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Don’t feel Marrow-se about your courgettes!

When does a courgette (or zucchini to our American friends) become a marrow….  

When you go on holiday!

In our little journeys into growing your own, there’ve been lots of surprises. Certainly the biggest (by weight) surprise has been the mad expansion of our courgettes whilst we were on holiday!

The 1st Haul

We returned to harvest seven handsome marrows and promptly realised we had no idea what to do with them.

Look at these beauties, the 1st seven weighed a total of 10.5kg!

Here’s what we’ve been doing to beat the glut without getting bored; if you have recipes to add we’d love to hear them.

Roast ’em

Our first point of call was roast marrow. We had two tries at this, both turned out well but definitely the second was best.

Falafel-stuffed Marrow

Ingredients

Recipe

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius (fan)
  2. Mix the falafel powder with 150ml of water (slightly less than normal)
  3. Cut the marrow in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds and pulp
  4. Brush the oil thinly over the marrow inside and outside
  5. Roast the marrow for 20 minutes on a pizza stone
  6. Remove and fill with falafel mixture
  7. Roast for 30 minutes
  8. Serve

We found that the falafel went crispy on top and steamed underneath, which is what we were after. However we concluded the marrow was not too interesting on its own and could really carry more flavour.

Chorizo, tomato & paprika roasted marrow

Ingredients

  • 1 huge marrow
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 3 tbsp of olive oil
  • 2 tbsp of ground paprika
  • 1/2 ring of chorizo
  • 2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
  • 3 tbsp tomato puree
  • 1 tsp Bouillon powder
  • 1 tsp soy sauce

Recipe

  1. Admire your marrow
  2. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius fan
  3. Cut the marrow in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds and pulp
  4. Peel, crush and finely chop the garlic cloves
  5. Brush a little bit of oil thinly over the marrow skin
  6. Mix the rest of the oil, the garlic, and the paprika in a small bowl
  7. Score the inside of the marrow deeply in a diamond pattern
  8. Drizzle the oil mixture on and spread it out all over the insides with the back of a spoon
  9. Roast the marrow for 20 mins on a pizza stone
  10. Whilst that’s cooking, chop the chorizo into bitesize chunks and fry for 5 mins in a large thick-bottomed pan.
  11. Tip in the tomatoes, puree, Boullion and soy sauce. Simmer & reduce until the marrow is done
  12. Put the tomato & chorizo mix into the marrow
  13. Roast for 30 mins
  14. Serve

Definitely go overboard on the paprika – the resulting oil paste soaks down the scored sections and gives the marrow colour and flavour. We loved this and it stored really well for lunches.

Bon Appétit!

Give Them Away

Next we dealt with another two by giving them to friends who eat healthily, but don’t have a growing patch of their own. One of them tried roasting their marrow with nut roast stuffing which they highly recommend. The other is still considering their options…

Bolognese

We also made our normal bolognese recipe (lots of veg, soya protein instead of mince) and put most of a marrow chopped up in that as a nice bulker. It’d also disappear into soups in a similar way.

Marrow & Stem Ginger Cake

I enlisted my work colleagues to eat and rate V1 for me and came up with V2 today. Based on the feedback, this is my optimised recipe. It comes out sticky and with a powerful gingery kick, I recommend it as a loaf cake but it also works as an iced circular cake.

As we all know, cake is a serious business and benefits from the application of SCIENCE (or at least, graphs) and so here is my peer-reviewed cake:

Gingery vs. Moist assessment

Based on this I put more ginger and more marrow into version 2!

Ingredients

  • 300g marrow, skinned cored and grated
  • 200g self raising flour
  • 200g butter
  • 100g brown sugar
  • 227g (1/2 jar) Lyle’s golden syrup
  • 175g (1/2 jar) stem ginger & ginger syrup (tried 4 places for this and eventually found it in Morrisons)
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp mixed spice
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 thumbnail-sized chunk of ginger root, fine grated

Recipe

  1. Preheat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius fan
  2. Line your tin, I use a silicone one so I just put a thin coat of butter on it and toss a teaspoon of flour in it
  3. Beat the butter and sugar together. Brown sugar is a right pain if it’s got lumps in so it’s really worth crushing those out first.
  4. Whisk the egg and beat it into the mix in little bits. The butter I use is Pure Soya Marg and it has a tendency to curdle when mixed with egg, so to avoid this I sieve in just a bit of the flour first.
  5. Pour in the syrup and mix
  6. Chop the stem ginger into chunks about 4-5 mm wide. Make sure to keep at least one or two pieces back and cut them into bigger bits, about a cm wide, so that there’s concentrated bits of ginger to bite into. This was a key innovation introduced after version 1!
  7. Stir the stem ginger pieces and grated root ginger into the mix.
  8. In a dry bowl stir the flour, baking powder and spices together. Sieve into the mix and fold in gently
  9. Tip in the grated marrow, and stir in as gently as you can (don’t want to lose too much air)
  10. Fill the tin and bake for 40-50 mins or until a skewer (or knife, if like me you don’t have any skewers) comes out clean with no cake mix on it
  11. Place on a cooling tray for about 5 mins but if you’re using silicone don’t let it cool all the way in there; turn it out fairly promptly
  12. Cover with a tea towel and allow to cool
  13. OPTIONAL – ice with buttercream. 1 qty butter to 1.5 qty icing sugar
  14. Enjoy the sweet victory of your work colleagues insisting you feed them more of your glut item

Our Other Ideas

Our Mums have been sending us lovely recipes and we’ve also had some recommendations off friends. We want to try courgette fritters, spiralised courgette noodles, ratatouille, and much more besides. But that is a matter for to-marrow…

The Situation Is Now Under Control

Its been a bit of a marrow-thon, but of our mighty glut only one marrow remains – handily when they get big their skins get thick, so it’s safe to store it for a couple of weeks. In the meantime our courgette patch has been giving us civilised normal sized courgettes which are sweeter and firmer. These are now slotting into our normal cooking habits (steamed with a meal, fried/roasted in slices, grated in salad, chopped in risotto) and saving on our grocery bill!

