Douglas Road energy strategy

11 07 2013

[Criteria 1; SADIM, Holmgren Principles, PMI, Zones/sectors, microclimates, patterns, incremental design, mind maps, ethics. Criteria 2: permaculture in my own home. Criteria 3: site development. Criteria 4; dissemination (Open Homes). Criteria 6; symmetry (Open Homes and thermal imaging parties), Criteria 7: evaluation and costings]


The story is set in an end of terrace 3 bed house in suburbia, not been touched for 60 years resplendent with 1940s wiring, 2 pin plugs and an asbestos roofed shed.  The house is solidly built, but nonetheless draughty, there’s daylight seeping in round the edges of the front door, the aluminium framed double glazed windows are both leaking heat through the metal and because they are so old they no longer close properly and there are some really weirdly placed air bricks throughout the house which simply blow cold air directly into a couple of the bedrooms.  This was an opportunity not to be missed.  The chance for me to put into action all of the knowledge I had gleaned over my career to date working as a sustainability consultant and a civil engineer.  Plus the time for me to step away from desk bound activities to learn some new highly practical skills.  (PROBLEM IS SOLUTION)

We have a number of overall decision making criteria for the house project – the 3 most important ones are:

  1. Can the design choice save energy – are we adopting a system that will save the most energy in use? (EARTH CARE)
  2. Re-use of materials, closing the loop and preventing call off of new materials.  Can we use renewable materials as much as possible – sustainable timber, sheeps wool insulation, etc?  And also in what ways can we re-use materials that come out of the build on site – and or re-useable materials that are widely available in this part of suburbia (pallets!) (EARTH CARE)
  3. Our wallet is our weapon. (PEOPLE CARE AND FAIR SHARES)

The ‘energy strategy’ – grand title!  The overall plan to reduce energy in the building is to wrap the house in a woolly jumper.  We want to make sure that as much of the heat that is generated inside from ourselves, the cats, cooking and of course the gas central heating system stays in the house for as long as possible keeping us toasty warm.  Obviously it will all leak out at some point – but we want the house to ‘catch and store’ as much energy as possible.

  1. Keep our bodies warm – invest in thermal underwear before next winter
  2. Keep any heat generated in the house – draught strip, insulate, double glazing, thermal curtains
  3. Focus heat retention in zone 1
  4. Minimise hot water use – aerators, low flow taps, A rated appliances, small bath
  5. Generate heat renewably – wood burning stove, solar hot water
  6. Generate electricity from the sun – solar PV panels (plus a financial yield from the government!)


The survey phase for this design included the following:

  • I had done some small retrofit works on my previous flat and through this process learned what else I could have done
  • Work at BioRegional, running sustainability consultancy for 4 years – knowledge about sustainable energy and sustainable building materials
  • Interview every trades person I could think of who would come round and give me a quote – asking lots of detailed questions (plumbers, electricians, architects, sustainability consultants, builders, solar installers etc)
  • Feel where cold is in the house, assess possible materials from house – i.e. look at house!
  • Other people’s retrofits (visits, blogs/websites)
  • Other sources of info on building design – AECB, passivhaus etc
  • Research specific products and product combinations; Green Building Store, Ecomerchant, Greenspec, and specific product manufacturers websites.

Decision Making and Targets

The plan was to upgrade the house and ensure our electricity and gas bills be as low as possible.  In keeping with the Climate Change Act 2008 I set myself a target of 80% reduction in bills.  But quickly came unstuck – 80% compared to what?  National averages?  But I know from monitoring our bills data in our old 2 bedroom flat (the ground floor of a leaky Victorian terrace) we are already 60% better than benchmark data for that house type.  Granted we had some energy efficiency measures installed, plus our normal behaviour – multiple jumper wearing and keeping the thermostat at 19.  So our personal benchmark isn’t the national average.  When I set out on this project I felt a target was important otherwise how else would we ever achieve our goals – the engineer in me!  But as time went on I realised that not only do I not know what to compare the reductions to I also don’t have a simple way of measuring the impact of individual design choices.  There are software and tools out there that could do this – but they are not available to me.  Plus the ultimate reductions will always be influenced by behaviour – so the high level target went out the window.  (APPLY SELF REGULATION AND ACCEPT FEEDBACK, original design concept was not appropriate to this design)

Over time I found The Association of Environmentally Conscious Builders (AECB) ratings which is a set of criteria for new builds and retrofit setting out good practice thermal performance for elements (walls, floor, roof etc).  The silver standard seemed good to me – better than Building Regs but not as far reaching as Passivhaus (German standard for houses requiring zero heating).


