Getting on-board, early adopters looking for a more sympathetic approach to insulating our heritage housing stock with support from Joseph Little Dublin Institute Technology and Bristol City Council Principle Historic Environment Officer.
A rocky road to understanding
I first encountered Neighbourhood Construction in 2016 when my wife and I had just bought our first home.
Like most people, we had been entirely enchanted by the house and it’s perfect furniture and decor on our viewings with the estate agent, however when we finally got our hand on the keys and entered a now empty shell, we quickly discovered that it was far from perfect and had a whole host of issues needing our attention.
So, of course, I quickly set off on a path of “get it fixed”, hell-bent on finding someone (or a range of “someones”) to come into our new house, “sort out” all of its problems and make it “perfect” again. In no time at all, I had found an electrician, a plumber and was in the process of researching companies that “dealt” with damp.
Luckily as this was in motion, my wife, on the advice of the previous owners, had engaged with Neighbourhood Construction and, after taking a thorough look through their website, had decided to book a home tutorial for advice and support. She was excited about the idea of using materials and techniques in keeping with the age of our house (a listed Georgian property) to put it back to how it had been, and perhaps even improved.
As a listed property, we wanted to retain and restore its period features. After many many owners, the property’s walls and woodwork were struggling under layers and layers of different paints, there appeared to be signs of damp in some rooms, being end of terrace, the property was not only cold but was especially draughty with ill-fitting doors and single glazed windows – and on top of this, the whole place needed a good old “spruce-up”.
What became evident to me on hearing about the first session with NC was that they were not a company who would just come in and “sort” our issues. It was to be much more of a process and this process very much required our “buy-in” in order for it to proceed and to succeed. By this, I mean that we had to at first learn about and then sign up to a set of key principles that would govern how things would progress.
At first, I pushed back against this – the idea frustrated me, I wanted to pay someone to come in and “do their thing”, I wasn’t looking for a learning opportunity. For one, it wasn’t my usual area of interest, and another, I didn’t have the time! Both my wife and I were working and planning a wedding, as well as dealing with health issues.
Luckily, however, when my wife’s imagination is captured she is like a dog with a bone. Unlike me, she could see the unique genius in what NC was offering a chance to not only put our house right using low-cost, natural materials, but the chance to truly learn about our home, how the building operates, how we can live within it in a way that is healthy for us and our family and that minimises the risk of future problems. So she persevered.
After much deliberation, we decided to take a leap of faith and engage with NC to guide us through lining our two downstairs rooms with hemp-Lime wall insulation. They were the coldest and dampest in the house and the best place to test the approach.
It was a great decision and as well as the Bio-aggregate, we also took advantage of their unique insight on how older buildings operate to problem solve a whole host of other issues in the house such as air ingress/draughts, a highly inefficient heating/hot water system and other internal issues that were leading to damage inside the property.
We also changed the way we behave, understanding that a lot of issues with moisture are created by us. We fitted effective extractors in the kitchen and bathrooms, were mindful of closing doors, opening windows, the list goes on. It has made a dramatic difference.
It was not always a smooth road. Like most building projects there were disagreements, setbacks and misunderstandings. It took us a while to get used to an entirely different way of working. One that focuses on teaching and creating a “community” of practitioners who can do a multitude of different tasks (I.e not your traditional contractors – something entirely more… holistic). With NC’s teaching and ethos, any practical person (even us as homeowners!) could participate in most areas of the job.
Used to the traditional model, it took me a long while to trust the people and the process, but what I learnt along the way is that where this kind of approach excels is that at every stage, regardless of the type of job, the person doing it understands how it relates to and impacts the other parts of the job (far more important than being an “expert” in just one area). Of course, NC is not saying that just anyone can deal with a gas issue at the property, you, of course, need a trained, Corgi registered plumber for that, but something, like removing a radiator and draining down a heating system, is a skill that can be taught to any practical person – including myself.
In the end, we fired our electricians halfway through the job. They refused to work with Neighbourhood Construction and acted in a way that was entirely contradictory their approach and was actually damaging the property unnecessarily. With advice and support from NC, we found another electrician who “got” what we were trying to do. He worked with us, NC, and the other practitioners we engaged and is a friend of ours until this day.
Happily, the rooms we Hemp limed – Bio-aggregate – are the warmest and the dryest in our house. One of them, the sitting room, still does not have a radiator, and yet and we still haven’t got round to fitting it. There is no doubt that NC’s ethos and the science behind it are sound. The rooms breathe and feel lovely to be in. We have recently done exactly the same in our baby’s nursery and are just as delighted with the result. Over the years to come, we would like to continue around the house and be the first to have an entirely hemp-lined house! That’s the dream, but given time, watch this space.
NC is not for everyone, certainly not for people who, like I used to be, want a quick fix to an isolated issue, because no issue is isolated. NC’s route is longer as it is more thorough. What I will say however is that our learning has taught us that with good planning from the outset – it does not need to take longer than other approaches and will achieve a huge amount more for your time and your money. What I will also say is that it will likely save you time and money down the line; fixing issues created by an isolationist approach may be a quick fix but it isn’t a long term fix – if you replace a rotten window without understanding why it has rotted – in a few years time you will have another rotten window to replace!
For someone who was initially so uninterested in this subject, it is amazing that I now have so much to talk about! I could go on and on! Let’s just say that after a rocky road, I am a complete convert to the Neighbourhood Construction process – my eyes have been opened and I couldn’t now go back to my old ways. Even if there are times when I want to put the blinkers on and get something fixed fast, there’s always a voice in my head, telling me, let’s start by thinking this through… thoroughly. NC, way to go!