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Expanding our growing allot(ment) – pt. I

A few months back, we got a call out of the blue asking if we wanted an allotment. We suddenly remembered we’d put ourselves on the allotment waiting list about a year and a half prior to this, thinking (rather optimistically!) by the time we got to the top of the list we’d have finished up our flat renovations and read a bit on growing things. However, as we knew it’d probably be ages before we’d be asked again we decided we’d give it a go with a fixed amount of time each week (2hrs each) and muddle our way through.

The overarching thought was for Ele and I to get some experience trying to grow our own food. We’ve been doing lots of daydreaming and some planning about a hypothetical self build (at least partially…) “eco-home” in the future for a while now. As part of these ideas there’d be an element of growing our own food, so here is a little summary of the first few months of our experiment…

What do you get?

For our £37.50/year we got a “plot” of land of area similar to that of many of the 1-bed flats we looked at when we moved to west London (~25 sq. metres). The plot was rather over-grown, but obviously had been loved at one point. There was lots of wood, which we could re-purpose to build our things.

Pulling a plan together

We started putting together an plan of what to grow where and how to use the space before “breaking ground”. We got lots of useful info from the Royal Horticultural society (RHS)’s guide for newbie allotmenteers, and pulled together a little map our plot (below)…

Planning out the space…

We then started trying to work to our plan. The first thing was a lot of tidying up, collecting up wood on site, and seeing how good the raised beds were…

The raised beds were mostly OK, but had a lot of rotten bits and needed a fair few screws to get them to hold earth again. We built a couple of sturdy new compost heaps so we could start being able to enrich the soil back to state for growing and make new beds from the areas of the plot that were mostly just London clay instead of top soil.

Whilst moving the beds we saw a few toads! So this led to the acceleration of one of our biggest additions to the plot, the pond. Someone kindly fly-tipped this near our house, prematurely cutting short its noble life, so we thought a new lease could help! We thought the toads might help with slugs eating up our crops…

With the site closer to our ideas, we then put in some crops. As it was early in the year at this point, we mostly just got in onion sets and garlic. We also got some plants kindly given to us by other allotments and family, which made our rather barren plot really start to feel more alive. A highlight was strawberries which had grown in someones path and were free to use if we dug them up and re-planted them…

…and from here?

We started the with the idea that ~£40 to give growing a go in London was reasonable and we would be happy if we just managed to grow a few edible things. After a few months slowly preparing the site and starting to plant more things we’re cautiously optimistic. We seem to be very good at digging things. We’re starting to get edibles off the plot, and see what works and doesn’t. We still have a great deal to learn, and we don’t know yet what to do when things go wrong with our baby plants.

That said, we also got the second (north) part of the allotment, so our empire has doubled and now includes the skeleton of a shed (below, which I am re-building)! I’ll do a blog in the near future (pt. II) about the second plot and what we’re actually growing now in main season…

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Skyrocket salad! Attempts at growing high-rise food

After looking at our carbon footprints via a nice (and relatively quick ) tool called REAP-Petite a while back, we realised that food was an area we needed to really work on. When life moved us to be based in west London, getting a home with a garden was off the cards, as it is for most. However, we’ve found that we can get a remarkable crop just from some window boxes (even through the winter once!).

We’ve also been looking at a load of other things to bring down our food carbon footprints, including setting up a local Suma wholefoods buying group, exploring new veggie/vegan recipes, and trying to take our growing a bit further. So here’s a little post on seeing our first attempts at food production skyrocket…

The setup

We just have a “Juliet Balcony”, so there isn’t somewhere outside for us to put plots. If you do have somewhere for boxes, then many people have shown that you can really produce a lot! (e.g. @VerticalVeg, who grew £900 of veg in six foot of space in London) We started with four boxes. There were a lot of options (including much cheaper ones), but we ended up choosing ones in zinc to fit with balcony for ~£15 a pop (links at end of blog).

Since this was our first attempt we just jumped in and got supplies from shops near us, hopefully with time we’ll get a better idea of what works well. We also choose to focus on the more expensive and “easy to grow” crops of cut-and-come-again lettuce, rocket etc. After getting the boxes, next on the list were seeds and compost.

  • Seeds – we’ve tried a mixture of sources, e.g. IKEA (Vaxer), Wilkinsons (Wilko), and the organic gardening catalogue. The ones from IKEA and the organic gardening catalogue grew well, but we didn’t rate those from Wilko.  We even tried buying the reduced cut and come-again salads from supermarkets, but although cheap, they never lasted that long.
  • Compost  – we just got a load delivered cheaply from a local chain hardware store, Wickes (avoiding peat compost for carbon reasons).

We started with four boxes, then expanded to five to use the whole top balcony rail. I’m still deciding whether to put up the second row, which would double the amount we could grow. The really essential addition, post buying off-the-shelf boxes, was drilling a line drainage holes about an inch up on each side of the boxes to make sure the soil didn’t get too wet (photo below).

The results

First we planted up baby spinach, rocket, cut-and-come-again salad leaves and some herbs. These grew well and even through the winter in the first year (2015 was mild). We’re still amazed with how much grew and the sheer amount of salad that we had. Considering the kind of salad we were growing  would cost around a £1 or more a bag in the shops (e.g. rocket and mixed leaves), the savings/worth per week could probably be ~£3 or more.

We did have a time when we got a lot of coriander, more than could be used at once.  However, we found that any extra is easily preserved and led to some interesting recipes (e.g. see this guide on 5 ways to preserve ‘Cilantro’).

However, after our thoughts of giddy success our vigilance dropped and we failed to notice the drainage holes were slowly blocking up. We then re-seeded the plots with only an little extra compost, but the seeds didn’t even really germinate. This was in all likelihood due to the soil just being used up and we started looking into how to improve the soil choose to add some fertilizer (100% Vegetable ingredients), which improved things. Window boxes are a very different eco-system to growing in soil and we probably had naively not though about this enough… We were kindly given some small herb plants too which got us going again. However the streak did not continue through the winter as it was harder that 1st year we have done this and the drainage still wan’t good enough so we lost our herbs and our salad stopped growing.