  • Previous consumption data from our old flat
  • Possible targets, decision making criteria and design parameters, pros and cons]


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So I have insulated with 140mm of sheeps wool insulation (Thermafleece), a renewable material (USE AND VALUE RENEWABLE RESOURCES) under the ground floor to prevent draughts from the floor void under the floorboards from coming up to cool our feet.  In addition I have draught stripped between the floorboards – yes this is belt and braces approach – but using the permaculture principle of multiple elements with the same function – if one of the systems fails we should still be ok.  One final element of the floor design has been to seal the draughts around the skirting boards with my trusty tube of decorators caulk – this plastic/toothpaste-like material squeezes into the small gaps and stops the draughts coming into the room.  The acid test was with the back of my hand on a cold windy day – pre-caulking there was some serious cold air blowing into the rooms… and now with caulk installed it is no more.  Draught stripping has been a low cost option and once the draughts are no longer coming through it’s possible to keep the temperature inside the house lower and still feel comfortable.

Insulation u value calcs

Insulation u value calcs


The loft is where most of the heat in the building is lost (maybe 35 – 40%), so making sure that the house has a very good hat on is vital.  We are undertaking a loft conversion so the loft insulation is going into the pitched roof and into our new box dormer.  My original design decision was to use Pavatex products from Natural Building Technologies – these are woodfibre boards and batts, using waste wood from industrial processes and converting it into a useable insulation product (PRODUCE NO WASTE).  These insulation materials are breathable, don’t release nasty chemicals into the air and lock up carbon (due to being made from wood) as well as closing a loop by using waste materials win win win win.  However – with a builder coming on board to build the loft conversion I’ve had a slight re-think (CREATIVELY USE AND RESPOND TO CHANGE).

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There is a downside to using woodfibre board – which is the thickness of materials (120mm above the rafters + 175mm between and below rafters) required to achieve a good u-value (0.15W/m2K) coupled with the (100mm) air space needed to ventilate the material to allow it to do it’s breathing thing making for a pretty thick roof.  To save space to gain more headroom in the loft we have decided to reach a compromise, we have decided to use a highly manufactured but super thin material called Tri-iso (Actis Super 10+) – like a space blanket coupled with some Pavatex to get the u-values to approx 0.16W/m2K – which I’m happy with and we get a roomy loft – brill compromise and keeping the heat inside the house.


  • U-value/cost/company manufacturing ethics comparison of different products]


The windows were a difficult choice… PVC windows are widely available, cheap and do the job – but many PVC windows degrade OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAvery quickly in UV light.  The process of manufacturing PVC is highly toxic and generally I feel quite uncomfortable about using PVC.  So we decided to opt for timber windows.  And I found a great company in Bereco who manufacture bespoke timber windows (u-value 1.37W/m2K) – with the level of security that we wanted on the windows… other benefits of new windows have been blocking the sound of the A3, and making the rooms lighter (white windows as opposed to the very dark ones that were in before) (MULTIPLE FUNCTIONS FROM ONE ELEMENT, OBTAINING MANY YIELDS).  Triple glazing was considered, but was too expensive – to use our wallet as a weapon we need to have enough money in it, we can use the money saved from triple glazing for more insulation elsewhere – a better £/tonne CO2 saved.  A further element of the window strategy has been to install thermal lined OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcurtains and blinds to the windows – now I’m not sure how much of a difference this will make as the double glazing is pretty effective – but it will certainly feel more cosy on the inside with thick curtains – and that’s half the battle.  Plus – more than one yield I am learning how to sew in order to make the blinds and using old curtain material and pre-used coffee sacks too!

There remain some decisions to be made about the front door – with light and therefore cold air pouring in around the sides.  (SMALL AND SLOW – focus on the big areas first and prioritise)


The final piece of the woolly jumper on the house puzzle was to install insulation onto the external walls.  There are two possible ways to do it – (1) on the inside in which case you lose space in the rooms (not great if you want to sell the house in the future) and there are all sorts of issues with thermal bridging and damp that arise when doing the inside so we decided against this option – or (2) on the outside.  Outside is simpler you just get big sheets of insulation and fix them to the walls in long runs much less fiddly than the inside… so we opted for external.  However the prices we were quoted tripled during the project.  I tried to look in detail at the potential savings – but found it hard to find real and accurate data.  Based on our behaviour I estimated it would take 60 years to payback, and also considered how much thermal underwear could be bought for £10k! (the approx cost of the works). We have put the walls on hold for now.

