How green can you go?

Whether starting from scratch, renovating or just improving a French property, there are numerous areas where environmentally friendly features can be incorporated. The good news is that saving the planet doesn’t have to cost the earth! Lots of green features can be added for a relatively small cost. Others may entail a greater initial outlay, but will help to save money in the long run.

So what is a green home and how do you go about constructing one? Mention the words ‘green home’ and people and often start thinking of straw bales and living without running water! In fact a green or sustainable building is simply one that has been constructed or renovated in a resource efficient manner. One of the additional benefits is that a green home will also be a much healthier environment in which to live. It also provides savings in terms of running costs. With a generous range of tax credits available for the installation of environmentally friendly features, there has never been a better time to go green.

For most people, the location of their property will be governed by a number of factors. Many properties in the French countryside are quite isolated and require the use of a vehicle. Obviously there is no way round this. However, it is quite easy to minimise the number of trips to the shops by incorporating some green features into the home. Allocating space for a walk in pantry will mean that shopping for non-perishables can be done in bulk. This will also save money if you stock up on items which are on special offer – en promo. If space allows, creating a larder, which can be kept cool, will enable the storage of items that are often kept in the fridge, salad, vegetables and so forth. This can mean that a smaller fridge with lower running costs, is a viable option, even for a large family. Another green tip is to design enough storage space for all the recycling to be kept neatly out of the way, until there is enough to justify a trip to the bottle bank. It is a good idea to have different section for glass, plastics and magazines. And a compost bin is vital!

The kitchen is an important area when thinking about a green home, as it will probably contain a large number of appliances. Old refrigerators can consume around 15% of a home’s energy demands; of all household appliances fridges use the most energy so if the refrigerator is more than ten years old, it makes sense to replace it. When buying new appliances, check the EU energy efficiency rating labels, which are found on a wide range of electrical appliances. Always choose A rated and if possible select the models, which carry the highest A rating available. Make sure that windows are sited where they can be opened easily, in order to remove cooking odours and indoor air toxins. This is a much more environmentally friendly method that using an extractor fan. If you do need a fan, choose a high-efficiency ceiling fan; these use less energy than an extractor. They can also often be quieter which is an additional bonus. Work surfaces should also be sited near to windows – after all daylight is the highest quality lighting and it’s free!

It is important to be as energy efficient as possible throughout the home where lighting is concerned. Lighting is one of the least energy efficient practices in the home with a mere 10% of the energy going towards light and the rest being the bi-production of unwanted heat. Choosing energy efficient or compact fluorescent bulbs is one solution. These have a far better heat to light ratio and their lower wattage, means that energy consumption can be down by up to 70%.

Reducing water consumption is another environmentally friendly measure. Water is a precious resource and installing a rainwater harvesting system will benefit the environment and your wallet. For people with large gardens, livestock or those growing their own produce, there are huge economies to be made. The most basic method consists of collecting rainfall from the roof in water butts. Adding an interior reservoir and a pump allows the water to be used domestically for washing machines and flushing toilets as well as outside in the garden. Sinking a giant plastic tank or cuve into the ground outside means that a huge amount of water, up to 9,000 litres, can be stored. This water could be used for washing the car, watering the garden and filling the pool. With proper analysis and filtration, it can also be used as drinking water as well as for bathing and running the dishwasher.

It is also worth upgrading toilets, showerheads and taps with newer models that are designed to use less water. Always make sure that there are no leaks in the tank and that dripping taps are repaired immediately as these can add up to large volumes of water being lost.

If you are building a new home or even tackling a full on renovation and have the opportunity to install a new heating system, it makes sense to choose one based on renewable energies. Clever building design in the case of a new build can mean that very little additional heat is required. A wood or biomass fired boiler or stove could supply this. Installing solar panels as an additional form of hot water supply makes sense for virtually all properties. Harnessing wind power is another good way to top up electrical requirements and any excess can be sold back to EDF. A ground source heat pump may prove valuable. However as they usually only pre-heat the hot water, some form of top up will be required. They will also still use some electricity so this has to be factored into the running costs. It is possible to provide this from solar photovoltaic cells or another form of electricity generating system. These systems can also be ‘reversed’ to run as cooling systems during the summer months.

Insulation is another area where it is easy to go green. Using natural products such as wool, hemp, cotton, hay or straw is a good solution for the eco-builder. Whilst their properties vary, all tend to be good insulators. Constant new developments as a result of the huge interest in natural products mean that they are becoming easier to work with. For example, straw insulation is now available in the form of lightweight biodegradable panels made from compressed straw with a recycled cardboard outer layer. Indeed, there is an increasing use of traditional materials in the building trade. Lime in particular is enjoying a revival. Most people know that lime is a material that has been used in old buildings for many years. Fewer realise however, that it’s use is beneficial for the environment and it is also suitable for new builds. Traditional lime plaster is porous and absorbs moisture from the air. Along with the use of a breathable paint, lime will help to reduce condensation in the house and the increased porosity offers an improvement in acoustic insulation. The energy used in lime production is far less than for cement. Lime also sets by a process of carbonation, thus reabsorbing most of the carbon dioxide released from the limestone. It is also ideal for repairing older buildings.

Outside the house, the garden and vegetable patch or potager, is a part of the home where a little thought can have a big environmental impact. An environmentally friendly garden will require less water and fewer chemicals. This is safer for the occupants of the home as well as benefiting the eco-system. A green garden needs a well-designed irrigation system that can be fine tuned according to the water requirements. This will enhance plant growth and save wasting water. Planting in the spring or autumn will allow trees and shrubs to establish good root systems before the arrival of dryer weather. This will reduce the water requirements of a newly planted landscape, quite dramatically. Mulching will also preserve water as well as preventing erosion and reducing weed growth. The choice of plants in an environmentally friendly garden is important too. Plants should be chosen to be suitable for summer dry spells, subject to few pests, low maintenance and ideally, interesting for at least two seasons. Grasses as well as plants such as salvia and sedum are ideal.

Growing and harvesting vegetables direct from the garden is a huge pleasure for many people and an easy way to make your home and lifestyle more environmentally friendly. Even those who consider themselves not to be ‘green-fingered’ will find that things just seem to grow in the French sunshine! Just growing a few herbs in pots on the windowsill, will make your home that little bit greener. And they taste delicious too!

Five things every homeowner can do:

Use low energy bulbs

Upgrade old appliances and plumbing fixtures

Conserve water

Insulate well and tackle draughts

Recycle, recycle, recycle!

Copyright - Catharine Higginson