A permaculture retrofit: Tim and Maddy Harland's house

Tim & Maddy Harland
Monday, 1st June 1998

A visit to Tim and Maddy Harlands' passive solar retrofit of their dilapidated 19th century flint cottage in Hampshire...

We moved into our house on the edge of the South Downs in Hampshire in the mid 1980s, a few years before we discovered permaculture. It was two one-up-one-down 19th century flint cottages knocked together with a hideous 1960s flat-roof extension on the back and side, and a very small garden. It was like living in a split personality: cosy, aesthetic and warm in the front of the house; ugly, cramped, drafty and cold at the back.

By 1995, we had acquired a 'live in' publishing business, which was home to Permaculture Magazine, and a third of an acre of adjoining arable land which we designed and planted as a permaculture garden. This has already evolved into a reasonably productive paradise - ecologically diverse with wildflower meadows, 80 fruit and nut trees, native hedgerows, a mulched veggie garden, poultry, and is full of composting systems! But the back of the house was still an eyesore and was literally falling apart...

The roof was leaking, one mouldy ceiling was collapsing, the windows were rotten and threatening to rattle out and the central heating had completely packed up. Our enthusiasm for permaculture had driven us to put everything into setting up Permanent Publications and planting the garden. We had loads of apples, lots of magazines but a freezing house and the kids were getting too many colds in winter. We baulked at the thought of renewing the flat roof which would probably only have a ten year life. Anyway, conventional renovation would cost us dearly and we would be no nearer our ecological goals. What were we to do?

Meeting ecological architect, Andrew Yates of Eco Arc, at Findhorn and a bequest from Maddy's late father was to change everything. We asked Andrew to help us design a retrofit of the house which would integrate front and back, make it energy efficient, incorporate some 'ecological experimentation' and extend a narrow corridor which posed as a kitchen/diner. We wanted to introduce as much natural light as possible into our computer bound lives and dissolve the delineation between house and garden. We also wanted to garden indoors in the kitchen all year round making food miles become food inches - a perfect house for cool temperate permaculturists!

With all this in mind, Andrew designed a retrofit of the existing building and a passive solar extension to the back of the house which was completely in sympathy with our wishes. The following are principles that we included in our design:

Recycled Materials

As much as possible, we reused on site materials like chalk hardcore, existing bricks and tiles. Many of the bought in materials were recycled.

Resource Locally

Our builder, Paul Lipscombe, is based 2 miles away. He employs local people and buys as much as possible from local sources. The flints used were gathered by Tim from surrounding fields and only cost us a small payment to the farmer of a bottle of wine and £10. Knapped flints from a builders merchant would have cost several hundred pounds - a big difference. The timber was also bought from a local, sustainable source. Some additional labour (hard!) was found via the local LETScheme. We also required Andrew to visit only when he was already in the area, visiting Chithurst Monastery, where his design of the Abbot's house was being built.

Energy Efficient Design

The passive solar heating design for the extension works well due to a number of features: the partial glazing in the roof which has a south-westerly aspect; the efficiency of the gas condensing boiler which is only needed in winter; the low 'e' argon filled double glazing used in the conservatory/kitchen and in the upstairs windows; the huge amount of insulation added to the breathing roof space, the walls and the extended floor. Phase Two will incorporate further storm proof windows elsewhere in the house and solar hot water panels on the roof.

Reduce Food Miles

We choose ecologically benign materials where possible. Our new food growing areas also help to feed us all year round, reducing our need for bought in high mileage foods. In summer, the plants have been deliberately chosen to provide shade in the kitchen/conservatory. In winter, we plant the more expensive cut-and-come again salad plants inside and hardier winter cropping plants in the planters just outside the kitchen windows for easier care.

Compost Toilet

We also installed a Swedish Septum urine separating compost toilet which replaced a flush toilet upstairs. This has been an interesting experience and we intend to report in full on the trials and tribulations of installing and using this piece of 'eco-kit' at a later date. But briefly, the advantages have been: the building regulations officer's official acceptance of the installation; the neighbours' undisguised mirth ("Haven't you heard of Thomas Crapper yet..?"); the fact that the unit sits on the floor and requires no special box beneath it; the solids - mixed with hardwood shavings, a waste product from our local carpenter - do not smell; and the gallons of urine which is carried via a 2.5cm diameter pipe concealed in the wall and collected in jerricans outside the house - we water this down and feed to all our fruit and vegetables. This is the easiest way of introducing nitrogen into a growing system, which requires minimal effort and is free. This additional fertiliser has given us healthy vegetables - the sweetcorn crop was spectacular.

The disadvantages have been: having to work from Swedish instructions (no mean feat!); the somewhat crude design - we carefully installed the ventilation pipe and added a fan, making sure it carried any unwanted smells well above the roof, but the design omits a necessary fly screen and we were quickly infested with buzzing Jurassic-type monsters until we put a pair of tights over the fan; difficulty getting the urine to evacuate the collecting bowl due to the angle of the pipe in the original design (Tim adapted it) and sawdust and paper deposits blocking the pipe after a few months (don't asked how we cleared it - Tim deserves a bravery award and required extensive sanitising!); our five year old sometimes has difficulty with her aim and soils the solids bag which result in a smelly chemical reaction; and our parents' hatred of the contraption - 'your horrible loo'!

Water Harvesting

A 1,300 gallon water harvesting and storage system is being installed to take rainwater from the new roof for the benefit of the garden. We had to apply for Planning Permission for this design as there was no precedent for a system like it in a garden. Our garden is on a slope towards the house.

Gravity will take the rainwater to the first 300 gallon tank and then it will be pumped to a 1,000 gallon tank at the top of the slope. Piping will then snake its way down through the garden just below surface level and drip irrigation pipes will be attached in circles around each of the fruit and nut trees. We are sure that global warming and increasing incidences of drought will make our type of design more common.

Let There Be Light

The final result has had a huge impact on our lives. We are no longer cold in winter. Our gas bill is reduced. In the spring 1997 quarter it was just £12.00.

We can grow all manner of food plants in our indoor planters: in summer, melons, aubergines, okra, grapefruit, lemongrass, ginger... and in winter, cut-and-come-again salads, carrots and beetroot. The patio planters outside have created a micro-climate where oriental greens, runner beans, strawberry spinach, and a selection of unusual edible perennials grow within feet of the kitchen. The house and garden have merged and we no longer feel so cut off from the outside.

Most important of all, we have LIGHT in our main kitchen/dinning/ hanging out space. We can wash-up, garden and eat in an ambient, bright atmosphere which allows us to expe-rience all the seasons and the vagaries of the English climate in comfort. Sunsets, thunderstorms, snowfall and sunny days have never been so appreciated. The acoustics are good too and friends have appreciated some great jam sessions and because the whole thing is so well insulated even a Marshall amp at volume 10 doesn't affect the neighbours!


Architect: Andrew Yates
Eco-Arc Old Village School, Harton York YO6 7NP Tel/Fax: (01904) 468752

Builder: Paul Lipscombe
Randalls Farm, Catherington Lane, Catherington, Waterlooville Hampshire PO8 0TA Tel: (01705) 597222

Association for Environmentally Conscious Building
Nant-y-Garreg, Saron Llandysul, Carmarthenshire SA44 5EJ Tel/Fax: (01559) 370908 this food. So not only are we contributing to our body's health, we are, in some small way, contributing to the wellbeing of the Earth.