We thought seriously about our zones when making the wall insulation decision – the zone 1 of our house where we spend most our time will be our new kitchen/dining room – which will be super warm because of the newly built highly thermally efficient walls.  Our zone 2 – the bedrooms – only need to be warm at night and when we get up, they’ve been draught proofed and only have 1 external wall each so heat loss from each room is not too bad.  The coldest part of the house is our zone 3 – the stairs and hall – which has the largest expanse of exposed external wall on the north side.  If we keep the internal doors closed and draught proofed, therefore preventing the colder air leaking into the warm rooms – then the hall being a little colder shouldn’t make too much of a difference.  We need the warmth of the house in our zone 1 – where we have also installed a wood burning stove to provide us with free heat from renewable sources.

But it is not a closed book now that we have two very thermally efficient rooms (our zone 1 kitchen and our bedroom in the loft) I can really notice the affect, thermal comfort is an important factor and to be in a space that requires little heating and still feel comfortable is great (RESPOND TO CHANGE, OBSERVE AND INTERACT).  I have been investigating the use of cork as an insulation material, I could do it myself, it would cost less, and it would support the very troubled Portuguese cork industry. (SMALL AND SLOW, VALUE THE MARGINAL – cork is an edge product in insulation terms).


The hot water plan is to make sure that all showers and taps are aerated and low flow to reduce the water coming out of the tap (VALUE RENEWABLE RESOURCES).  And then we are going to try and install some solar hot water panels into the twin coil cylinder (INTEGRATE RATHER THAN SEGREGATE) (which was required to replace the very old, very leaky hot water cylinder which currently doesn’t hold heat in the tank for very long and mainly heats the airing cupboard – great for germinating plants but a bit of a waste of fossil fuel energy I think!)  The location of the panels is proving to be a bit tricksy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAElectricity from the sun – well if there is a bandwagon why not jump onto it!  Given that the government are still paying a reasonable rate to anyone who can afford to install solar panels onto their roofs to generate their own electricity it seems foolish not to.  So we’ve decided to commandeer the biggest roof space for this purpose – at the expense of being able to heat our hot water – financially at the moment it makes more sense to do solar electric because of the payback even though in carbon terms it’s better to do hot water.  But solar hot water is not a write off yet.  This has been an interesting compromise – the yield of an income is important and real the yield of carbon savings is also important but harder to see and therefore harder to see the direct benefit.  The government is talking about a renewable heat incentive which will make hot water more viable but it’s not in place yet.


So to summarise the design and implementation of this project:

  1. Keep our bodies warm – invest in thermal underwear before next winter
  2. Keep any heat generated in the house – draught strip, insulate, double glazing, thermal curtains
  3. Focus heat retention in zone 1
  4. Minimise hot water use – aerators, low flow taps, A rated appliances, small bath
  5. Generate heat renewably – wood burning stove, solar hot water
  6. Generate electricity from the sun – solar PV panels (plus a financial yield from the government!)


The only way to identify the success of the strategies implemented will be to monitor our performance over the coming winter (the works were mostly completed by Feb 2013 so the 2013-14 winter will provide a complete winter’s worth of monitoring).

The monitoring plan is as follows:

  • Weekly meter readings for gas, electricity and water
  • Use imeasure website to record meter readings and assess against degree day analysis
  • Observe how we use the house once it is no longer a building site and actually a place to live and assess if the analysis is appropriate to our useage patterns, tweak as appropriate
  • Analyse meter readings quarterly to identify design tweaks and improvements
  • Consider implementing the ‘next steps’ identified below
  • Thermal imaging of the house to assess what is and isn’t working, work with Transition Town Kingston to implement a thermal imaging party in my street to include my hous
  • Update this blog post with actual energy usage as I get the data


  • Make final design decisions on solar thermal, wall insulation and front door
  • Share my knowledge with others:
    • web article,
    • use this design as a teaching aid on my intro to permaculture courses
    • contribute to the newly formed Kingston green building group
    • thermal imaging party (as above)
    • perhaps consultancy – I have already done this informally through friends and formally through a consultancy report on another house