So we’ve had some highs and lows, but are learning slowly how to keep the window boxes growing well.  We’ve upped our game a bit now and are growing with the aim of having a constant supply of the special salads (e.g. radicchio, mustard leaves etc) as-well as cut-and-come-again lettuce/rocket. It may seem obvious, but keeping an eye on the plants is the main thing and most of the issues we’ve had could have been avoided if we’d been better with this all along…

Overall the money in (seeds, compost etc) vs. money out (cost savings/worth) is very good once the initial outlay the for the window boxes is paid off. Buying the seeds and seeing them grow is definitely a lot cheaper and more rewarding that just buying from a shop. The fresh salad also taste a lot better, there is less packaging and the carbon emissions will be lower.

Where next?

We’ve been cycling the soil and looking into how to improve it/make it more appropriate for what we want to grow. We now always germinate the seeds inside after sowing inside (just by a window).  This seems to really help give them a head start.

Although I recently bought enough boxes for a second row and started hatching a plan of how to attach them, we just got a call saying we were being offered a local allotment! (if allotments aren’t something you have heard or know much about, here is a nice explainer.) We put ourselves on the list about a year and half before we were called, which is notably fast as often the waiting list is several years or more. Getting an allotment has really upped the magnitude of what we can grow and meant that our window boxes are now transitioning to be full of delicate leaves and a few herbs for salads as we can now plant anything more hardy on the allotment.

A downside of all this is if we keep on getting better at growing I might need to remove “non-green-fingered … gardener” from my twitter handle

Links

 

 

Another track for work and holiday travel? ; Would a train work for your trip?

Trains won’t work for every journey and they don’t loop the world, even if the phenomenal cinematographic breakthrough “Snowpiercer” suggests they can (trailer linked here). However, they often could work. They are often cheaper with a bit of research, offer greater chances to see the places alongside the route (both out the window and on stops), more comfortable (leg room, ability to walk around etc), less stressful (no “check-ins” as such, lots of luggage allowance etc) and give substantially lower CO2 emissions. A huge plus for my partner and I is that, unlike driving, no one gets annoyed when you read a good book in transit…

Some people like flying. I have always had childish glee watching the wings every time I have taken off. However, I have always found planes uncomfortable (especially for longer trips), stressful, and find the irony of being an atmospheric scientist and flying often rather too poignant. Without spending too much time on the emissions argument, I would like instead to put time to the argument that trains could be an upgrade to many trips in terms of comfort, experience and holiday time.

  • Logistics & planning

Train travel logistics can be less than obvious to those who do not often use it, and even those who do. A good example of this is my partner and I’s trip to the Balkans by train, in which by just using the Euro-star site for our tickets London to Munich lead to addition £50 charge (We should have used SNCB after Brussels as soon as we were on a line operated by them or LOCO2). I have almost ubiquitously found that buying separate tickets from the country’s provider leads to the best prices, the answer is always to check a least a few providers website’s for the same service and the general sites like LOCO2.

However, with that said there are some phenomenal sites and blogs from people who know the score with trains. My favourite (and the favorite of many people!) is a site called The Man In Seat 61. I’ve tried to list (at the bottom) a few that we’ve found useful over the years, and will happily add suggestions.

  • Work travel

Some professions end up travelling a lot. In academia, I’ve been sent to America once a year for the last 3 years which has rather ratcheted up my travel carbon footprint. I admit that, obviously, I flew across the Atlantic. But the USA actually does have a lot of good train routes (and buses too…) if you are travelling within the states and are willing to spend a bit more time on the travel. My decision to catch the train from Boston Massachusetts to San Francisco made me the subject of much amusement from my colleagues (especially the American ones!). Unfortunately the USA setup for train travel means they travel at a tiny fraction of the speed of their European counterparts (so the direct version of my trip would take ~3.5 days).  However, things like free WiFi on buses and trains puts us to shame in the UK. To do this trip you need to take holiday (only ~1 day if you included the weekend), but I really have to emphasis how much of a wonder doing the trip was. I’ve put a few photos of the trip below, however although the sights are incredible shots through train windows (or photography in general) has never been my strong suit.

 

Apart from the mind-blowing sight of a wolf in the wild whilst eating a (well priced) 3 course dinner in the dinning cart, just the scenery was enough. As Brit who has only been to the USA because of my PhD, I had not seen the USA and its vast and glorious landscapes. The university I was based at in Cambridge Massachusetts was surrounded by fantastic independent shops and the office I shared was actually with scientists from Switzerland and Denmark, suffice it to say I doubt this was representative of the USA as a whole (and after my train trip I know it wasn’t). Neither in fact were the 10 days I spent in San Francisco at a conference following the train trip. I cannot recommend the trip enough if you need to get from Denver to San Francisco (other USA summarised routes here). I guess the point I am making is that the train trip was a great way to see some of “real” America.

There is often an argument about driving being cheaper or easy. Sometimes this is valid in the UK due high rail prices, but often not. Certainly in academia when a lot of trips (e.g. conferences, talks etc) are organized in advance, advance singles are a good match.  Also, in the UK it is often cheaper and quicker to get to close Europe by train (e.g. Paris in 2h20, Brussels in 2h21, Lille in 1h22 etc…) by buying return fares not that far in advance. For instance prices to Paris from London start from £29. On our latest train trip, which was a holiday, we actually arrived into Brussels casually for 9am (UK time). I can’t easily describe my huge endearment to the Eurostar. It is both the big things (like how smooth the logistics work) and little things like dated (but in good nick) upholstery that is enough to transport you back in time, and really make you feel like you holiday or trip has started!

I am actually right now excitedly researching travel for my next work trip (to travel the weekend before) as I have recently been invited to give a talk at Copenhagen university (my 1st invited talk!). However, it is unfortunately a little complicated due to the recent cancellation of the Danish ferry to the UK. It looks like it with be as footpassenger on the ferry to Gothenburg, followed by a train from from Gothenburg to Copenhagen.

