24 June 2016

Green Open Homes

A handful of Waltham Forest residents opened their doors to the public last weekend for the third Green Open Homes event. I wasn't expecting it to be especially fascinating but I was completely wrong. Quite apart from the excuse to nose around other people's houses, it was impressive to see so much creativity and enthusiasm for the grass roots of green enterprise. I went to six houses and only just managed to fit them all into a Sunday tour, grappling with a complicated schedule of opening times. First up was Nicola and Oli's pebble garden on Billet Road. They both work for the Institute of Making, so have some connections, among which was getting Monty Don (the TV guy) to design the garden. There's no grass or weeds, just weathered timber and smooth seaside pebbles (recycled from an exhibition), galvanised water tanks used as planters, and a lounger made out of an old futon base.

At Andrew's house in Northbank Road, I forgot to ask about the green insulation and underfloor heating features, getting engrossed in the reclaimed furniture, this blue Art Nouveau-ish dresser being the most spectacular piece, displayed to advantage with dried flowers and a backdrop of children's drawings. The garden here, though, is notable for the stacks of useful junk: several bicycles that could be made to go, a good sized wood-fired oven, and a large plastic tank that will be used for collecting and re-using rainwater.

On Chingford Road, Sue and Michael were faced with appalling damp in their newly-bought house and tackled it by putting in insulation and heat-recovery ventilation throughout. You would never know, it's so well integrated. Sue (who is an environmental consultant by day) explained how the thickness of insulation left just enough space for the sofa and a piano in the living room - otherwise they might have had to make the insulation thinner. They also built a kitchen using bought units but the worktops and cupboard fronts made out of plywood and recycled floorboards. It has amazing pull-out corner shelves and lots of nice unique features. Their side extension (the drying room) has stained glass windows from Ruby Stables and two Victorian-style drying racks, to avoid wasting energy on a tumbler dryer.

The houses in Penrhyn Crescent are a model of what social housing once was, spacious with huge gardens. Rebecca and Luke were particularly showing their solar shower and composting toilet (although Luke was keeping a low profile). The shower is wonderfully Heath Robinson. The water is heated by two big radiators painted black, inside a glass-fronted box up on a flat roof. Rebecca demonstrated how nice and warm the water gets, even tough it was an overcast afternoon. Visitors were offered the chance to try it, although I don't think anyone actually took up the offer. I didn't ask all the questions in my mind about the composting toilet, but discovered some of the reasons for making it - "a sort of hippy background" and a stay on an organic farm in South America, and simply "why not?" Both the toilet and the shower are partitioned off in the ramshackle conservatory that doubles as greenhouse, bike shed and workshop.

I visited Headway Gardens, which is a completely different kind of project. John Struthers masterminded this self-build development of ten family houses build on land once occupied by 50 lockup garages. It looks likely to kickstart another project of the same kind: members of the new Family Foundations project were around to explain the project and show people around. A hugely worthwhile scheme - I'll try to write more about this another time.

I'm beginning to see a pattern in artistic Walthamstow homes, white walls with objects and artworks imaginatively arranged, and a mixture of Ikea and recycled furniture - but also living spaces diverted to practical uses. Charlie's house in Billet Road is no exception. She's tackled a house in appalling condition with amazing energy, and made the downstairs (at least) into a wonderful mix of workroom and lounge, full of colourful lampshades (part of her upcycling business), crusty German pottery and colourful recycled bits and pieces. An inspiring end to what turned out to be quite an exhausting day.