  • I had a very long survey phase through my previous work, previous flat project and through the first few months of owning the house and not doing anything but interviewing trade which allowed me to get to know the building.  No ‘design as we do’ on this project!
  • A lot of the analysis took place as and when I needed to do it for the design of a particular element, there were a number of analysis/design cycles that I went through as the pattern was developed into detail.  There was a lot of analysis on this project – particularly numerical data analysis of consumption, u-values etc.  It feels like analysis was a bigger element of this project than some of the other designs I’ve done, I wonder if this is because I had the knowledge built up over years working in this sector to know what and how to analyse, compared to some of my other projects which have not had so much analysis because I was working in technical areas that are newer to me.
  • The timing of the project (house purchase just as I was doing my PDC) was perfect for being able to see how permaculture integrates into the engineers approach.
  • I could have tried to use a few more design tools in the early phases e.g. PMI, an adapted form of PASE – but this was really my very first attempt at integrating permaculture into my work (even though it’s one of my later write ups!) and I don’t think I fully appreciated the usefulness of some of the permaculture tools at the time.
  • The biggest lesson from this project overall has been developing my skills and the confidence to use those skills – I am now reasonably confident carpenter and tiler and I can have a go at plumbing and electrics, these skills I gained through observation first and then working up slowly in my competence as I developed my skills.  These are really important and valuable life skills that I am pleased to have confidence to do now.
  • I understand how houses work!
  • Time was another key factor in my personal people care.  Allowing myself time to think through the problem, developing the solution and then implementing (even if it required some time to learn the skill) without strict deadlines has made it a period of abundance and learning for me.
  • Costs – this is an extract from the costs spreadsheet, overall for the total retrofit project we came in at our budget with some elements costing more than anticipated but savings being made elsewhere.
    1 Windows £15,745.00
    2 Insulation – side + back walls (internal)  tbd
    3 Insulation – front (internal)  tbd
    4 Insulation – ground floor £761.66
    5 Bathrooms and plumbing – total £5,566.04
    6 Woodburner £1,958.00
    7 Hot water tank  Incl in plumbing
    8 Solar thermal  tbd
    9 Solar PV £6,127.09
  • Time – the overall project took approximately 6 months longer than I had anticipated at the start, this was due in part to my naive time planning having never programmed a project like this before and in part due to stopping for 6 months to wait for the long wet winter to pass and finish off the final external elements.

September 2014 update

Following the monitoring plan I have been taking weekly meter readings.  Using 2 years worth of data I have worked out the total annual consumption and the % improvement from typical similar houses shown in the table below.  I have put a range of figures for improvement because there are a variety of different sources quoting different typical UK average figures (the problem I highlighted in the beginning).  Our electricity consumption is almost entirely offset by the solar panels so we are close to net zero on electricity.  In addition to the numbers the thermal comfort levels of the house are now SO much better we have plesant and warm spaces to live in.

We have joined the Superhomes network and have been assessed to have a 62% carbon reduction in the building fabric, the property was open for our first Superhomes open day on 13 September and 12 people came round.  We are planning a thermal imaging party based at our house and including others on the street in January 2015.

Ave June – June % improvement on UK average for similar house/useage patterns
Elec, kWh/yr 1650 50 -75%
Gas, kWh/yr                    10,950 30 – 65%


11 07 2012

Criteria 1; Holmgren principles, zones, patterns, base map. Criteria 2; applying permaculture in my home. Criteria 3; site development. Criteria 4; writing articles]

Through my overall garden design I defined a zone 3 of the garden which was to be primarily a wildlife area.  I also defined a need for a pond in the garden.  Ponds attract wildlife and add diversity.  Therefore this design is for a pond in the zone 3 area of my garden.  This design began in April 2012.  A lot of the survey and analysis work is extracted from the overall garden design.


Site conditions

The site conditions are sketched on this plan and summarised in words below.

Site conditions for zone 3

Site conditions for zone 3

Sun/shade.  I marked out where the shade fell on the site at different times of day at different times of the year for the whole garden, and looked at the zone 3 area for this design.

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    • Soil analysis. I dug a couple of trial holes.  Outcome: silty/sand/clay.  The soil was very dry and lacking in soil life in the east 2m from the fence line.
    • Species on site.
      • Rose bushes – one tall with two different flowers grafted onto it.  4 short.
      • Grass.
      • Big pink flowering bush – loved by bees and other insects.  Flowers in April/May
      • Cats (ours plus a couple of other neighbourhood cats) – the neighbourhood cats use this area of the garden as a thoroughfare.
      • Pigeons nest in next door but one’s pear tree
    • Wind.  I have found really hard to observe.  Above the fence line it blows NE-SW.  Mostly from the NE.  Observed through the direction of drying washing being blown.  I am not yet sure I know what the impact of wind is below the fenceline, occasionally (especially in winter) it swirls and blows around.  Wind tunnel along the alleyway beside the house.
    • Microclimates.
      • Warm and sunny on the north side.
      • Dank right beside the south side fence (i.e. north facing)
      • Where the run off from the roof gathers there is a boggy patch with very large dandelion like plants growing extremely tall – much taller than anywhere else in the garden.
    • Structures.
      • Fence surrounding three sides of the area
    • Other
      • Land is flat
      • No pooling of water observed
      • Access from house (side and back door) and via side gate.
      • No existing desire lines (but we created a few once we started walking about on the space)