  • And holidays too? (and combining with boats…)

By combination with a through deals like “rail and sail” (Which includes any east Anglian train station to any Dutch station – like Flussinger, which is a few Euro ferry and few minute cycle from Belgium), there are lot more travel options (e.g. Bilbao… ). The “rail and sail” option used to be closer to £20 each way a while back, but at £34 from your door it is frankly still a steal. Just think about cutting out all those airport lounges, stressful queues, expensive transfers (ad nauseam…) and just boarding your local train station with a bag and a book. The standard arrival into the centre of cities is huge boon for holidays and work travel (again saving the transfer time,  which with many budget airline airports is frankly ridiculous, and costs. )

We’ve also done quick trips from York to the south France (Eurostar to Avignon, cycled the rest). The similarity times from York to London, York to Edinburgh, and London to Paris really raise questions why anyone would fly UK to Paris. I am so surprised when I frequency here of people doing this, especially from York.

The big eye opener for us recently though, was getting the to Balkans by train. It was a painless trip to Munich in fancy new trains (with a pretty LED speedometer casually reminding us we were at ~250 km/h or faster!), with a lovely evening walking round the city and eating Bavarian food with a friend. Then just another simple trip to Ljubljana (which can be done by bus or train).

The kicker? the cost out was less (£118.75 pp + 1xtransfer, London=> Ljubljana) than the flight back (£133.90 + 2xtransfer, Split=>London). Admitted this was on BA, and took substantially less time. I could have got both the trains tickets and the airfare for slightly less with more advance planning, and arguably we could have taken a budget airline (and paid the extra costs for luggage etc). But there is only so much time…

 

  • Ending thoughts?

There are lots of people who are fanatical about trains, but we just use them to get from A to B and enjoy our longer trips in them. I would strongly argue that most of the time When comparing costs of flying and trains, all costs and times need to included (baggage, transfers, parking). These considerations obviously apply for smaller trips too, and there are of course the arguments of time, experience, and carbon footprints.

Although we have only recently had our eyes opened to how cheap and easy it is to get to the Balkans via train, we have been using them for a while now and continue actively choosing them in the future. As firefly’s Shepherd Book says, sometimes “how you get there is the worthier part”…

Links:

  • The Man in Seat 61 –  A fantastic go to site for day dreaming about trips all over the world and nailing down exact details. It is a brilliant at pointing where the most update information will be found too
  • LOCO2 – A booking website for trips, which I have used and often found best prices on
  • “Rail and Sail” to holland – A fantastic deal for getting to the continent by ferry and train. Any station in East-Anglia to any in the Netherlands from £34 each way as an adult foot passenger (it used to be closer to £20, but it is still pretty good!), and a bit more from farther afield. There are Ferries to Ireland too from Holyhead, Liverpool, fishguard, and Cairnryan…
  • Eurostar – They have a good website, and lots of good deals to get to the continent.
  • International train travel summary from National Rail (This should stay up-to date…)
  • Greyhound buses (there are often other good local services too) – A cheap, and in my experience very pleasant way to get around the US (contra to the general impression and what a lot of Americans who haven’t used the service will tell you!)
  • Eurolines – A (very) cheap alternative, but less comfortable alternative to trains.

Disclaimer: I am not a travel agent and I have tried to be as accurate as possible. However information will change and I would advise double-checking any information before acting on it.

“Eco Show & Tell” – YOEH II

Back in December, York Open Eco Homes (YOEH) and St Nicks hosted an “Eco Show & Tell” where anyone was encouraged to bring items costing less than £50 that had helped make their homes cosier to live in, cheaper to run, and/or more sustainable. The event was a casual evening where successes of smalls items (<£50) were shared. Engaging demonstrations and discussions of how to use and install the items were given, including a energy use of different lights from using an energy monitoring plug showing hugely differing energy use of different types of lights and we even had a lovely cake made in a low energy/slow cooker.

This blog is just a summary of items presented at the event, which you can also find collected on a pinterest board. This will continue to be added to, and all credit and thanks go to everyone who came and brought them along. Please do say if you think of anything that has been missed or you think should be included. Hopefully this list will be of interest to others – maybe some of these items will make your home cosier, cheaper to run, or more sustainable?

 

This event was the 2nd in YOEH’s series of events, following the inaugural event of a talk on “Building Low Energy, Healthy Homes” from local architects (Native Architects). The next event will be a session in April preparing for this year’s Open Homes event in York (on 14th and 21st May), with more information to follow in the near future…

  • Chimney Sheep

This item was 1st of the night, and several people including myself expressed interest in trying it for ourselves. The cost is ~£20-35, it is made 100% Herdwick wool and available from ChimneySheep.co.uk. There is lot of information on the website inc. energy loss and money saving calculations or air escaping up chimneys. One obvious advantage over a chimney balloon (see below) is its natural material and thus breathable composition which may help prevent potential build-up of moisture

Chimney Sheep! Cost: ~£20-35 ( depending on size )
Chimney Sheep! Cost: ~£20-35 ( depending on size )
  • Door sausage

A  way to keep out drafts that many people have used for years. The one presented was bought cheaply (~£6), but it is also possible to make them. Many DIY guides exist online ( e.g. OvoEnergy) and people make different and amusing shapes from snake to sausage dogs.

Coincidentally I was actually given a rather impressive and pretty “Fantastic Fox” one for Xmas that my family had made following a Rowan pattern.

 

  • Slow cooker

This item may have been many people’s favourite of the night as a delicious apple cake made in it that day was brought and shared. Slow cookers have a low energy consumption and require a different approach to cooking but with a bit of planning can make almost any dish. Not many people use them for baking but the tasty cake proved that it’s possible too. They are widely available and costs can vary, with ~£25 being typical.

Slow cooker - Cost: ~£25
Slow cooker – Cost: ~£25
  • Plug socket energy meter

This item puts an exact number on energy consumption of appliances at a point or over a period of time. We were given a demonstration of different power requirements of LED, compact fluorescent, and traditional electric lighting which varied widely. It costs ~£10 and is available from Maplins. Interestingly the person who presented the item highlighted that many items he had tested gave unexpectedly high or low readings during use – manufacturers’ labels are not always true to actual running costs.

