Assessing Your Home -- The Ecological Home Improvement and Renovation Guide

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Most properties will require careful assessment, whether you are buying a new house or have been living in the same house for 20 years. In the former case, you will be looking to compare one house with another. In the latter, you may feel you know your house well. However, looking at your house afresh, the section headings may have given you new insight. Needless to say, there will also be a big difference in approach required between a house that needs substantial rebuilding and a house completed to almost the last detail. The former will require re-evaluating in almost every aspect, whereas the latter demands attention mainly to finishes, services, and appliances.

The first four survey checklists follow the structure of the guide; they deal with space, energy, health, and materials. Structure and water penetration are included under “materials.” Where appropriate, practical comments are added. It should be emphasized that a full appreciation of the questions and comments can't be gained unless you read the main text! Where this is particularly important, the relevant section is referred to.

SPACE SURVEY

Internal Space

Can all functions and activities be accommodated efficiently?

To determine this, it is worth making a complete list of all the essential activities that you wish to accommodate. If you then place these in order of priority, you can assign them to different rooms and odd spaces in the house, starting with the top priority and working down the list. Once you have allocated space to as many of the functions and activities as possible, you may then need to consider how more than one function can be accommodated in one space. With this method you should soon be able to assess if the total space available is sufficient for your needs.

Conversions

If there is insufficient space, is an internal conversion possible?

Look to see if there is any unused space within the confines of the existing walls and roof, that can be converted. You may well be able to squeeze some extra space from odd corners in your roof space, basement, or outbuildings. Look also at the different options for storage since this can save space and use it more efficiently.

External Space

How far can recreational, self-sufficiency, and habitat needs be accommodated? Treat the outdoor space similarly to the internal space in terms of prioritizing activities and functions, taking careful account of orientation and shading.

Extending Ecologically

Is there the potential for an ecological extension?

After reading the section on internal space and conversions, you should be clear as to whether all your internal space is allocated efficiently. If more accommodation is essential, look at the possibilities of extending:

• Underground

• Above ground, as with a sunroom or conservatory

• By means of putting up a separate building

ENERGY SURVEY

Sources of Energy

Check gas supply installation. Is it where you need it?

List all places in the house where electricity is used for heating.

How easy is it for these electrical functions to be changed to a more ecological form of heating?

Draft-Proofing

Check all doors and windows for fit.

Burn a stick of incense and watch the smoke to check for drafts.

Read the section on DRAFT-PROOFING and VENTILATING to understand the likely causes of air pressure differences, such as the stack effect; also, check the prevailing wind direction.

Insulating

Identify the extent of existing insulation.

Check the insulation of your loft, walls, windows (double-glazing), and under the floors. Where is it nonexistent, and where is it insufficient?

Is external wall insulation feasible?

If there is no cavity wall, there is the question of whether to place insulation on the outside of the building (the most energy-efficient position) or the inside (likely to be internally disrupting).

Space Heating

Check space heating installation for energy efficiency.

Read the section on SPACE HEATING and check:

• Boiler

• Pipes and radiators

• Controls

Check the whole arrangement for space heating in terms of the overall efficiency of the system.

How old is your boiler?

Will it be too big once the additional insulation is installed? If it is a gas boiler, is it a condensing type?

Find out whether the heating controls work, and whether they are outdated (there have been significant improvements in heating control design in recent years). You may be able to work out yourself roughly what is likely to need changing or adding; find out what you can before you call in an expert.

Lighting

What proportion of the house is lit by energy-efficient lighting?

How well is daylight used?

Appliances

Which appliances are really essential to you?

How energy-efficient are your existing appliances?

It helps to make a list of the appliances you have; refer to the APPLIANCES section to help you to estimate how energy-efficient they are likely to be. This is often difficult to do precisely, but, for example, if you look at the time it takes for the machine to carry out a cycle and how many times it heats up water, you will get a rough idea.

Solar Energy

Check orientation of the house and passive solar potential. Is there a suitable site for a future solar module?

The SOLAR ENERGY section will help you decide how high a priority the installation of one or more solar modules should be, given your particular circumstances and home energy needs.

HEALTH SURVEY

Sources of Toxins

List the potential sources of toxins around the house.

Identify any serious sources and consider what would be necessary to replace them (see TOXINS section).

Water

Taste the drinking water supply after running the tap.

This can give you an instant (though very subjective) judgment as to quality. Also, find out what you can from your local water company. The WATER section indicates what to look for. Particularly important are: (a) acidity leading to possible lead contamination; and (b) the quantity of chlorine, and the likelihood of it reacting with water from wetlands. Check nitrate contamination levels and whether fluoride is added.

Radon

Check if you are in an area where there is a radon risk.

If you live in a risk area, you should have your house tested for radon contamination. This is particularly true if you are planning to use any basement areas as living space. It is a good idea to check that all your ventilation bricks are free of obstructions, and that there is a good flow of air through your underfloor cavities, both to vent any radon and also to keep these spaces dry, to help to protect the floor joists.

Sunlight and Health

How easy is access to the outside to sit in the sun?

Sound

Check sound-proofing between floors and partitions.

If near a busy road or airport, are your windows sound-proofed?

You will know where the weak points are in your sound-proofing between rooms (refer to the SOUND section for ways of dealing with this). However, if you are assessing a house for prospective purchase, you will have to carry out two tests: walking with heavy shoes, and shouting.

In both these cases one person should be making the noise in one room, and the other should be listening in an adjacent one. Remember that furnishings will absorb sound, so in an empty house every noise will sound much louder.

Plants

Where are the places that plants could be located inside the house?

There may be an opportunity for adding extra space for plants, such as an oriel or bay window, or even an add-on greenhouse.

