Elspeth Thompson


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Starting in September 2006 I have written a weekly column on my project to transform our cottage made from two decrepit Victorian railway carriages into a state-of-the-art eco house. The series kicked off with a four-page feature entitled ‘All Aboard the Eco Express’ which is featured below, along with the columns from the rest of 2006 and 2007. For current 2008 columns visit the Guardian Unlimited website, and follow the latest progress, with pictures too, on my Blog.

September 2006

¤ For articles, click once on the title below to open and once again to close.

30 Sep 2006 - OFF THE RAILS

Most people would have knocked it down and put up a nice brick bungalow in its place. A pair of dilapidated former railway carriages, parked up on a concrete plinth with a makeshift roof slung between them and a tiny galley kitchen tacked on to one end, it looked more like a hut than a habitable dwelling. Storm damage had left a large part of the exterior boarded up, with sheets of flapping plastic as impromptu double glazing, the once-white paint was peeling and the place looked small, squat and scruffy beside the new two-storey house next door. Whenever I walked past, I wondered how the elderly boat-fitter and his wife, who had rented it for the past 34 years, were able to stand up in it, let alone raise a family there. And yet, when we heard the place was coming on the market, something made us take a look.

From the moment I set foot inside I was hooked. The space, though cramped, was quite magical – as my husband, Frank, commented, standing in the long central room was like waiting on a railway platform with a train pulled in on either side. Rows of doors, the windows mostly painted over, but with the original heavy brass handles, opened on to room after room – some just one original compartment wide, with wood-panelled walls and coved ceilings, and others opened up to make larger living spaces. The tour de force was the sitting room – the old guard’s van, a good foot or two higher than the rest, with a semi-circle of glass windows at either end of the raised roof, so that the guard could see along the top of the train as it trundled along. Sunlight poured in through these, and slanted down from skylights in the long central room. Double doors with blistered black paint and worn leather straps at the windows opened on to a covered verandah; the rooms on the other side may have had rotting ceilings, but they gave on to a garden filled with old apple trees and roses. We made an offer on the spot.

It was not such a rash decision, in the end. We had fallen in love with this forgotten and unfashionable part of the Sussex coast while renting a weekend cottage nearby, and were looking for a permanent base along the narrow unmade track that runs parallel to the sea. Properties there don’t come up often, and those we had seen were way out of our price range (we weren’t yet ready to sell up in London, and our work kept us tied to the city). In addition, I had harboured a longstanding dream to create an eco-house – a home fuelled by natural resources, and built using environmentally-sound principles and materials. (We’d tried our best when renovating our London house, but ten years ago, money was tighter and, like many people with more good intentions than cash, we’d had to compromise ourselves out of the running).

Here, though, was a house in a prime position, with only a field of horses between it and the sea wall, going (because it was deemed uninhabitable) for the price of a plot. There were plenty of rooms (we tried counting them on our way home and came up with a total of ten – a six bedroomed shack!), an abundance of sun and wind to harness for power, and a large roof area for siting solar panels and harvesting rainwater. And, after all, what could be more ‘green’ than a house that was, itself, recycled? The carriages, one of which we are told dates back to the 1870s, used to run on the now-defunct South Eastern and Chatham railway before being brought here, in 1919, as cheap homes for soldiers returning from World War I. People would buy one carriage or maybe two, tacking on extra sheds as their families expanded.

As the sale slowly progressed, I made notes and scribbled sketches of our dream house in a notebook, along with a list of “must haves”: renewable energy, underfloor heating (more energy-efficient, and with all those train doors, where would we put radiators anyway?), a “green” sedum roof (for insulation and as a wildlife habitat), composting loos, an underground tank to collect rainwater and “grey-water” (from baths and washing machine) for recycling, and an interior restored and furnished using eco-friendly products. By the time the sale finally went through eight months later (delayed by the fact that the garden as we saw it bore little resemblance to what appeared on the deeds – thanks to generations of stealthy fence-moving as is apparently common in such parts), we had a baby on the way and had hatched a plan to move down permanently in a couple of years. Time to start making our dreams into reality. Through friends we found an architect who not only had an interest in eco-building, but also a skilled carpenter as a stepson. And so the work began.