Physical boundaries shown on the site conditions plan.  There is a wooden fence on 3 sides, the exact position of the west boundary (i.e. the zone 2/3 boundary) is not defined.

Time boundary:  no real boundary it would be great to have the pond designed and implemented in 2012.


Consider the resources mandala – natural, physical, social, personal and financial resources available to us for this design

  • Ourselves (Liz and Catherine) and our energy (N, Ph, Pe, So).
  • Pallets/local skips for wood, stone etc available for free (Ph, Fi)
  • Local stables with well rotted manure available for free (Ph, Fi)
  • Tree surgery waste – wood chippings and logs for free (Ph, Fi)
  • Waste concrete dug up from another part of the garden (Ph, Fi)
  • Liz’s attendance on a Permaculture Design Course, particularly the hugel bed session (So, Pe, N)
  • Key books: Gaia’s Garden, Hemenway, Creating a forest garden, Martin Crawford.  Plus lots of others (Ph)
  • Web resources on pond design (Pe)
  • Previous growing experience from allotment and garden since 2006 (Pe)

We didn’t set a budget, but have kept a record of money spent on the design implementation.  This design seems low on social resources, is this a problem, or simply a reflection of the nature of who we are and how we are designing?


Consider the ethics to help with the evaluation:

Earth Care People Care Fair shares
Pond done well can increase biodiversity in the garden can we attract frogs? How can I incorporate techniques I have learnt about into this design, so I can try them out practically? Reuse site won materials
Techniques to minimise resource use:
Reduce/eliminate removal of spoil from site (transport/reprocessing etc)
Locally available materials/resources
Look after the workers – and let them have fun! Provide space in the garden for wildlife as well as people and crops
Place for bees and other insects to drink

I asked myself lots of questions in the evaluation phase including:

  • How much space for the pond?  How big should the pond be?
    • Dig a hole
    • Use a sink/bathtub
  • How will we fill it?
  • If we dig, what will happen to the waste materials?
  • What happens in a drought?
  • What techniques are there for making a hole in the ground hold water in it?
  • What other elements of the garden design are interesting/relevant to the pond?
  • How to make it aesthetically pleasing and child safe?

I did an input-output analysis to help to think of any wider unthought of pond elements.

Pond input output analysis

Pond input output analysis

I extracted the relevant items from my overall garden PASE into a zone 3 PASE.

Zone 3 PASE

Zone 3 PASE

Looking at these two tools I was able to make some links between PASE desires and outputs from the pond as the following overlay shows.

I-O with relevant PASE elements overlay

I-O with relevant PASE elements overlay

Pond requirements that I gleaned and wanted to use in the design from my web research into wildlife ponds:

  • Some sun, some shade, not deep shade
  • A deep bit (at least 1m) to prevent drying out in drought times
  • Various depth shallow bits for different types of wildlife
  • Access for wildlife – gently sloping, protected areas on the banks, different materials/plants around the bank
  • A waterproof lining options are puddling with clay or bought liners.
  • Native species planted in the pond


How big and where?

I used my overall garden basemap and a number of cut out pond shapes with diameters of 1.5, 3 and 4.5m to assess size.  I cut out round

Base map with shapes cut out to move around (note this picture is NOT only pond shapes it is also trees for other areas of the garden)

Base map with shapes cut out to move around (note this picture is NOT only pond shapes it is also trees for other areas of the garden)

shapes for ease although I knew that I wanted to maximise edge so the final implemented pond would not be a perfect circle.  4.5m was too big, 1.5m was too small so approx 3m seemed just right.

I also looked at the zone 3 area and eliminated certain areas that were unsuitable as the following plan shows.  This gave a large area within which we could place the pond.

Zone 3 site conditions with overlay showing excluded areas

Zone 3 site conditions with overlay showing excluded areas

Lining the pond?