MATERIALS

Here we are concerned mainly with the durability of materials in terms of the integrity of the structure and any degradation caused by water penetration. The traditional structural survey and a water penetration survey are therefore relevant in relation to the long-term viability of the dwelling. You may also wish to survey the property with the intention of replacing worn materials with more ecologically sound ones.

Structural Survey

Making a structural survey is a professional’s job, but it is possible for most people to get a good impression of the state of their own structure, or a possible future house, by making a number of simple observations and local enquiries. These are as follows:

Information from the Neighborhood

Look for recurring problems in adjacent housing.

If the same house design is repeated, there maybe a common problem, for instance, around bay windows, or cracks on the facade, that may not be immediately obvious in the house you are concerned with.

If the house is terraced, ask neighbors if there are any party wall problems.

Ask if you can look at the party wall from their side, and find out whether they have had to do any repairs on the wall. This will give you an idea as to whether there are any serious problems that are hidden by redecoration.

Ask neighbors about the ground and any foundation problems.

You will need to find out what the subsoil is like. The worst problems occur with clay, peaty soil, and built-up land.

Information from Your Own Observations

Look for differential settlement, cracks, and walls and sills out of true.

You may not see it directly, but it is often possible to tell whether differential settlement has taken place, for instance, where a heavier part of the building has sunk further than an adjacent wall. This sometimes happens with a heavy chimney breast or a load-bearing wall adjacent to a lighter partition. If you think there is any external wall that is leaning, you can check this with a plumb-line.

Check the strength of floors.

There is a simple way of checking how strong your floors are: jump up and down in the center of the room, with someone observing the deflection. This is a somewhat crude method, but if there is a serious weakness you will both see it and feel it. You may not have to do more than go on your toes to feel a deflection.

Check for unsupported partitions.

Partitions that are built on a floor with no support from below (usually installed after a house was built) can often be a cause of weakness, which may show up in cracks where the partition meets the walls or ceiling.

Check the roof structure for woodworm and rot.

Roof structures are normally timber; the most likely problems are rot and woodworm. If the roof is lined, you may not have easy access to the main timbers, but they are often exposed near the eaves, which is the most common area where problems occur. Woodworm may show up with little powder deposits—on cobwebs, for instance; the difficulty is to know how serious the problem is. It may be a very minor problem, or the woodworm may no longer be there. (Try to solve the problem without resorting to the use of highly toxic chemicals.)

Check the structural integrity of the stairs.

As with floors, you can often tell if there is a problem by using them. If there is a weakness and the underside is accessible, use a flashlight to observe what happens when someone uses them. (There are various ways of improving the state of stairs from underneath, both to strengthen them and to stop them creaking if necessary.)

Check the joint between any adjunct to the main structure, such as a bay window or extension.

There are often problems if a bay window was added after the main structure was built, because the foundations of the bay may be insufficient, or not tied into the main structure. If you perceive a problem, you will need to identify whether it is a matter of the bay window simply moving independently of the main house structure, or whether there is a more serious structural defect relating to the size of the opening in the main structure.

Check carefully any balconies or other cantilevered structures.

The structural integrity of balconies depends on a well-designed solution to the cantilever. Often a cantilever becomes weakened and the structure can become unsafe. This can usually be identified by looking at the jointing with the main structure. (If there is any uncertainty, it would be worthwhile getting a structural engineer to check it.)

Check parapets and chimneys.

These are both elements that can become weakened by weathering, with the danger that they may be blown down in a storm. This is not uncommon, and may become more frequent if the severity of storms increases due to climate change. Examine these structures carefully, both up on the roof (if you can), and also through a pair of binoculars on a bright day. Chimneys can also become decayed from the inside by the action of smoke, which can crumble the mortar, the brickwork, or both. If it is possible to get near the chimney or parapet, tapping with a hammer can often help to tell how solid the structure is.

Water Penetration

The next most important area to be concerned about is the shedding of rain water. Water leaking into the house or onto the wall of the house over a period of time is likely to cause decay of materials, particularly timber.

Check the roof and flashings.

A careful look at the roof from the outside, with binoculars if possible, will usually show any defects, such as loose or missing slates, dislodged ridge tiles, or loose flashings. If the chimney pots are not capped, this can be a source of damp. If it is possible to inspect the roof from the inside, look for chinks of light and places where there are stains due to water penetration.

Flat roofs cause particular problems. Sometimes a leak does not show through on the underside until it has been there for some time. Have a careful look at the state of the covering material and , if you think there may be a problem, obtain advice from someone experienced with fiat roofs.

Check gutters and down spouts.

These are prone to blocking and leaking, which can pour water onto the brickwork for long periods with no one noticing. The serious damage this can do makes it important to take the opportunity when it is raining to observe how well both gutters and down spouts are functioning.

Check for signs of rising damp.

Rising damp comes from moisture in the ground. There may be signs of moisture along the skirting board area of a wall on the ground floor. It is important to distinguish between rising damp and condensation: the former can be distinguished by white sulfate salt deposits. (Condensation should cease to be a problem if the house in question is insulated and properly ventilated.) If there are signs of rising damp, this often means there is

no damp-proof course.

Damp-proof courses (DPCs) are meant to prevent damp from rising above them. Therefore finding your damp-proof course and checking that it runs all the way round the building is the next important step to take. If there is no DPC it is still possible that, because of the way the building is designed, there will be little problem with rising damp. (However, although other improvements may be far more important, it is often a condition of a mortgage that you install a DPC.)

Damp in a basement or cellar is to be expected, as this was one of the reasons cellars were built in the first place: to evaporate away rising moisture from the ground. If you want to solve any problems here, it requires someone experienced in damp-proofing basements.

Check gullies and drains.

It is worth checking that there are no blockages and that water flows through without impediment. To test that they are free-flowing, lift the access cover of each gully and pour down a bucketful of water.

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