FYI Another YOEH host has also put together a guide to choosing the right LED lighting, which is well worth a read if you’re planning to buy some or think your existing lights are too dull or bright.

Energy Monitor How much? £10 Where to Buy: maplan (link) Key info: More Info here? An energy meter that fits a 13amp plug - allows comparison of appliance settings eg washing machine.
Energy Monitor How much? £10 Where to Buy: maplan (link) Key info: More Info here? An energy meter that fits a 13amp plug – allows comparison of appliance settings eg washing machine.

 

  • Keyhole cover

A simple and cheap way of avoiding loss of hot air through key holes (a surprisingly big consideration in Passivhauses). It cost ~£3-5 and is available from lots of hardware stores (e.g. Barnitts in York).

Key Hole Cover How much? £3-5 Where to Buy: hardware stores ( e.g. barnitts )
Key Hole Cover How much? £3-5 Where to Buy: hardware stores ( e.g. barnitts )

 

  • Curtains/Stopping draughts

A cheap (approx.. £40 for curtains + £10 for pole) option to deal with draughts around doors (and windows). I have a similar setup to the one presented in our house, with a thick curtain over the front door (photo below). As with a lot of terraces in York, the front door leads directly into the living room, so as well as the noise/heat insulation we find it actually improves the aesthetics of the room.

Thick Curtains
Thick Curtains

 

  • Chimney Balloon

Another option for stopping loss of hot air from unused chimneys. It differs from the chimney sheep in that it is made of plastic. I have had one for a while now and think it does the job nicely. It cost ~£25 and is available from lots of places, including ecotopia.

 

Chimney Balloon - How much? = £25 - Where to Buy: http://www.chimneyballoon.co.uk/
Chimney Balloon – How much? = £25 – Where to Buy: http://www.chimneyballoon.co.uk/

 

  • Electric Oil Heater

This is an item I brought, and it may be counter intuitive. Since our house has solar panels, any extra electricity from the panels can be directed to heat the house through this electric heater. Obviously cost/CO2 savings would differ if power was used directly from grid.

 Oil Heater - How much? £50 - Where to Buy: Widely available
Oil Heater – How much? £50 – Where to Buy: Widely available
  • Energy Monitor (OWL)

For ~£50 or less it is possible to monitor your electric consumption in real time with an “owl“. This little device works by placing a magnet around the mains cable into the house to measure the electricity flow. This item gives real time and cumulative whole house energy consumption in money and energy terms, as well as useful info like temperature.

Energy Monitor - Cost: £30 "Owl Micro+ Wireless Energy Monitor"
Energy Monitor – Cost: £30 “Owl Micro+ Wireless Energy Monitor”
  • Thermostatic timers

The first of these just plugs into any socket (and costs only ~£17) and allows for temperature controlled settings of anything plugged through it. The  timer is used in a flat with electric radiators, which previously had to be set manually. The second example was wired in to control a radiator without a plug socket.

 

 

  • Immersion heater timer

Energy can be saved by setting a hot water tank immersion heater on timer rather than using a manual on/off control.This “Time guard NTT07 ” cost: ~£35.

Immersion heater timer How much? = £34.40 Where to Buy: = www.timeguard.com/
Immersion heater timer How much? = £34.40 Where to Buy: = www.timeguard.com/
  • Trickle Vents

Cheap (~£7) but require careful work aligning the vents in order to prevent damage to windows.  It was made clear during the presentation that technical help to install these is recommended if in any doubt. Available from hardware/trade stores (e.g. YorkTradeWindows).

 

Trickle Vent How much? = £7 Where to Buy: YorkTradeWindows
Trickle Vent How much? = £7 Where to Buy: YorkTradeWindows

The event was a lot fun and I think everyone who attended got exposed to something new. Hearing about other peoples’ experiences with items, including some that I certainly have had less experience of, was a learning experience for me. Do feel free to get in contact if you want more info and I will try and connect you up with information or with the person who presented the item. I will keep adding to the pinterest board (below) and, like other people, am interested in hearing about other cheap but effective items. Please feel free to send/pin suggestions.

 

 

Further links

DISCLAIMER:

These items were presented by individuals and shared here for reference. By inclusion within this YOEH does not recommend use/installation of specific items. Decisions on energy saving are home specific, and if in any doubt please consult relevant professionals/tradesmen.

4 steps to solar panels – a quick test to see if PVs could work on your roof

Over the last few weeks, I have talked to quite a few people about whether panels for electricity from solar ( photovoltaic panels (PV) ) are plausible for their roof. A lot of this is due to the government consulting on cutting support for PVs from January 1st (by up to 87%), meaning the financial payback on installing panels would typically increase from ~10 to 27 years. I’ve blogged before about when we when through the steps of getting our install together (to PV or not to PV), but I thought I would throw together a more general simple step-by-step…

If you live in a flat, the roof is one you do not solely own, or the install is on the larger side, some further steps are needed ( e.g. structural survey, certificate of easement…) however the general steps below are effectively the same.

      1. Work out a few details about your roof area and angle.

You will need to know roof area, roof angle, what angle it faces, how much shading it has, and whether the building has an energy performance above the minimal criteria (an EPC of D or above).

You can calculate the approximate area from eye or just use satellite photos. I tend to use Google maps through an app on a website like comparemysolar. Using this app you just place pins on the outline of the roof to get an approximate area. Google maps also gives you an compass orientation. As for angle, I would say it should be possible to get a estimate just from looking at the roof and comparing against a few examples. Then check for shading (e.g. chimney pots, neighbours roofs, trees…) and estimate what % of day you think the roof is shaded (another approach would just to check the roof at several times of day, but bearing mind this will change a lot by season). To check an the energy performance of the house according to its EPC certificate, and you don’t know it off hand, you can quickly check it on this website. If you do decide to get quotes, then all these estimates will be refined then anyway.

(e.g.  20 square meters, 30 degrees, south facing, no shading, EPC=D,  and in York)

      2. Estimate the rating of the PV install

There are lots of different panels of differing shapes, sizes, capacity and performance around. Choosing panels for the install may be easiest once you have quotes. I would recommend two sets of calculations, one for a lower capacity (e.g. ~100 W/sq m & cheaper) set of panels and one for higher capacity set of panels (~200 W/ sq m) . To get the peak output ( rating ) of the install just multiply the panel capacity by the area.

