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In the present highly uncertain and unsettling times, the embrace of the budding spring seems to feel even warmer than normal. Kinder communities have emerged, and any enforced distancing is merely physical, not “social”, as coping with the coronavirus crisis draws us more closely together in spirit. Through the power of modern technology we are still able to communicate, even though we may not be able to touch, hand to hand.

Transition is an ongoing process in which the present, fragile globalised society is transformed to a far more resilient version, based on re-localisation and strong local communities, and an overall curbing of resource use, particularly energy.

Most buildings in which people are currently housed, require a lot of energy to run them (and to build them in the first place), and a superlative example that huge energy savings can be made over current costs is provided by “Tony’s House”, designed and also mainly self-built by Dr Tony Cowling.

As it is about ten years since its first foundations were set, Tony has provided the following, highly informative and inspiring, overview of how the house has weathered the elements of the past decade.

External woodwork ten years on

Many people seem to think that wood should not be used on the outside of houses, especially for fascias, soffits and bargeboards. The track record of all the major house builders around the turn of the century gives them good reason to think this, with widespread failures of eaves, corner boxes and barge boards, especially when used in conjunction with under-cloaks.
When I built my house, one of the design rubrics was ‘low maintenance’; ‘sustainability’ was high up on the list of priorities too. So having completely precluded the use of uPVC, I chose cedar for both my facials and my barge boards, untreated softwood for the soffits and oak for the framing on the front of the house.
So let’s have a look and see if the ideas have worked out in practice and whether there have been any problems.

The house in early 2020

I am planning to re-lime-wash the render even though it looks exactly as it did ten years ago. It has become a little frayed around the edges and it didn’t look very good when I did it, but it has survived well and has the effect of making the house look older than it is.

Rear corner

I am a bit disappointed with the slightly open mitre on this rear corner, but there genuinely are no problems with the timber work or gutters. I was kind of expecting that the copper gutters and downpipes would gather a greenish patina, but am delighted that they are staying brown. There have been no leaks, no drips, no repairs and when I cleaned them out for the second time this year, there was very little to clear, just a few clumps of maple leaves and keys. I have leaf extractors just above the rainwater gullies at the bottom of the down pipes to stop leaves getting into the underground rainwater recycling tank.

Rear soffit

The untreated softwood soffits have darkened beautifully and tone really nicely with the cedar fascias. The soffits never get any weather and are well protected – I can see them lasting a hundred years or more. Note how there are knots in the
soffits, whereas there are none in the cedar fascias or bargeboards, nicely defining the different species of wood utilised.

Looking up main gable
Bottom of main gable

The fascia boards are well protected behind the gutters so they rarely if ever get wet. I am wondering if I could have got away with softwood fascias. but the risk would be high were they to fail, and the place where they meet barge boards would have been a weak point. Had I gone for this I would have tucked the square cut ends of the fascia boards behind the bottom end of the barge boards and over-sailed the ends of the barge boards by 15mm to protect the fascias.

In this photo we can see the oak frame, the cedar
bargeboards and the softwood soffits. The cedar is well weathered but does not rot and I am very happy that it has stayed fairly dark, rather than going the more commonly seen silvery colour. The cloaked verge protects the bargeboards so well that they will never need replacing. These also have untreated softwood soffits but they are well recessed.

nice little lead detail that I incorporated above the horizontal oak frame members has protected them beautifully. These were cut with a fifteen degree chamfers top and bottom so that water is shed nicely from the top and drips away from the render along the bottom edges. The corner posts that appear to be 150x150mm are in fact corner pieces made from 150×150 posts with 100×100 cut out from their backs. I was worried that they might split but thankfully they haven’t and now won’t until the house is demolished and even then may not.  The bottoms of the posts wee also  given the fifteen degree undercut chamfers. I screwed the oak to the recycled aggregate blockwork and plugged the holes with home made oak pellets glued in so that the grain matched, these pellets are now extremely difficult to find. The corner posts, which appear to be 150x150mm, are in fact corner pieces made from 150×150 posts with 100×100 cut out from their backs. I was worried that they might split but thankfully they haven’t, and now won’t until the house is demolished – even then they may not. The bottoms of the posts were also given the fifteen degree undercut chamfers. I screwed the oak to the recycled aggregate blockwork and plugged the holes with homemade oak pellets, glued in so
that the grain matched. These pellets are now extremely difficult to find.