The soil analysis shows that puddling is not going to work for this site as there is not enough clay in the soil, we will have to buy a liner.  This seemed a shame as puddling feels like a small and slow solution compared with using liners.  We chose a butyl liner because it is longer lasting, less likely to get holes or degrade than other materials on the market (futurecasting to produce no or less waste in the long term).  We also decided to lay soft sand underneath to protect the liner.

Edges and what to do with the soil?

The issue of what to do with the soil once we had removed it was an important one, we didn’t want to remove it from site so we decided to incorporate it into the pond border in some way (produce no waste).

We wanted an aesthetic where the pond was a bit hidden in the garden – create some height so you couldn’t necessarily see it from the house.  And we wanted there to be an abundance of bee and insect friendly plants near to the pond to encourage more biodiversity into our garden (multiple functions from one element).

Pallets are a locally available abundant and renewable resource – so we thought to make a raised curved bed out of pallets that we could plant up to give us the height and intrigue we were looking for and the insect friendly plants on top.

So the west side would have the pallet raised bed and the east side would be the side accessible to wildlife, the design for this side included:

  1. integrate waste concrete from a path we’d recently broken up in the garden into some sort of rockery effect that could provide shelter for wildlife on the bankx – making it look less concrete-ish but still making it useful (integrate rather than segregate, produce no waste),
  2. making sure that we had some gentle slopes and easy access areas for wildlife to get in

What to plant?

This element of the design wasn’t planned in detail before the implementation.

  1. In the pond: I observed what’s growing in local ponds to see whether we might be able to harvest some cuttings of local pond species that could go into our new pond to get it thriving with the local species.  I took lots of photos to identify what’s growing.
  2. In the raised bed:  we have a lot of lavenders in pots that are bee friendly, other plants on my garden perennials that I like (see overall garden design) list that might be good to include sweet cicely, salad burnett, lemon balm and chives.


The design was roughly in place when we experienced the wettest drought on record in mid June 2012.  I observed that we had brimming full water butts and the ground was easy to dig.  It felt like I had gone far enough on paper even though I hadn’t drawn it out in full.

We got ourselves a length of hose and roughly draped it on the ground (the pattern) – and then we started digging.  As the digging got deeper we evolved our specific plan for edges and depth gradients within the pond (the detail – designing from patterns to details) – there’ll be a deep bit (roughly 1m) and then a middle bit (40cm) and then lots of shallows (5 – 10cm) and we sort of mixed up how the different depth areas met the pond edge and made a sort of oval-ish shaped hole in the ground.

Digging was easy peasy because of it being the wettest drought on record – mindful of the catch and store energy principle it made sense to dig when the ground was soft and crumbly due to all the heavy rain.

With the pond dug and lined we siphoned from our water butts the water flowed and the pond began to fill.

 It was quite clear that though there was a big mound of earth on a tarp beside the raised bed site it wasn’t going to be enough to fill the length, width and height of our pallet bed.  And I didn’t want us to have to import soil from offsite as right now I don’t know of any free local sources.  So we had to come up with another plan during the implementation phase.

Design alteration

I’ve been wanting to build a hugel bed in the garden – but thus far there had been nowhere to fit it in the design.  It suddenly dawned on me that our pallet raised bed could be a hugelkulur inside.  Hugelkultur is a technique for building raised beds with large pieces of wood covered with soil and upturned turf.  Ok so we won’t get the benefits of the microclimates and varied planting conditions generated on the sides of a more traditional hugel bed with our straight sided pallet sides – but instead we will get more control which makes for happy gardeners!  And we get to fill up the raised pallet beds with large pieces of wood and other organic matter that can rot down over time to create the very soil we need in the bed and create a fantastic growing medium with lots of air pockets, water storage and warmth as it decomposes.  This was a chance to try out hugelkultur within a pallet raised bed.  We can over time observe and see what happens to it (observe and interact).  So we decided to try it out.

Implementation (again)

We sourced free wood from a local tree surgeon to fill up the base of the pallet bed covered this with the mounded soil and for good measure we threw in some cardboard, shredded paper and some other bits of organic matter waiting to go into the compost bin.  And in this photo the bed is ready to be planted up.



The pond should be relatively self maintaining.  I know from previous experience that pond weed can grow vigorously and needs regular removal.  With the raised bed design we can remove it and use it as a mulch on the bed adjacent.

Planting up the raised bed with perennials will also be relatively self maintaining.

The maintenance plan is to include this area in the garden maintenance with regular inspections and work done as needed.