(e.g.  20 square metres * 200 W/square metres =  4000 W)

      3. Use some apps to estimate the output and payback of the PV install

We can now just plug the numbers from steps 1 & 2 to one of many online apps that use past solar data to predict how the panels would perform.  There are lots of apps to check whether PV is worthwhile and they give give a variety of different information from just the basic payback, to yearly/monthly break downs of energy production, and ones with lots of technical gory detail. I would personally recommend getting a broad overview from the Energy Saving Trust (EST solar calculator) and the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT solar calculator, Caution: the monetary values were out of date when I last checked so just use for solar). If you are interested in more detail then the Joint Research Centre (JRC solar calculator) provides a lot more technical background.

The payback is made up of payments for generated clean renewable every (feed-in-tariffs or FITs), electricity savings (from use of electricity on site), and export tariffs (price paid per unit exported to the gird for someone else to use). The is more detail on this here and this will be broken down by the apps also. I understand that Installs for a typical residential install are generally between £4-6.5k at present.

(e.g. estimated to generate ~3300 kWh/year and have a payback of 9 years)

     4. Get a few quotes

There is a great list of recommended installers (need to be MCS certified) and a list of good questions to ask on the YouGen site. I also used the quote service from EcoExperts who quickly got us 3 quotes for comparison. The industry has taken a big shock from the recent government proposals to cut the fit in tariff and a lot of people may being trying to get installs before the expected changes to the tariff so it could be quite busy at the moment.

Once you have your quotes you can choose obviously between suppliers/installers, but also the capacity/spec of your install…. and whether you want to go ahead with it. The installs typically take a day for a 4kW domestic install and then the install will need to be registered via the installer through the government’s micro generation scheme (MCS), which installers tend to help with or just do for you.

Our installation was done whilst we were away on holiday; it was done quickly and without disruption.

(e.g.  Ecoexpert say from £3950 for a 4kW install. – Ours cost a little over £6k, but was rather technical and high spec for two years ago)

Links

Post Green Open Homes/ York Open Eco Homes (YOEH), and where to now…

The York Open Eco Homes (YOEH) event (part of the national Green Open Home network) was popular, and hopefully has helped many people think of things that they can do to make their homes cosier, cheaper to run and “greener”. It was several months ago now but we’re spinning out a cool quarterly series of talks and workshops from it starting with talk from a local architects (Native Architects) on building low energy healthy homes. It should be a good evening from a firm that has delivered lower energy footprint schools, village halls, and artist studios to name a few.

As for us, we enjoyed being a host home and I remain staggered by the feedback and attendance. We did not expect over 40 people, the level of interest in our project and certainly not people arriving before the allotted time (teaches us to enthusiastically put the balloons out early!). It was exciting to see so many people thinking about trying to do small measures and being interested in the larger choices. Over 300 people attended the event in York and over 40 popped by by our place. There was a lot of feedback from people that were going to try some the ideas they’d seen on their own house/flat/rental. On top of that the prize of the event, to encourage return of feedback, was a whole house energy audit (worth £250!) kindly donated by Yorkshire Energy Partnership (YEP). Hopefully has helped the lady who won it start saving money

Who came? What did people ask? Or want to see? FAQs?

The event was attended by a real mix of people including: families who’d been living somewhere for a while, young couples about to buy, people in rental houses and flats, and people already considering a renovation project.

We put a lot of love into our ecorenovation & it’s a always joy when people who are also frustrated by how under performing houses typically are in the UK  are starting to explore the options to circumvent waste in energy and money. The main questions were first about the cookies then split by major and minor changes. Often people were interested in things I’ve done little blog articles on before including the floor insulation, chimney balloon, draught proofing, lifestyle, PV panels, and energy monitoring.

FAQs – Photovoltaic panel (PVs)

One of the most common phrases about PVs we heard was that people had “… seen them about, but not thought about putting them on my roof…”. A lot of questions were about cost. Generically when we got ours installed the typical quote for a stardard single roof  was £4k for 4kW (which is still often advertised, e.g. by ecoexperts) with prices increasing from that point. I asked the local company (Solarwall) for the current price range for a low and high end 4kW installation and they said £5.5-6k, which is inline with quotes we got a while back.

As i’ve blog about before, our panels are great and are producing more that we consume in electricity terms and even managed in energy terms last year according to our energy provider’s estimates.

 

FAQs – Energy monitoring

I like data. Graphs, pretty graphics, and anything that conveys information better that words ever could. I was so happy when the guys @openenergymonitor managed to get an updated version of their open source energy monitoring system (EmonPi) to me prior to the event even though it had only just finished kickstartiing. I had previously made the system (EmonTx) for ~£100 + (~£50 extras) and made it during an evening in.

Since building my original system, I’ve become aware of housing groups etc buying sensors systems in excess of £2-3k. This is upsetting. I use open source humidity and temperature monitors (EmonTH), that cost me ~£30. These give me a heads up into how the house is doing in energy terms and whether I need to be worried about damp issues.

 

 

 

FAQs – Lifestyle

There were a lot of questions about lifestyle and about the effort involved in “going green”.

Transport was a particular question point as people were interested in how we managed without a car. The answer to that is really we have tens of vehicles, including vans, electrics, hybrid and along with the usual set from citycarclub. Bicycles are our main transport and we use trains often too.

One biggest messages I tried to get across was that the simplest wins are often through changing little things so that the “green” choice is easier. I think a good example of this is recycling. I have lived places not long ago where throwing the majority of your waste into a hole in the ground is the only option (north Manchester, 2012) and had to make extra effort to not be wasteful. It shouldn’t be that way. For the vast majority of things that come through our homes, it is energetically worth while to recycle (e.g. glass, paper, most plastic, tetrapak… etc ). Food waste can be converted to energy or at least food and pretty plants through composting (community composting can exist for the many of us without gardens ) or anaerobic digestion to create energy with an end product of fertiliser.

