Something in the air –Totnes Open Eco-Homes

It’s a quiet autumn evening and the smell of wood smoke drifts in through our windows.  There is a chill in the air and our neighbours are gathering round their wood burning stoves.  Some are so green that they even forage for the fuel from local lanes.  This is Totnes, the first Transition Town, where Transition means adapting to the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change.   The effect of the local Transition movement can now be seen clearly around the town.  The roof of the civic hall is all but covered in solar photovoltaic panels and many houses have these mounted on their roofs.  One of the drivers for this change was the “Transition Streets “scheme ( funded by a grant from the Low Carbon Communities Challenge.   56 Transition Streets groups, comprising 468 households have now been formed.  Each group of householders will meet seven times, discussing energy efficiency, water, waste, travel and food and finding ways to reduce their energy usage, shop locally etc.  141 households have also installed grant funded solar panels.  As a result, households have cut their carbon dioxide emission by an average of 1.2 tonnes per year and their energy bills by £600.    The solar panels may be a tangible sign of the Transition Streets scheme but there have been other more subtle social benefits.  Being part of a Transition Streets group builds relations with neighbours increasing a sense of community.  There is also the feeling of doing something positive about climate change. 

Another benefit is that once the prescribed meetings have been completed the groups are not evaporating.  Some are continuing to meet; some even have notice boards in their streets providing community information.  This is real community-lead change and the idea is spreading.   Another dozen or so towns in the UK and North America have expressed interest in setting up Transition Streets and a scheme in Victoria (British Columbia) is well developed (

Last weekend, Transition Town Totnes held an Open Eco-homes showcase where inquisitive visitors could see what has been happening for themselves.  This featured some of the houses upgraded as part of the Transition Streets scheme but many others were also on view.  Altogether, twenty seven Eco-home projects were open over the weekend in the Totnes and Dartington area.  It feels like there is something in the air and its not just wood smoke.

In the houses I visited the owners were kept busy; there were many people looking and many questions to answer.  Two houses I visited in Totnes had installed solar panels with grant support as part of Transition Streets groups.  One was a 1930’s end of terrace house with six panels supplying about 20% of their electricity, an air source heat pump providing heating and hot water all year round and a wood burner for extra heat.  Another was an extended 1950’s semi- bungalow with 10 panels providing electricity, low energy lights and a wood burner.  Both showed what can be done with relatively simple measures.

I also visited two quite different houses.  One, on the hill overlooking Totnes and with superb views, was built recently with many eco features including insulation based on recycled newsprint.  The heating is supplied by a ground source heat pump with a 70 metre borehole, there is a heat recovery system and rainwater is collected for flushing toilets and for garden water.  The situation of the house apparently precludes solar panels, which is a pity.

The star of the show has to be a 1970’s dormer bungalow in Dartington with 27 solar panels and a solar water heating system on the roof together with extensive insulation.  It isn’t pretty but it certainly works.  The solar panels keep the owners in electricity balance and much of the hot water is supplied by the solar heater.  There are two wood burners, one of which heats water and drives the central heating system.  The gas has been turned off and there is even a composting toilet in the garden.  This part of Dartington is something of an eco-enclave with 20% of the houses in the street using solar panels.

 I wanted to know what drives someone to make changes to their house, is it simply a financial decision based on lucrative feed-in tariffs and other support for renewable energy or is there an underlying green philosophy?  In each of the houses I visited, the owners firmly believed in making a difference, helping to save the planet, building resilience.  Many grow fruit and vegetables and some forage wood.  The local philosophy was best summed up by the Dartington family who said: “Why did we do it?  To get a glimpse we would suggest you walk up on to the high wild moor at dawn or dusk and be very still …..  what do you find?”

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