Porch – seemingly suspended over thin air

The porch

The porch continues the theme of cedar for the fascias and barge boards, but as the ceiling of the porch is entirely made of cedar, this simply extends to the back of the fascia.

There is some watermark staining Just visible to the front of the porch ceiling and to the bottom oak rail. These do not seem to be a problem and I am loving the condition of the bottom ends of all the barge boards, no fraying, no rot nor any decay.

None of the exposed wood has had any treatment or cleaning of any kind and does not look like it will ever need any.  By the time you add in the cost of preparation, filling, priming, paint/staining and labour it works out cheaper to use cedar than other less durable wood. Further there are ongoing maintenance costs.

Tony March 2020 Author Tony CCategories The House

My House, My Wife and Cold Weather

The first three years in our new home were the coldest three in living memory for me with recorded temperatures as low as -11°C & -6°C during those winters. I had designed to go to just below freezing with no heating so we had to put a small electric heater on, it used about 60W when the temperature was -3°C and 300W when we had -6°C. It was a simple electric convector heater connected to a plug in thermostat.

Continue reading My House, My Wife and Cold Weather Author TonyCategories The House

Energy Use

The energy use of my house was calculated by Paul using Hot 2000 a free thermal model used in Canada and by Mike using TAS software, both produced similar results.

The house uses 42kWh/m2/y about a third of the maximum allowed by Passive house. Heating is less than 6kWh/m2/y

The calculated heat loss for October is 100W average but we never need any heating before Christmas.

Continue reading Energy Use Author Tony CCategories The House

Maintaining the external timber

No treatment is necessary for the oak frame as oak is very resistant to decay, it was green oak so some joints have shrunk to leave a crack this is part of its beauty. If it must be treated then use one coat of boiled linseed oil every five years, having started with two coats the first time round. I have no intention of treating my oak. The eagle eyed among you will have seen that I used tiny lead cover flashings to protect the top fully chamfered edges of the horizontal members.

Continue reading Maintaining the external timber Author TonyCategories The House

Solar Systems

The solar panels are working and collecting heat very well. My solar control software is controlling three panels, two tanks, three pumps, several solenoid valves, and dumping excess heat to my interseasonal thermal store.

Continue reading Solar Systems Author TonyCategories The House

Heating The Ground

I used to live in a house with a solid uninsulated floor, I have measured the temperature under my floor at various depths and found that they are a lot warmer than is generally believed. This is because I lived in the house and it had been heating the soils under my floors, the heat lost to the ground had warmed up the sub strata and immediately under the floor it had assumed the average temperature of the house (this should in my opinion also apply to insulated floors as insulation slows the passage of heat but does not stop the flow of heat completely).

Continue reading Heating The Ground Author TonyCategories The House

Good Things Bad Things

Good Things

  • Warm, Quiet, Nice, Family like it
  • Uses about one third of the maximum energy allowed by Passivehaus
  • Ground warmed up,
  • No condensation anywhere or any signs of it

Bad Things

  • Green oak shrank and pinged off some edges of the lime render,
  • Lost some logged data,
  • Problems with auto shutter controls,
  • Heat exchanger tries to keep house warm in the summer!
  • The house is so well sound insulated that the easiest way in for noise is through the ceiling and even with 450mm of glass fibre quilt it is noticeable and I wish that I had double tacked the ceilings.
  • There was an unusual problem with condensation forming on the basement window lintels in the cavity and running down the outside of the window glass.
  • Front door lock broke several times in the first four years now it is fine.
  • even more remarkably I am on my sixth porch light

Author Tony CCategories The House


The house was designed to be very low on maintainance but as with all building things need to be done

Regular maintenance:-

Filter changes to MVHR, cleaning windows and frames, service window ironmongery – clean and silicone lube, I had relay patio near house due to settlement of soil fill near house sinking into the excavation batters.

Unexpected maintenance:-

Six new porch lights (remarkable misfortune), replace recessed LED strip lights to elliptical ceiling (too cheapo ones used initially), replace electric curtain motor, replace electric front door lock, three popped nail heads in plasterboard ceilings, one in basement two in front bedroom- filled with “onetime” filler and touched up invisibly with the original natural calico paint used on most ceilings.


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