The Low Energy House: 10 Ideas to Steal from an Eco-Conscious Retrofit of a 1907 Townhouse

The Low Energy House: 10 Ideas to Steal from an Eco-Conscious Retrofit of a 1907 Townhouse

You’ve likely heard this a million times: The most sustainable [insert item] is the one you already have. This holds true for your house, too—but with a caveat. The most sustainable home is the one you retrofit.

Ben Ridley, director of Architecture for London, is an avid proponent of doing what you can to make your old house as energy-efficient and environmentally healthy as possible. After all, most people don’t have the resources to, say, build a passive house from scratch. (And, if you live in a city, as Ben does, there’s the issue of lack of buildable land.) But there are adjustments we can all make to zip up and greenify our homes.

“There are so many changes one can make, even in the smallest projects, to lower energy use in a home,” he says. “During my studies to become a certified Passivhaus designer, my teacher would remind me of the importance of ‘going for the low-hanging fruit first.’ I have kept this simple sentiment in mind for many projects, so that sustainable choices can be made minimally, or incrementally, to improve overall energy performance. This also guided the decision making for my own home.”

The renovation of the 1907 London townhouse he shares with his partner, Susanne, and daughter Edyth was complicated and not inexpensive (construction costs were around £250,000), but the tradeoff is that the house now uses about 80 percent less energy. Below, Ben walks us through the results, detailing the changes, big and small, that went into achieving an energy-efficient, eco-conscious home. “I wanted this to be an example of sustainable refurbishment, celebrating its modest beauty and Edwardian character while upgrading the materials that no longer served the house.”

Photography by Christian Brailey, courtesy of Architecture for London, unless otherwise noted.

1. Preserve the good.

you don
Above: You don’t have to toss everything out and replace it. Keep and/or restore what you like about your old home. The original front door here was restored by local stained glass expert Rachel Kemp. And exposing the original joists added both height and character to the rooms on the first floor.

2. Skip the paint.

Above: “We used lime plaster throughout which has a beautiful finish naturally and provides a further layer of airtightness,” says Ben. Read about plaster finishes in Remodeling 101: Modern Plaster Walls, Six Ways.

3. Stick to natural materials.

the triumvirate of oak, plaster, and limestone imparts texture and warmthȁ 11
Above: The triumvirate of oak, plaster, and limestone imparts texture and warmth—with the added benefit that each of these materials has low embodied energy (the energy used to make the product).

4. Bring in the light.

as the north facing front living room doesn
Above: As the north-facing front living room doesn’t get much natural light, Ben designed the dining area addition in the back to feature an oversized floor-to-ceiling window. (The original brick wall separates the old part of the house from the new. Keeping that wall meant they didn’t have to erect energy-intensive steel box frames.) A circular skylight allows even more light to filter in. “Now we get to enjoy the open-plan space with sun pouring through from the dining area window and roof light,” he says. Photograph by Lorenzo Zandri.

5. Make sure windows are airtight.

the remodel was inspired by passivhaus standards. as such, all windows were rep 13
Above: The remodel was inspired by Passivhaus standards. As such, all windows were replaced with triple-glazed versions from Velfac.” The interesting thing about Passivhaus buildings is that with low-energy standards also comes comfort standards, and the homes are really easy to be in as a result. They are draft-free with a consistent temperature, making features such as the window seat in this kitchen very inviting even on the coldest of days.” Photograph by Lorenzo Zandri.

6. Connect to nature.

The Low Energy House 10 Ideas to Steal from an EcoConscious Retrofit of a 1907 Townhouse portrait 6_30
Above: The large picture window and glass door in the new addition provide easy visual (and physical) access to the garden. Photograph by Lorenzo Zandri.

7. Prioritize responsibly sourced wood.

the oak used throughout the home
Above: The oak used throughout the home “was sourced from a supplier based in Essex who only sells wood that is FSC-certified,” says Ben. Photograph by Lorenzo Zandri.

8. Be selective about the furniture.

if you
Above: If you’re buying new furniture, zero in on brands that care about protecting the environment. This lounge chair and stool is from Carl Hansen & Søn, which sources its wood from FSC-certified forests. The bedroom is the couple’s sanctuary: “The view from the window wasn’t the best so we decided to incorporate an S-fold curtain, which has architectural qualities while allowing soft light through and creating a sense of calm with its neat curves,” says Ben. Photograph by Lorenzo Zandri.

9. Opt for natural insulation.

in lieu of fiberglass insulation, ben had the home insulated with wood fiber in 17
Above: In lieu of fiberglass insulation, Ben had the home insulated with wood fiber insulation. “Walls were insulated externally at the side and rear, and internally at the front, with wood fiber. Insulating internally at the front has allowed the original Edwardian façade to be preserved.”

Find a list of earth-friendly insulation options on page 298 of Remodelista: The Low-Impact Home.

10. Circulate fresh air.

the newly renovated loft, now used as susanne
Above: The newly renovated loft, now used as Susanne’s yoga studio. Ben had an MVHR (Mechanical Ventilation Heat Recovery) system installed in the home; it extracts moist air from inside and brings in fresh air, filtered of pollutants, from the outside. This is a must for structures that have high levels of airtightness. It also helps retain heat in the building—keeping energy costs down.

For more on sustainable design, see:

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