 

 

FAQs – Other cheap and big things you did 

A large amount of energy and money saving is possible from cheap tech. e.g.

 

Some other larger changes

 

 

“Renewable” Cookies

For a bit of fun we thought we’d make 3D printed cookie cutters for the event, which raised a surprising about of interest. For if anyone else wanted to give them a try we put them up on thingiverse where they have garnered (as of August 2015) ~300 views and ~60 downloads! I’d love to see photos of anyone else’s 3D print of them…

 

Conflict of interest?

Since posting on micro-scale renewable investing and our PV install two companies I recommended have started doing “kick backs” (Trillion Fund & OnePlanetSolar). Since I recommended them prior to this happening, it is entirely reasonable to say my endorsements are uneffected. To gain a “kick back” people would have to state it was littleecoterrace that recommended them, and in the case of Trillion Fund this would be £50 each. Trillion Fund & OnePlanetSolar are both incredible companies and I stand by my recommendations and leave up to you whether you want to say littleecoterrace is who suggested them to you. We’re more interested in seeing the propagation of renewables so any money we do receive through this, we shall donate to an environmental charity.

 

Where from here? An event next year?

The event was a massive event on numbers as talked about by the organisers (St Nick’spress release. As for us, we would happily get involved again and it looks like I might hopefully be more involved next year. I would sort out some more demos of how the tech works we have used works, and hopefully finished outstanding tasks (like relaying the yard with the tiles we took up).

The enthusiasm of hosts has lead to a spin out quarterly series of open talks and workshops in York for people interested in make their homes cheaper to run, more energy effecient and sustainable. The inaugural talk will be from Native Architects at the environment centre (St Nicks). They have been involved in lots of cool projects aswell as being part of a fantastic proposal to tackle the affordable housing crisis in York by creating a co-housing group (YorSpace) within York Central.

As for non Yorkshire people, in the UK there is a rolling calendar of GreenOpenHome and SuperHome (>60 % CO2 saving) events. So, chances are there will be an open home nearby at some point to see what people have done, what worked and didn’t, & maybe what might work for you.

As for me, I’ve been very busy over the last few weeks so I’ve not been posting blogs. I’ve got drafts on eco product shopping, energy and retrofitting events so I’ll be aiming to post those back towards my original once a month aim…

 

Links

  • Green Open Homes – National organisation leading events that showcase a variety of energy saving improvements in homes. Local events are led by local groups and individual houses are hosted by the people who live in them. The initiative is funded by DECC
  • Super Homes – a network of houses that have achieved at least 60% carbon emissions savings and willing to open their doors to show you how they did it
  • Native Architects – Local architects firm talking at St nicks for a joint event which is that the YOEC inaugural event “Building Low Energy, Healthy Homes
  • Solarwall – Local one stop shop for home eco stuff.

 

York Green Open Homes – Living in a “Eco” home

We’re part of York Green open homes this weekend! If you are about York, come see what “eco” measures people have done! These include from a “Passivhaus” under-construcion (more about passivhaus), 1960s council house, a 1930s semi, detached, bungalow, and many more. Green Open Homes is a national project and they have a even have a nice video intro of the project.

Frankly, flattered doesn’t quite cut it to explain how we feel about being asked to do Open Eco Homes. Our project is a lot smaller budget than a lot of projects you hear about. For the event, we’ll be showing how we reached our goal to take a thoroughly normal terrace home in York from a “D” to “A” grade (EPC) eco home for less that 10% of the value. We’ll show how we achieved that and also made our house a net exporter of electricity with low bills. There’s another aim we always had but didn’t mention often; we wanted to make sure it was still a “normal” home. One that we can live in comfortably, and be eco without having to drastically change anything about our lifestyle.

 

As the hosts (@StNicksFields) say: “Find out how to turn your house into a comfortable and efficient home from people who have done it!”

Us: We’re Not Hippies, Honest

Both of us have long been interested in the environment and technology that reduces our impact. That’s based on our concern about climate change. But being a scientist and an engineer, we’ve often noticed that we’re much more interested in the cold evidence than the sentimental stuff. You’re more likely to find us obsessing over doing our recycling correctly than getting upset about pandas.

 

This means we sometimes choose different paths to an eco lifestyle. A good example is being vegetarian – we’re not. A lot of our friends in the eco world are; some for ethical reasons, some for environmental impact. We like eating meat now and then so we’d find giving it up unenjoyable; instead we eat meat infrequently, and eat less of the most environmentally detrimental meats. Using the information we have, we can reduce our impact without having to change our underlying habits and lifestyle.

 

So this means we need an eco home where:
  1. we’re happy every change made had a rational, evidence-based argument to support it.
  2. little day-to-day input or behaviour change is needed from us.

Most of our blog topics have been info-heavy and focused on the numbers. This one catches us in a thoughtful mood as our Eco Open Homes weekend approaches and we start talking about what we’ll tell our visitors about what it feels like to live in a home like this.

Our “Eco” Home

 

The goal of this project was to convert the cheapest house we could get in York to a “A” grade (EPC) eco home for less that 10% of the value. We essentially achieved this. Due to cosmetic choices and additional non eco measures (like our FSC oak floor + relaying backyard with our reclaimed victorian tiles) it may end up being closer to 15%.

 

The project has involved some big changes such as installing solar power panels, insulating the floor and dealing with damp problems, and some smaller changes of insulating and draft proofing the house and installing a chimney pillow.

 

What’s it like to use electricity in an eco home?
 

Well, in 2014 we produced 3.4 MWh and in 2013 we used 2.6 MWh. So overall, we’re producing 130% of what we need. On the face of it, we’re golden. If we assume out consumption is constant and you look into it a bit further, it’s more likely that a portion of that 2.6 MWh came from the grid when it wasn’t sunny. So we sold spare units at sunny times, and bought National Grid units at others.

