15 Dec 2008
A Song from Under The Floorboards: the Decidedly Unsexy Face of Energy Efficiency
I once heard a comedian (I don’t remember who) say “we’re told we have to think about future generations… what have future generations ever done for us?” Although I try to dedicate as much of my time as possible to helping leave this planet in a better place than it was in when I popped out into the world in Chiswick Hospital many moons ago, sometimes there are jobs you find yourself doing that are so unpleasant and downright horrible that one does feel somewhat begrudging towards future generations. Like insulating under the floor for example.
This weekend, I did the first part of a job which, admittedly, I have been putting off for a long time, insulating beneath the floor of my house, and it was really rather unpleasant. You may remember that about this time last year I insulated my loft (which was actually a relatively pleasant experience), and now the time has come to head under the floor to tackle the next greatest cause of loss of heat from my house. When we had an energy makeover plan done, one of the first things it identified was that in each room downstairs, the combined surface area of all the cracks and gaps in the floorboards was equivalent to a 1m square hole in the middle of each room. Sometimes you can actually feel the wind whistling up between the boards. Not good.
So, this Sunday, aided by my friend Andrew (see left, in action, below ground), we embarked on a journey into the subterranean depths of my house, or rather a concrety/gravelly crawlspace which varies in height from 3ft down to spaces too narrow to get into (in some places we will have to pull up floorboards and do it that way). It is definitely a 2 person job, as much as for vital moral support and to check you haven’t got wedged somewhere and slowly starve to death) as for practical necessity. The idea is to stuff insulation (I used the same recycled bottle stuff as last time) between the joists and then staple a breathable membrane over the surface of that to hold it in place. Sounds really easy in the retrofit books…
In practice this meant, having squeezed down through a small hole in the floor, crawling in spaces so tight that I couldn’t even turn over, and had to do the whole thing on my back, a bit like working under a car, while Andrew passed me membrane, insulation, scissors, whatever was required. A claustrophobe’s nightmare. Indeed, one of the main things that kept coming to mind was Sebastian Faulkes’ brilliant book ‘Birdsong’, which tells the story of soldiers working in World War 1 as tunnellers, digging tunnels in France under each others’ trenches in order to put bombs there… possibly the single most claustrophobic piece of writing I have ever read.
In the same way that as you insulate a loft in the winter it grows noticably colder the most insulation you lay, when insulating under floors it gets hotter. And dustier. And more claustrophobic. I had a dustmask on, but couldn’t keep it on all the time as I got too hot. I’m really selling this to you aren’t I?
The upside of it is that over one Sunday afternoon, we actually did half our house, and it feels like a real achievement. I can’t quantify how much CO2 we will save, or the payback time, but it makes complete sense and has the added satisfaction of being one of those jobs I have put off for ages and have now finally got round to. While the putting up of vast arrays of photovoltaic cells or wind turbines is the sexy side of energy efficiency, dusty Sunday afternoons under floors is decidedly not, yet it is almost certainly more important and more cost effective.
I once took my young children to see ‘The ‘Pokemon Movie’, the most utterly execrable film I have ever had to endure. An hour and a half of utterly incomprehensible storyline (to anyone over 6), appalling animation and relentless marketing for plastic toys. In the car on the way home, as part of a discussion aimed to explore what the film was about, I told my son that even if I spent that last 30 years of my life bedbound and incontinent, and it was his daily chore to attend to my lavatorial output, he still would not have repaid my having to sit through The Pokemon Movie. Although future generations will hopefully benefit from a better climate thanks to my deeply unpleasant afternoon under the floorboards, they will have to be very nice to me indeed to compensate for yesterday afternoon…. perhaps regularly trimming my geriatric toenails might just about do it…
(The title of this post is in part inspired by the news that the seminal Magazine are to reform… worth getting tickets if you can!)
15 Dec 11:19am
Rob, an old Magazine fan eh? 😉
15 Dec 12:22pm
Sorry but I’m much more interested in Magazine reforming than your floorboards Rob: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfVRH4vKcak. Brilliant!
15 Dec 1:47pm
This is my favourite, and is the song the piece was named after… “my irritability keeps me alive and kicking…”
15 Dec 1:49pm
any transitoners going to be at the gig in Manchester on the 14th?
15 Dec 2:08pm
Martin, did you used to run a fanzine based around Birmingham called Adventures Close to Home in the early 80s? if it is you, we used to correspond back in the day – I used to do a fanzine called New Crimes. Intersting that we’ve both ended up interested in Transition, Permaculture, etc…
Would love to go to the magazine gig but Manchester is a bit too far away….
15 Dec 3:14pm
Hilarious stuff! I insulated my floor when I built my house- but that was 30 years ago; and I have a nagging suspicion it needs to be fixed a bit. Primarily mice, I think. 30 years of tunnels and nests and romping have probably left some holes. Getting at it is not going to be fun.
Your description of working under the floor reminded me forcibly that I used to do that for fun. Spelunking, or caving, it’s called. I did a lot in college. Why- remains a puzzle. Weirdly addictive- on a long trip, I would daily have the experience of being in a tight, muddy, remote place, with 500′ of rock over my head (helmet off, pushed in front, head turned sideways, because the hole was that tight) and thinking loudly to myself “what the HELL are you doing here! I hate this! I’m never doing this again! You’re a moron! I’m going to get stuck and DIE here.” And then, the next day- being wildly eager to do it again.
Any signs of your becoming a compulsive floor insulator?
15 Dec 4:24pm
Woah Greenpa! Full blown panic attack ‘reaching-for-the-rescue-remedy’. Per…lease, no more about being stuck in caves underground…OK?
15 Dec 5:36pm
Are there any particular retrofit books anybody can recommend? We have all these lovely jobs aead of us, but most of the green building advice seems to be about new build!
15 Dec 6:21pm
Paula- 🙂 Well, keep in mind that I DID make it out. I’ll try to restrain myself.
15 Dec 6:33pm
It was Groucho Marx who said “Why should I care about posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me?”
Economists have a word for this attitude: It’s called the Discount Rate: the percentage by which the value of a cash flow in a discounted cash flow (DCF) valuation is reduced for each time period by which it is removed from the present.
Which means in practice, Blow you, grandchildren, I’m all right.
15 Dec 9:42pm
Hi Rosemary… one of the best I have seen is https://www.transitionculture.org/2008/01/10/book-review-eco-house-manual/
15 Dec 10:11pm
Rob – you may need to consider having a Radon test done as well; it’s an issue that affects a number of areas in the South West.
20 Dec 12:29am
“We are always doing something for Posterity, but I would fain see Posterity do something for us.” Joseph Addison, quoting a(n imaginary?) Fellow of College in The Spectator, 1714.
I came across this quote in John O’Neill’s demanding but excellent book Ecology, Policy and Politics: Human Well-Being and the Natural World (Routledge, 1993).
The Fellow’s assumption is that we can benefit and harm future generations but that they can’t benefit or harm us, and it’s an assumption that O’Neill rejects, seeing it as central to our environmental problems.
O’Neill is talking here not about our children but about the future generations who will live after we’re dead and gone. How can they harm or benefit us?
They can, he argues, continue and develop our life’s work or maybe abandon and repudiate it. As O’Neill puts it, “Future generations can benefit or harm us: the success or failure of our lives depends on them for it is they that are able to bring to fruition our projects.”
So, future generations will determine whether insulating under your floor, and all the other efforts you are making to build a sustainable society, are lasting achievements or noble but futile acts. Whether your life is a one-off, tragicomic gesture, or is part of a longer and more fruitful story.