Green Can Still be Grand PDF Print E-mail

Times Article - Louise and Frederik Mowinckel have made their London home energy-efficient without losing its Victorian charm

The pristine drawing room, with its antique chandeliers, serious paintings and muted green-grey colour scheme, gives little indication that this is a home unlike any other in this discreetly pricey corner of Chelsea. Not only does it have the lowest carbon footprint in the street — and probably the entire postcode — this five-storey Victorian house is at the forefront of green living, from the solar thermal system on the roof to the 3,000l rainwater harvesting tank under the patio. It just doesn’t look like it.

“That shows I’ve done my job well,” says Louise Mowinckel, 43, who lives here with her husband, Frederik, 45, and their two sons, aged 9 and 11. While Frederik, a Norwegian clean-technology investor whose projects include wave-power schemes in Scotland and a Norwegian electric car, wanted to live an environmentally friendly life by whatever “practical and possible means”, his American wife was adamant that this would not “jeopardise the elegance of the house”, which was built in 1850. Hardly surprising, then, that it took 18 months for Daren Drage, of Exedra Architects, and Simon de Haan’s team of builders to convert the slender corner building, bought for £3.3m in April 2007, into a home that matched the couple’s environmental and aesthetic standards.

Given the Prius parked outside and the eco-friendly cleaning products in the utility room, it’s no surprise to notice the lack of a little red standby glow from the XXL flatscreen television — although, as Frederik explains the technology underpinning this exemplary bit of green behaviour, the awesome extent of their commitment to green living begins to reveal itself.

“This is a smart home,” he states. “There is a computer ‘brain’ in the middle of the house. Data is sent to the brain and it sends commands out.” So, when one of the Mowinckels wields the remote to turn off the TV, the “brain” also turns off the power to the socket — snuffing out the planet-sapping standby mode.

There are, in fact, three separate but integrated wiring systems in the property — all concealed behind the walls, with every single wire in its own conduit — and the couple worked with electrical engineers to perfect the setup, which also runs timers for the underfloor heating and has sensors to ensure lights are turned off in empty rooms. Touch panels in each room control the music system and its hidden speakers, the light settings, the security cameras and the temperature.

We’re definitely moving into rich-boy’s-toys territory here, but it’s all about minimising energy use.

“Judging by the previous owners’ utility bills, I would say we have reduced our gas consumption by at least 50%, probably more, and close to that for electricity,” Frederik says. “We get a payment from Good Energy, our gas supplier, because we are classed as an independent power producer due to the solar thermal system on the roof. We don’t feed energy back into the national grid, but we get the payment for having the capacity to produce our own power from a renewable source.

“It’s about £100 a year, which is symbolic — but not everyone can say they are their own independent producer. In other countries, such as Germany and France, the government makes these grants to encourage domestic green energy production. I wish that would happen here.”

The solar thermal system provides the Mowinckels with hot water for up to eight months of the year. Good Energy also supplies their electricity, from wholly sustainable sources such as wind and biomass.

Double-glazed windows and French doors, cavity-wall insulation where feasible, and insulating board for the other exterior walls and roof (“Not wool: that attracts bugs”), combine effectively to seal the 250 sq metre house. Which would be a disaster, causing condensation and rot, if they didn’t also have a sophisticated heat-recovery system. Air is circulated via concealed vents in every room, the cold, fresh air piped in from outside being heated by contact with the pipes that take the warm, stale air out again — which means this is cooled before it exits, thereby not warming the outside environment.

“This would have been hard to implement without a total refurbishment,” Frederik says — and the same goes for the “brain”, the wiring and the buried rainwater tank, which provides water for three lavatories, two washing machines, patio flowerbeds and the utility-room sink. There’s payback for that, too: a princely £20 a year from Thames Water in recognition of the fact that, in times of heavy rain, the tank stops up to 3,000l of water from entering the sewage system and contributing to potential floods.

Some of the Mowinckels’ ideas can be copied without stripping your house back to its foundations. The back of their paved patio garden is abutted by four floors of sheer brick: the side of the neighbours’ house. This is painted white, to reflect light into the house and reduce reliance on electric lighting. This is not ordinary white paint, however: its biomimetic action, inspired by the lotus leaf, means it is effectively self-cleaning and will stay dazzling for years. Upstairs in the boys’ bathroom, the cupboard that houses the washing machine and tumble dryer has pull-out racks and ventilated louvre doors, so clothes can dry naturally, with the dryer saved for emergency use.

One day, you will doubtless be able to buy LED bulbs like the one Frederik has acquired from the Dutch factory that is developing them. Unlike the usual pinpoint LED bulbs, these look like ordinary light bulbs and fit into normal domestic lamps and light fittings. While the current low-energy gloom-casters use 50% of the juice it takes to power an old-style filament bulb, the LED version needs only 10%. There’s also plenty of natural light: Louise and her interior architect, Adelene Ng Smith, have made clever use of “pocket doors”, which slide right back into the walls and stop it becoming “a house of doors and little rooms”.

The Mowinckels have managed to work with the needs of a family home, a fixed footprint and green principles. So much so that the space under the island in the lower ground-floor kitchen, taken up by various categories of recycling bin, is, says Louise, about the only place where the eco-agenda has noticeably muscled in. But when is the investment in low-carbon living going to pay for itself in terms of lower power and maintenance bills?

Frederik won’t give figures, but he admits that they went over the original budget. “We have taken it quite far, and some of the costs will take a long time to show a return, so long that some people would not do it,” he says. “It varies from product to product — the cost of loft insulation, you get back almost straightaway.” And the white wall, which meant they did not have to install as many light fittings as they would have otherwise needed in the potentially gloomy house, has paid for itself.

“And you have to say, what is the extra cost for installing insulation when the walls were down anyway? I could give you figures for a 20-year payback or a five-year payback, but these figures can be twisted and turned. Anyway, you can’t look at one item in isolation. You have to look at a whole house and how you live in it. In our home, we are living already with features, such as double glazing, insulation and rainwater harvesting, that we believe will be standard requirements within a few years.”