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The country’s greenest parsonages: Warm, cheap, if a little noisy

by
25 September 2020

Two of them are nearly ten years old. Maddy Fry found out what they are like to live in

The front of the new vicarage in Kingswinford

The front of the new vicarage in Kingswinford

TWO parishes in the Midlands have spent more than a decade staging a low-key revolution in eco-housing.

The parsonages of St Mary’s, Kingswinford, just outside Dudley, and St Philip’s, Webheath, near Redditch, are unlikely to make headl­ines. Yet they have achieved some­thing that few other buildings in the country, let alone in their diocese, have managed: to generate most of their own energy.

Their story begins in 2008, when two parsonages were declared unfit for purpose by the diocese of Worcester. Although Victorian par­son­ages, if large, were well built, the houses in Kingswinford and Web­heath were built in the 1930s, when there was less money available.

The original vicarage at St Mary’s, Kingswinford, before renovation

The diocesan environment group saw it as a chance, in the words of the diocesan surveyor, Mark Wild, to “start with a blank canvas, with sus­tainability in mind”.

The result is two buildings that use rainwater-harvesting and, for heating and electricity, solar energy. Since their completion, both houses have generated at least 85 per cent of their own power.

Mr Wild said that going above and beyond the legal requirements for a sustainable building had been essential. “The current building reg­u­­lations state that you only need to reach a level-3 standard to be ‘sus­tainable’. However, we used the standard set in Germany by the Pas­sive House Institute, which takes our buildings up to a level 6. That’s the point where you need to do things like put solar panels on the roof.”

The parsonages were also reno­v­ated with concrete walls and floors to keep internal temperatures stable. The windows are triple-glazed.

Alongside this, the ventilation sys­tem involves a 60-metre network of pipes beneath the garden to prevent heat-loss: air in the houses is re­­cycled every 90 minutes; the warm air from the houses, as it leaves, heats up the fresh air entering from outside.

 

THE renovation efforts have been a success financially as well as in terms of the living standards of those residing in them. According to Mr Wild, “A lot of data has been col­lected on the house in Kingswinford since 2011, and it’s doing just what it was designed to do. There’s no gas or oil involved with either, and both houses signed up to green-energy providers for any electricity that isn’t generated on site. The carbon foot­print for both is, therefore, zero.”

In terms of financial savings, the original house in Kingswinford cost £3000 a year in energy costs. Now, it is £1000 at most.

An ex­­ample of the thick wall insu­lation used

Kate Kendall, the wife of the Rector of St Mary’s, the Revd Giles Kendall, said that the couple’s experiences at Kingswinford since they moved there in 2011 had been very positive.

“We really love it here, not least because we were involved right from the beginning, and had input into how the house should be. We’ve reg­ularly had people leaning over the gate to ask questions, and they often can’t believe that the Church of England is actually putting its money where its mouth is.

“We’ve hosted school visits, and appeared on Newsround. The house really is making a statement about the Church caring about the environ­ment.”

She admitted that there had been challenges when they first moved in. “There were local people moaning at the beginning about it being too modern and a waste of money. The council were a bit sceptical, but got on board eventually. . .

“Managing the house involves a different way of thinking, which can be hard to navigate. Practically, it is a bit like living in a space station: there’s a controlled air supply in the house all the time; so there’s no need to open windows, which can feel counter-intuitive. I was also sceptical about how effective the solar panels would be on grey days, but they gene­rate 90 per cent of the house’s energy.

“It was overwhelming at the begin­ning, as there was a lot to learn; but we regularly had the engineers com­ing to visit to see how all the kit was working. We haven’t experienced any glitches.”

She said that the house had in­­spired a change of mindset not only for her and her husband, but also in the community and the diocese.

“At one point, it was the greenest house in the country, and, when you’re living in it, you start to think: ‘What else could I do that’s green?’ We’ve decided in the last couple of weeks to retire, and the idea is that we will do green improvements in the place we next move in to.”

 

THE Revd Richard Clark is Team Rector in the Holy Trinity Team, Redditch, with special responsibility for St Philip’s, Webheath, where he lives in the adjacent vicarage. He agreed that the move to an eco-house in 2013 had been challenging for his family.

“To begin with it was very strange, and not wholly pleasant: we have no carpets on the floor; so things do smash very easily, and it echoes, and chairs scrape. There are several cup­boards on both levels de­­voted to tech­nical equipment, which feels strange, as we are non-technical people.”

Some of the technology was un­­tested, he said, and failed to work as intended. “The house makes noises of its own, some of which are quite loud, and some of which occur in the middle of the night. All the wires go into the property via ducts under the floor or from the roof, and flum­moxed workpeople.

Solar panels used

“It gets very hot upstairs when the sun shines, and we weren’t quite sure how to regulate the heat, or what we were allowed and not al­­lowed to do. The only instruction manual was mainly technical gibber­ish. It felt quite alien to begin with.”

He said, however: “Now we know what we are doing, we are very thank­ful for this property. It is draught-free, and the triple glazing cuts out a lot of noise from the houses around us. We have elec­tronic blinds that come down over the outside of the windows that keep the sunlight from making the build­ing into an oven. It is so well sealed we have a system to replace and cir­cu­late the air every couple of hours, which not only works, but has great curiosity value.

“It also means that it is rodent-free, and insects are easy to control. It is very secure: it would be quite hard to break into quietly compared with our last vicarage. It is far less dusty, and easy to keep clean, and good for someone with allergies.

“We have no gas bills, and, with 27 panels on the roof, the electric bill is not bad. It is a lot cheaper than our previous home, even though the diocese takes the profit from the gen­­era­tion of electricity from the roof panels.

“We have to remember to put ap­­pliances on when it is sunny rather than at night. It is also unusually good for house plants, because of the regular temperatures: I have a small lemon tree in a pot that has pro­duced a few perfectly acceptable fruit.

“I love how easy it is to keep warm, and, although it does not have the character of an older property, it is maturing, and we are growing fonder of it.”

The reaction from the local com­munity, he said, had been positive: “The community watched the vic­ar­age being built, and some peo­ple wanted to know all about it when it was finished. The house is a great talking-point with people who come to visit, who are fascinated by the eco-friendly features. It was held up as an example by the construction com­pany in bids to build similar housing for some years after it was completed.”

He also said that, although he and his family had no immediate plans to move, the house had made them think differently about wherever they lived next. “I think we would always want a house with as many similar features as this one in the future as we can, for all our sakes,” he said.

 

The completed vicarage at Webheath

MR WILD admitted that the whole enterprise had not come without challenges, including concerns from residents near by. “Local planners can often see the vision, but you still have to address residents’ concerns about renovations not aesthetic of the area.”

He was also disappointed that the Government and the housing indus­try had been slow to respond. “The world hasn’t taken much notice of what we have done. The new legisla­tion around sustainability and bio­diversity in homes doesn’t require them to be at a level 6. Although the houses are cheap to run, they were not cheap to build, and the housing industry is largely about profit.”

He was optimistic, though, about the part that the Church could play. “We ought to looking at building this way in the future. The Church should be taking the industry for­ward.”

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