So we’re happy with the total amount of power we use. We do the sensible little things; we switch off stuff at the socket when we’re not using it. We hang clothes on a line instead of having a tumble dryer. But we keep an appliance others might identify as wasteful; a dishwasher. We just like it too much. Our routine is to wash up by hand, but when we have guests or have a big elaborate meal and then feel lazy, we love having that dishwasher. Over the year it looks like it’s OK really, so although we discussed ditching it we decided it wasn’t necessary.

Full array - extension and main roof
Full array – extension and main roof
The main change we made when the PVs were installed was not what we did but when we did it. It’s better for the environment if energy used in our house comes straight from the PVs, directly displacing a CO2-heavy unit of grid electricity. If we use power at night, we’re taking an eco hit twice; once because we’re getting grid electricity at a higher emissions content, and twice because we’ve sent our sunshine power to others via the grid at a noteworthy transmission loss; ~8 % doesn’t make it to the other end. That’s rubbish.
So, the washing machine and the dishwasher go on in the daytime. High energy stuff like the kettle and the shower are going to consume more than the panels punch out whenever you do them, but daytime is better, and when a wash isn’t on is better still.

 

There’s more we could do; we have an average kettle and an average shower and they use a lot of power. The shower is 8.5 kW. And we are both too addicted to long hot showers to ever get a shower timer. But we’re honest with ourselves that we enjoy these luxuries and we want to keep them.

What’s important to us is we never, ever have to say “you can’t turn that on”. We just get on with life as normal. You quickly forget why laundry-time is about 11am when the sun will be high and it’s just habit. We use our laptops a lot and have a constant tea-making operation going on. When we break 20 kWh in a day it makes us smile, but if it’s a rubbish

We like that any set of people could move into this house, and without changing a single bit of behaviour, they’d have a massively decreased electricity footprint.
With the recent developments in home storage batteries, Tesla PowerWall being the most widely-promoted, it could soon be even easier. 10 kWh storage provides 10 x long hot showers, maybe 60 x boiling the kettle. 2.6 MWh a year averages to 7.1 kWh a day. So this battery would instantly take our house off-grid for a long stretch of the year, since it could provide a day to two day’s power even if PV output is very low. Based on our 2014 generation data, we think we’d have around 200 consecutive days entirely grid-free; we’ll be able to calculate this better once the new Open Energy Monitor is installed. We’d only need to take from the grid in the depths of winter.

 

Is an eco home cold?
 
No, ours is pretty cosy. Because it’s insulated so well, the sunshine and the people tend to warm it up ok. We keep our gas boiler off completely between mid-March and mid-October. It doesn’t cause a problem. We have two little low-power electric heaters, 400 W each, which we specially bought to suit the PVs. If it’s a cold but sunny day, first port of call is to switch these heaters on to top things up. We’ll pick a room or two we’ll mostly be in for the day and just heat that area. When it’s a small house anyway this isn’t particularly difficult to accommodate.
If it’s both cold and overcast, we make use of the boiler. Because we both work full-time, it’s on a fairly restricted timer, and then controlled with a thermostat. We have a wireless one you can take with you. We carry it about so the temperature is set right for where we are.

 

Since our old boiler packed up and we got a new one, we’ve had new thermostatic flow taps on the radiators. They haven’t been very useful though, since if you change it and then move rooms you have to alter the taps set up again. We don’t really see the point, and we don’t really use them, they’re just all set the same.
New Boiler!
New Boiler!
It’s worth saying, our preference is for a moderate temperature in the house. We dislike having a home heated really hot, and we have both cultivated exquisite jumper collections we love to wear.

 

Sometimes our guests want the place hotter than we’d set it up. We will happily turn the boiler on outside of normal months for their comfort, and since the new boiler’s been in, it’s easiest to just hand them the wireless thermostat and say “set whatever you like”. It doesn’t make a big difference to the overall picture, it’s our day-to-day habits that influence it more.
What are the bills like?
 
Basically energy bills don’t exist for us anymore. We use about £25/month of grid electricity, and about £10/month gas which is heavily in the winter and obvisouly pro rata’d.

 

FITs and export tariff payments are made quarterly. Obviously they vary depending on generation. But it’s always significantly more than the energy bills.
So overall our house doesn’t cost us money to run, it looks after us.

 

Dealing with the rubbish

 

In the house, we recycle as much as possible. Our council pick up recycling for paper, card, plastic containers & caps, glass, and tins. There’s no food waste collection, but we compost our raw food waste/teabags for the community garden down the road. We collect up more unusual recyclables over time and take them to the main centre now and then; tetra pack containers, small electrical items, batteries, bits of metal, bits of wood. Old furniture goes to the community furniture warehouse or up on Freecycle. Old clothes go to the charity shop or the cloth bank if they’re really knackered. We’re in the habit of making use of packaging again in the house where we can.

 

By recycling everything possible, you become aware of it when you’re buying things and try to avoid them or only buy the minimum you need. So examples of stuff that’s a pain to dispose of responsibly  are paint/highly volatile chemical items, things that are not possible to disassemble like metal items moulded into plastic, food with tons of packaging particularly if it’s got foams, and cheap electronic items that won’t last long. Sometimes you have to buy them but it’s good to avoid just accumulating unnecessary stuff.

 

What goes in the general waste bin is mainly cooked food waste, plastic films, plastic-coated foils (like crisp packets) and expanded foam packaging. Actually food packaging and food miles/seasonality would be the next big thing to act on to continue getting our carbon footprint down.

 

Was it worth it?

 

We started this as we were fed up with what is described as affordable housing being completely not so (about us page). The money costs were largely as expected, the time costs were pretty high. It meant months of living in a not-finished home, of organising every detail of the bought-in work, and painting or sanding or sawing every night as soon as we got in from work. Occasionally we got really frustrated by it. But we’ve met our energy and cost goals, whilst making the house a cosier, cheaper and more sustainable place to live. We also got the chance to make a comfortable home that’s just right for us, and we’ve found it’s far easier here than in any rental places we’ve lived to follow an eco lifestyle even when you’re really busy. We think this place is set up so that anyone who lived here would be more eco even if they didn’t really think about those issues. We’ve always believed that living in an eco house should improve your quality of life too, and we feel like this house does that for us.

 

Yes, it was worth it!

 

Links