Last Sunday, our wind-up door bell never seemed to stop buzzing. Every time we opened the front door, there was another curious stranger asking if they could look around our home. We were part of an eco open day, which saw 12 super energy-efficient north London homes being opened up to the public. When I warned my husband, Pete, about the need to be up by 10am he was aghast. “You mean we live in a show home?” he guffawed, looking around the piles of boxes, newspapers, curtains, children’s toys and shoes of every size for every outdoor activity. On the back of the door, he noticed a new addition to our bordello of clutter – two wetsuits bought at a car-boot sale, for when we go to the beach, or take up sailing.
We’ve lived in our end-of-terrace Victorian city house for five years, moving in when our youngest daughter, Nell, was nearly four. Between choosing schools and helping out with the PTA, we’ve squeezed in making our home super green. We insulated the attic, then added draught-proofing, double-glazed windows, triple-thick curtains, individual radiator controls and a woodburner. We’ve turned our home into a power station since we installed solar PV panels, generating about 12 weeks of renewable electricity each year. We sell this to the grid (via Good Energy at www.goodenergy.co.uk) earning us around £100 a year (if you do it now you’d get around 40p per unit compared to our 15p, but we did get lucky with a 50 per cent installation grant). We’ve also installed solar thermal tubes, which are brilliant at heating water in the summer. They took a bit of getting used to, but we now turn off the gas from April until October and only pop it on if we need a hot bath or emergency washing-up. As a result, last summer’s gas bill was just £30.
When my daughters’ friends come around, our so-called “green” house looks similar to the ones they live in – the difference is that my children are alert to ways to keep the rooms warm, or cool. In winter, they never talk to friends on the doorstep with the door open (in fact, we keep the hall radiator off seeing as there’s no point heating up a space that is constantly being cooled down by exits and entrances). In summer, they know how drawing the curtains blocks out the midday sun. They wear clothes that suit the season (we love merino thermal vests) and if it’s chilly watching television then they’ve learnt to cosy up in one of the big tartan rugs piled by the sofa. If it’s too wet to dry outside (or I’m too busy to keep an eye on the weather), we use the space above the staircase to dry our washing on a wooden rack (aka Sheila Maid) because tumble dryers are noisy and ruinously heavy electricity users. Hanging clothes up so high means few people seem to even notice my indoor drying habit.
Drawbacks to this green life? Well, neighbours often leave me with things to recycle. I can cope with a dying lavender bush (revive or compost) and any spare bits of wood can be chopped small for the woodburner or reused for craft projects. More challenging was the frog (we released it into our pond but I don’t think it has thrived). Snails get fed to our greedy hens, books are read and then sold on at school fêtes or other local fundraisers. The mountainous heap of jiffy bags was passed on to my former employer, Friends of the Earth, for reuse. If I can’t share out pre-loved clothes with children the right age, or shift them at a Swish swap (a posh clothes swap party; www.swishing.org), they are put in a nearby clothes bank.
Most of the objects in our house have a story, something I love about fixtures, fittings and furnishings. The sofa was found in the street, and carried home. I covered the cushions with a classy material found in a second-hand shop. The kitchen table was my mother’s when she first married, the oak kitchen chair was found in a skip. When we recently built a grass-roofed extension, we were able to find floor and wall tiles for the shower on Freecycle (www.uk.freecycle.org); the marble sink was found abandoned in a nearby street while the curtains were from a house clearance. Reusing materials stretches creativity, and is a great way of saving money – allowing Pete and I to buy expensive FSC-certified flooring.
Our house is best seen from the garden, even though it is a tiny 10m plot crowded with a wooden swing, pond, potato bed and washing line. Our girls often have friends around, and we have a terrier, so there’s not much chance of nature running amok but the grass-roofed hen house and mini wildflower meadow on the extension roof offer a lush wildlife habitat and soothing views. It’s lovely to sit on one of the giant off-cut logs (also a beetle hotel) with something nice to drink, listening to the swifts screaming above the noise of the urban jungle. And no, you don’t need to water a grass roof.
Ten years ago, worrying about climate change made us make a family decision not to fly any more – but it hasn’t ever felt like a hardship, especially if you make use of the Eurostar. We certainly don’t miss sharing hard-luck stories about check-in queues, 2am flights, BA strikes or volcanic ash panic. During the school holidays, we enjoy walking in the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. We rented a cottage one year, but now try to house-swap with families with similar-aged children. It means our girls have been able to explore a lot of Britain – by the time they were seven and ten, they’d both walked the whole of Hadrian’s Wall (sweets were a good lure!). This summer, aged nine and 12, they will hopefully skip up England’s highest mountain, the Lake District’s Scafell Pike. I think a shared challenge helps us all get on better, and recognise our strengths and weaknesses – something everyone will need to learn in a bid to tackle the challenges of climate changes and oil price rises once oil production peaks.
Teaching your child to think for herself is a key part of green parenting. My girls obviously need space to be teenagers, but, so far, allowing them to help choose what we do and involving them in map reading or sorting out train timetables seems to delight them. We have a lot of fun together, and usually that fun is minutes from our door and involves packing a picnic. There is never a row about whether to walk or cycle because we’ve never had a car – although we sometimes rent or use our membership Car Club vehicle parked a couple of streets away.
Wishing to be a bit greener is as much about getting involved in local activities as it is about reusing resources. This means you start to know more people. As Jo, mother of Ben, five, and Sally, two, puts it: “Being a parent has made me 100 times more connected with the local community. I know so many local people through playgroups, school, being a school governor, attending childminder training, and just because I have time to talk to the neighbours. And I mean people from different social, religious and cultural backgrounds, and who are much older than me. I love this ongoing process.”
This shared experience is powerful when it comes to making changes in our own neighbourhood. It’s a glue that helps us trust each other and can inspire us to keep going, because we know it’s making the place better for our children. Lots of people run away from cities when their children are little, but I think it’s a great time to get more involved in your neighbourhood. Those small seeds of saying hello as you push along the buggy, or help out a friend with childcare and so on has been repaid by making our family feel a big part of the community. In a few weeks’ time, we are having a street party where everyone shares food, chalks pictures on the pavement and has a chance to catch up or showcase their musical genius, whether rock or cello.
Living in a green way with children is an easy habit. I started because I wanted to tackle climate change, but the payback has been getting to value local life and spend lots of time with my growing children at nearby parks or on errands around the local shops. That’s why if you can do only two things to shrink your family’s carbon footprint and increase your child’s wellbeing, then green your home and make better friends with your neighbours. And if you have the time, there is always room for improving those traditional green skills: reducing, reusing, recycling, repairing and refusing.
Nicola Baird is the author of Homemade Kids (Vermilion, £10.99).