Evaluation – Sept 2014

  • This last spring our pond nursed frog spawn, tadpoles and finally quite a few frogs.  It has been an absolute joy to watch their development (it took a LOT longer than I thought it would).  I am pleased to have new frogs in our garden to eat through some of the massive slug population that is resident.
  • The system which includes pond, soft fruit hedge and pallet hugel is becoming more and more self regulating I have done very little work this year, the plants are becoming established, wildlife is in abundance and the roots of the soft fruits must be tapping into the pond to keep them flourishing (apply self regulation).
  • The main work is clearing the green algae from the pond – although with the hugel right beside this provides an excellent location to dump this organic matter.
  • I was also amazed at the abundance of life in the pond as witnessed by my nieces and nephews who pond dipped for many happy hours when they came to visit over the summer.
  • We have achieved our desires – place for family, calm and beauty and abundant wildlife!

Reflections on the design process

  • This was an early design and one of the challenges was aligning my desire to have the overall garden design ‘finished’ with a desire to make use of the great digging opportunity the wet summer provided.  I realise now that in terms of the overall garden design this was a small and slow approach tackling one small area and implementing an element we definitely wanted/needed in the design.  I realise now that the overall garden design will continually evolve, and that for this project the level of design that I had reached was entirely adequate for delivering a successful project.
  • I enjoyed the mini design cycles that came up as the implementation evolved and how many design principles and tools etc came into my mind as I thought through a mental permaculture checklist about the challenges we were thinking about.  That mental checklist has only got stronger and better throughout the course of my diploma work and the application of the design process.

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Adventures in pallet shed building

31 05 2012

[Criteria 1; Holmgren principles. Criteria 2; permaculture in my home. Criteria 4; writing articles]

We needed a shed, we had no money. What we did have was 2 hammers, a drill, a saw and a large tin brimming with odd screws and nails. All we needed now was wood – free wood.  The most abundant source of free wood scavangable in an urban environment is the prolific pallet!  Our goal – to build a shed, out of pallets using permaculture principles to guide us.

For years we had toyed with the idea of a reduced commute and a more sustainable way of life, but had been too squashed down by work pressures, and too constricted by our little flat to make any major changes.  Until a year sabbatical gave us the opportunity to breathe, we simply decided that we needed time out to reflect, so we got on our bikes and off we cycled. 9 months later we returned to the UK with clear heads and clear hearts and vowed that henceforth we would place quality of life at the heart of all our choices.  So when setting up house, we looked for a reduced commute = more time, and as big a garden as we could find in London = crop potential.  Living sustainably in an urban environment meant we had to ensure we made the most of what we had.  So while my partner went back to ‘work’ I set about finding ways to make life work for us!  Fresh from my permaculture design course and with a highly restricted budget, I set to designing, planning, thinking about our new 100ft garden.

Hovering to the side of the garden, quite close to the house, there was a small, dank, breeze-block shed resplendent with an asbestos roof.  The shed was on its last legs and rather than have it fall and release all that asbestos into our precious lungs, we decided to take it down carefully and dispose of it appropriately.  This left us with a concrete hard-standing 8mx3m, situated in the best growing spot of the site; a little south facing sun trap.  There was an instinctive part of me that wanted to take up all that concrete, improve the soil below and grow kiwis and lemons!  But working with the principles of efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and finding the route of least resistance (least change greatest effect) and after numerous scale doodles we decided to turn the problem into a solution and opt for a combination shed / greenhouse, and with the hard-standing in place already, why not keep it there.  While kiwis and lemons are delicious a needs survey quickly highlighted that our preference was for accessible abundant salads and a handy seedling crèche. Since we are also renovating and retrofitting our house storage close to the house is also essential (multiple functions from one element).

Let’s not be under any illusions here – neither of us are trained builders, we are two smallish women who are well aware of our limitations but confident in our ability to problem-solve.  And quite frankly, we are confident in us.

Calling out to all intrepid pallet builders… here’s how we did it.

Step 1: Foundations and damp proof course

I started by observing the concrete hard-standing (not massively exciting but certainly informative!). I noticed how the water pools in certain places and placing the pallets directly on the ground would see them rotting over time. Since our goal was resilience we decided to base the structure on a row of brick; this would also offer a level (ish) base to stack our walls on. In our old flat we used bricks as shelving support and rather fortuitously had decided to bring them with us, just in case! (observe and interact)

Step 2: Pallet prep

Pallet sourcing was no problem, first we identified our nearest industrial estate, knocked on a few doors and asked if we could help them deal with their rubbish problem (produce no waste)!  (Note- it’s important to ask as some companies recollect pallets– so simply taking them could turn out to be theft!).  A few simple calculations ensured we got enough to make our basic wall structure. Identical big pallets for the back wall and identical medium sized pallets to make the front wall, and a mix of both to see what happened at the sides! Once we’d sourced a decent range we decided to ‘thin them out’ by removing some of the lengths –enough to lighten, not too many to weaken the structural integrity.

