High-performance spray foam from Huntsman Building Solutions has been used to insulate the Liverpool Electric Dream House.
The Electric Dream House is a substantial, brick-built, Victorian three-storey property in Liverpool
Homeowner and lecturer in sustainable architecture at the University of Liverpool, Dr Stephen Finnegan is rising to the challenge of achieving a net zero carbon (NZC) Victorian home in a leafy suburb of the city. His objective is to minimise running costs, emit no carbon emissions in operation, and run the entire property on electricity, largely generated through sustainable sources.
The house, a large detached, brick-built property constructed at the turn on the 19th Century, is typical of the period. Solid walls, high ceilings, a walk-in cellar and occupied roof rooms (historically used as servants quarters). Heating the four-storey property had originally been via open, coal fires in every room, including those in the roof, prior to the installation of gas central heating.
Eaves area before treatment
Dr Finnegan plans to take the building back to a bare shell and incorporate as many energy-harvesting and low-energy consumption systems as is practical in the restoration of the house. He will then carefully monitor energy and carbon usage with the overall target of net zero carbon emissions.
His ultimate objective is to run the house entirely on electrical energy, through the incorporation of a solar PV system with a SunSynk battery storage system, an air source heat pump (ASHP), thermal store and monitoring kit – all of which will be provided by Dynamis Associates Ltd. This retrofit system will provide domestic hot water and underfloor space heating. An electric vehicle charging point and a ‘time in use energy tariff’ will catapult the house into the 21st Century.
Foam Lite LDC 50 sprayed directly onto the existing bituminous sarking
Fabric ‘first approach’ to thermal performance
According to Dr Finnegan, it is well established that around 20 per cent of UK carbon emissions are generated through heating, hot water and cooking in domestic properties. With more than 60 per cent of current housing stock built before 1960, when little thought was given to heat-loss prevention, the challenge of reducing emissions is significant.
New-build properties can be built to far more thermally efficient standards than their predecessors, so the Government’s target of slashing overall carbon emissions by 78 per cent by 2035 puts real focus on older buildings where retro-fitting of heat loss prevention methods and reducing energy inputs, particularly of carbon rich sources, such as gas, are so crucial.
In older properties, like this house, built over 120 years ago, when energy costs were far lower and measures to prevent heat-loss through walls and roof were rarely considered, the challenge is even greater. Dr Finnegan explains, “Our first big obstacle to overcome is heat loss prevention and this primarily focusses on improving insulation and airtightness.”
Up to 40 per cent of a building’s heat loss can be attributed to air leakage – what we would all understand as draughts – so it is vital that airtightness is included in any programme of measures designed to improve a building’s thermal performance. A so called ‘fabric first’ approach.
Foam Lite expands 100-fold in seconds
A breathable, sealed-box environment
Traditional insulation materials, such as mineral wool or rigid board products, can be time consuming and expensive to retrofit, and if not installed correctly, can still lead to air leakage. It is almost impossible to achieve a completely airtight seal, while still allowing the building to breathe naturally.
“We needed a more efficient, modern method of insulation that provides a high level of thermal insulation and helps us create a sealed ‘breathable’ box environment to give better management of both heat input and ventilation,” says Finnegan. “Electricity is already expensive and prices will only go upwards, so it’s vital that we do all what we can to first minimise consumption, prior to the installation of any renewable energy technologies.”
Excess foam insulation is trimmed back to accept board and skim
Early on in the restoration programme, insulation specialists, Green Horizon Energy Solutions were brought in to advise on how best to minimise thermal loss. Director, Matt Lawford recommended the use of Foam Lite LDC 50, a breathable, spray-applied ‘open cell’ insulation system from Huntsman Building Solutions.
Huntsman’s Foam Lite is a spray-applied insulation system that expands quickly but gently, sealing all gaps, service holes and hard to reach spaces, virtually eliminating cold bridging and air leakage,” explains Matt Lawford. “As well as the entire roof area, we recommended applying spray foam insulation to the underfloor area of the timber ground floor. Up to 20 per cent of heat can be lost through an uninsulated suspended floor and, with easy access from the cellar area, this gave us a quick-win in terms of heat loss mitigation.”
The entire roof area insulated in a matter of minutes
Spray-applied, open cell insulation
Unlike the urethane foams of 20 years ago, modern spray foams, such as Huntsman Building Solutions Foam Lite LDC 50, use water as the blowing agent. This means that the reaction between the two components produces a small amount of CO2 which causes the foam to expand. Cells of the foam burst and the CO2 is replaced by air
This ‘open cell’ foam provides outstanding insulation properties, but still allows the building to breathe naturally without the risk of condensation. HBS spray foam insulation systems were developed in Canada to cope with severe winters and are now widely used in UK in both the residential and commercial sectors.
In the roof area, the original lath and plaster covering was removed from the underside of the pitched roof and 50mm section timber counter- battens installed. The roof had been re-slated in the 1960’s and the bituminous sarking felt covering was found to be in sound condition so no further remedial work was needed.
A thin layer of glass fibre was removed and HBS Foam Lite LDC 50 insulation sprayed directly on to the exposed felt to a depth of 120mm. After trimming flush, the ceiling was fitted with a vapour control layer, re-boarded and skimmed.
With good access to the underfloor at ground level (via the basement), insulation was sprayed between the flooring joists to a depth of 120mm, eliminating draught incursion to the rooms above.
Huntsman Foam Lite was sprayed to the underside of the ground floor
Post restoration data collection
The house restoration project began in early 2021 with a target for completion and occupation by the end of the year. An array of temperature, energy and relative humidity sensors are being installed as work progresses allowing a comprehensive programme of data collection covering airtightness, net electrical energy consumption, thermal performance and so on. These will be collated into a formal paper to be published by Dr Finnegan during the latter part of 2022. Alongside a live data feed open to the public and hosted by the Zero Carbon Research Institute, which was founded by Dr Finnegan.
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