That first cold winter, we used to drive down at weekends, sleep with our coats on in front of the old wood-burner (the house had no hot water or central heating), and eat fish and chips off old tin plates. To keep the worst of the weather out, Ben the carpenter wrapped most of the house in a Christo-like shroud of extremely unecological polythene, enclosing a section of the verandah so he could begin the exterior renovations. After blustery walks along the beach with the dog, we would stare back from the sea wall, straining to picture a dream eco-house emerging from this bundle of flapping plastic and rotting timber. We weren’t the only ones to lack confidence. “Oh look,” we heard a passer-by exclaim to her small son, “A house made out of old railway carriages!” “But Mummy,” came the disdainful reply, “Why would anyone want to live in a broken down old train?”

By the following summer the exterior had been lovingly repaired and re-painted and the main rooms made habitable by a lick of (eco-) paint (see pxx). After endless discussions with the architect, and late evenings scribbling amendments on the sketches, we are now awaiting planning permission for a large timber-built extension (to house a kitchen/living area opening out on to the garden), with a bedroom on top and a balcony looking out to sea. The leaky asphalt roof will be replaced by a “living roof” of sedum plants, with a glass lantern bringing natural light down into the interior and a solar panel that should provide most of our hot water. And the main entrance will be enclosed in a glass-fronted porch that will (if all goes according to “passive solar” principles) provide shade for the main living space in summer while in winter, when the sun is low, let warmth and light deep inside. We can’t wait to get started.

I’ll be charting our progress over future weeks - for the first “Diary of an Eco-Worrier” column, see pxx. The title may have been chosen mainly for the pun, but embarking on a project such as this does embroil one in an endless series of conundrums and (perhaps inevitable) compromises. Is wind-power greener than solar? Can we (not to mention our visitors) cope with a composting loo? And (even if our limited budget would allow it) is an Aga beyond the pale? I am fully aware that there are eco-builders out there who have done this sort of thing with far more thoroughness and conviction than I can lay claim to. Absolutely the last thing I want to do is to set myself up as an “eco-expert” or advisor on things green (I still drive a Volvo estate, for goodness sake). But I know I’m not alone in wanting to live a greener life without giving up completely on style, comfort and quality. And if my thoughts on the progress of our work can help inspire, inform or even just entertain others in some small way, then that’s not a bad start.

30 Sep 2006 - ECO-PAINTS
The old railway carriage house had looked cosy and eccentric when we’d viewed it over tea with the previous tenants. But the removal of 34 years-worth of their possessions left it looking shabby and unwelcoming. A lick of paint was required. But which paint? When decorating our London house, I’d elbowed my concerns about the toxicity of synthetic paint into the background, aided and abetted by a chap at our local paint shop who mixes Farrow & Ball colours at Dulux prices. But the imminent birth of our baby was ringing alarm bells.

First port of call was Auro, a German-based company that claims to be the ‘greenest’ natural paint producer, eschewing harmful petrochemicals in favour of organically-grown linseed oil. Unlike the draconian warnings on most paint cans (do not inhale; do not dispose down sinks or drains), Auro products carry the reassurance that any excess can be composted. Not for nothing is it the only paint recommended by the Centre for Alternative Technology, and voted Favourite Ethical DIY Product of the year by Ethical Consumer Magazine. None of this comes cheap, however – a couple of 5 litre cans, together with trial sizes of their primers and varnishes, left me little change from £100 (B&Q’s cheapest emulsion is a laughable £4.37 for 5L). Never mind, I thought, as I choked on the cheque; at least we’re doing the right thing for the baby. Trouble was, it smelt just as larynx-gagging as the cheap polluting stuff.

I turned to Ecos Paints, who describe themselves as “the world’s only range of solvent-free paints and varnishes” and offer a colour-matching service alongside their range of ‘historic’, ‘tropical’ and ‘Shaker’ shades. By the time I’d factored in the £19 matching charge, the total was even more expensive, added to which, the coverage was poor, meaning we used more paint. Squinting at the bill for the second order (which, infuriatingly, didn’t quite match the first), my husband remarked that, environmental concerns obviously aside, it might be cheaper to use Dulux, open the windows and fly to the Caribbean for a fortnight while the fumes disperse.

Auro (01452 772020 auro.co.uk)
Ecos Paints (01524 852371 ecospaints.com)
Centre for Alternative Technology (01654 705950 cat.org.uk).



Elspeth standing outside her 'Green House'


Green House

Introducing Elspeth Thompson’s diary of the transformation of two dilapidated former railway carriages into the eco-home of her dreams.
Jan - Feb - Mar

Oct - Nov - Dec
Jul - Aug - Sep
Apr - May - Jun
Jan - Feb - Mar

Oct - Nov - Dec

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