Step 3: Walls

According to numerous DIY books and the great Web, corners are the place to start. Balancing 2 pallets precariously around the back corner, Catherine clung on to them whilst I screwed in our ‘cross members’.  We used wood off-cuts to provide diagonal strength across the corner, hold the pallets together and ensure maximum use of resources.  In a heart-in-mouth moment, Catherine let go and we stepped away… and – oh yes – nothing fell over, we gave it a shake and it all seemed to be holding together.  Hoorah- robustness!

The sides consisted of medium pallets to match the front line, with diagonally cut pallets to make the link between the back height and the front – while a good level of weather proofing is important air-tightness isn’t, in fact those mismatch gaps provide excellent ventilation!

Step 4:  Making windows

We had a couple of old pieces of weirdly shaped clear plastic and a small rectangle of glass lying around – ideal for windows (as the story unfolds, the observant reader might notice just how much we will need this lovely shed – based on the number of items we have ‘lying around’ – the ultimate re-user needs some place to store all their valuable ‘stuff’! (produce no waste)).  So we cut out corresponding holes in the pallet walls before erecting. We used the cladding (coming next) to hold the windows in place from the outside, and more of our trusty wood off-cuts to hold them in place on the inside.

Step 5: Cladding

Any spare moment in the build was deemed a cladding moment – to ensure structural cohesion and protection we decided to horizontally clad the whole structure (apart from the back that was covered with a tough plastic sheet – it is not subject to weather and would be impossible to access for cladding as it butts up against the neighbours wall – give or take a 10 cm gap). To clad the shed we needed a large supply of single pallet slats. If there is any part of this project that was the most laborious this was it – I’m sure there is a more efficient way to finish this type of build – but we were working with what we had – pallets! Rather nerdily we’ve learned a thing or two about pallets.  It’s about trial and error and finding your own technique – some slats just won’t budge, and others practically fall apart with the slightest hammer blow.  We developed a bit of a technique using a hammer and crow bar, youtube clips on pallet dismantling  (yes they exist!) suggest that others just bash the slats off with a mallet.  But some of those nails run so deep there is no way of getting them out – in which case I cut the wood!

We then simply jigsawed them up each wall to produce a rather pleasing rustic effect.

Step 6: The roof

We went through a few design ideas here, we wanted to make the roof out of plastic bottles – so we had a fun evening collecting bottles out of people’s recycling, followed by a trip to the local tip.  We tried corrugating the bottles – stapling strips of bottle together; we also tried making tiles by flattening the bottles.  All to no avail – the problem came in trying to fix them down to something on the roof and with water tightness.  Luckily for us it rained during our building process so we could observe roof leakage (observe and interact). There was lots of it.  There are many examples of plastic bottles successfully used to make roofing, but we simply didn’t have a way to make the bottles flat enough for tiles – and we also started to run out of energy and patience. And so we conceded to spend a bit of money to buy some plastic sheets so that we could have our growing space. We zoned the shed so that one section was darkened to store objects that light might cause to perish while keeping the main area light (multiple functions from one element).  For the darker side of the shed we managed to scavenge some aluminium from a skip- perfect favella style roofing(produce no waste)!

Step 7: The door

When we took down the old shed we made sure we kept the door, with a lick of paint, and rejigging of the locking device, somehow we made it work!

All in all the venture cost us a week’s solid labour (i.e. 14 person days) and about £45 in roofing and a resupply of mortar for the brick base.  It gained us a whole chest full of pride and satisfaction; a secure, watertight shed, and a super snugly crèche for our seedlings and salads – which are thriving!

One year on – there has been a small leak in the roof through one of the fixing points – which I have yet to fix and there is water ingress from the back – a much harder problem to solve.  So we have raised everything in the shed off the ground to prevent it from rotting.  The shed has stood up well to heavy winds.  Over the course of the last 12 months it has been a seedling sanctuary, a full on greenhouse, a bike and junk store and now it has reached its (hopefully final) use as a wood store and workshop!  The natural light through the roof is one of the best things we did!  Ooh and it’s also being featured in our upcoming ‘Green Open Homes’ event in Kingston and I’m planning a trip to visit the shed for Kingston Permaculture Network folk!

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