Ludka and Brendan Powell explain the Welsh ‘One Planet Development’ scheme and how it led them to building an off-grid, straw panel Passivhaus.
Interview with Ludka and Brendan Powell
Ludka and Brendan Powell are self-builders with an interest in sustainability. They began to question whether the way they were living was the best way to live, and could they find an alternative way that connected them with their surroundings more.
One Planet Developments (OPDs) are a Welsh Government initiative
By granting planning permission to build on agricultural land, the scheme aims to get people back to living and working in the countryside, growing food locally. A One Planet Development means living a sustainable lifestyle, with the lowest carbon footprint you can manage, producing your own power and dealing with your own waste.
A key goal is to ultimately produce 60% of your own food on site, as part of meeting your ‘basic needs’ within five years. Basic needs include council tax, running a car, phone bills, and the food that can't be produced on site.
Meeting the five-year goal of an OPD requires a business plan
It’s very difficult to quantify how you’ll be doing after five years, so the scheme requires that you have a business plan and produce an annual progress report. At the end of five years, if you haven’t quite reached your targets but are on the right track then you produce a second business plan to show what will happen next to reach the goal.
At the halfway stage of their own five-year timeframe, Ludka and Brendan have found it to be a big ask but they are on schedule. Anything they overproduce helps with their income. For example, they sell salad to local shops and make sauerkraut from cabbages, alongside producing honey.
One planet thinking is long-term, holistic thinking
An important part of the OPD is that Ludka and Brendan are trying to regenerate the land by transitioning from monoculture. They are trying to bring biodiversity, grow crops alongside keeping animals, and farm organically.
They have planted an orchard and an extra acre of woodland to attract wildlife, and keep bees to help with pollination. It’s about working with nature rather than being geared towards profit, and the real benefits might not be seen for a decade. It is about attaching other values than just a monetary value to things.
The one planet way of life is sustainable
Doing everything in five years is a massive challenge, and Ludka and Brendan acknowledge they might not be doing everything right straight away. However, they are confident that after ten years everything will be perfectly fine.
It is sustainable in the way they are putting a lot of energy into the land, but getting so much back from it in terms of fulfillment. As well as seeing the productivity of the land improve, they are also seeing change in terms of people being willing to go out of their way to buy produce from them rather than from the supermarket.
OPDs attract determined people
Building a house is often the biggest thing anybody undertakes in their life, so doing that alongside regenerating a piece of land and building a sustainable business has been intense for Ludka and Brendan. Taking on a self build is not the only route for those undertaking OPDs and some opt to build tiny houses using the Caravan Act. However, for Brendan and Ludka it was an opportunity to create more space for family life and have a hardy kitchen for processing their crops.
People who do OPDs tend to really care about the planet’s future, and recognise that we can’t carry on living as we are. There has to be different way.
One Planet Development Policy can evolve
OPDs are an experiment to try and take society in a better direction. There are not many of them, but the existing developments have been successful in feeding people locally and improving the ecology of the land.
Not everything in the scheme is perfect but it gets reviewed and recommendations for improvements have been made.
Being off-grid is not mandatory for OPDs
Ludka and Brendan have no utilities coming to site. Their water comes from a borehole, and electricity is generated from solar PV. Waste is dealt with through a composting toilet and reedbed system.
Anyone creating an OPD can choose the most sustainable solutions to suit their site. Using mains water is not really a problem, but one of the principles of the initiative is dealing with your own waste.
Off-grid living is more mindful
The project is labour intensive, even more so because Ludka and Brendan also have three children. But it also makes them more self-reliant and aware of their actions. They can’t just switch on the electric oven at nine o'clock at night in December because they want to heat something up.
Their children are growing up with the same values. For example, if they have a bag of sweets, that creates plastic waste. What will happen with the waste? They don’t have a throwaway culture.
That extends to the household waste and their sophisticated composting system. In a ‘normal’ house it’s really easy to just flush the toilet and not think about where the waste is going. Ludka and Brendan have to constantly think about what they're doing with their waste and keep an eye on everything.
A Passivhaus was the natural choice – in more ways than one
Having lived in a cold and damp house that was never truly comfortable, Ludka and Brendan knew they wanted a house that was going to cost very little to run and not need lots of heating.
Making it as well-insulated as possible meant they wouldn’t be spending time on the land sourcing firewood to burn. In their temporary accommodation they were burning wood all day and half of the night in winter; now they only need enough to make dinner on the cooker, with enough residual heat to heat water.
One Planet living means using sustainable and natural materials where possible, and minimising your carbon footprint – so a timber-framed Passivhaus with straw bale insulation minimised both operational energy and embodied emissions.
The straw bale system performs as promised
Getting a straw bale house to Passivhaus standard is difficult, but the EcoCocon system has delivered what was promised. The addition of wood fibre insulation around the outside brings the insulation up to the required level. Once the system was in place, it was simply a matter of following all of the normal Passivhaus principles to achieve the necessary airtightness and so on.
The wraparound veranda helps the house stay cool in summer
A veranda provides shading that is at just the right angle to maximise passive heating year-round without summer overheating. The veranda is also somewhere to live outside in the Welsh climate.
In the summer, the windows never need to be opened because Ludka and Brendan never feel they need to do so. And in autumn, they were amazed at how warm the house continued to be when the air temperature outside started to cool.
During winter, the sun shines through the windows and warms the polished concrete floor, which helps to keep the house warm until the following day. And the floor was a practical choice too, because it’s easier to sweep when bringing in mud from the fields.
Making careful material choices throughout
Yet another advantage of the concrete floor is that Ludka and Brendan didn’t have to buy carpets or wood flooring.
Keeping within the One Planet principles, they have used recycled materials wherever possible – including recycled foam glass in the floor, and cellulose (recycled newspaper) in the roof. Sourcing local materials was also important. All of the cladding was made within ten miles of the site, and all of the architraves are made of local ash.
Inside, they’ve used a kitchen recycled from another house, and done similar with bathroom and utility room fittings – all of which helps to save money too.
MVHR can work in off-grid houses
Ludka and Brendan’s MVHR system uses very little power, around 20 to 30 Watts all the time. On a few days in December and January, when there's little light, they’ll only run the MVHR in the day. There’s been no detrimental effect from that.
They run two inverters, having fitted a smaller one that can cope with demand from the MVHR, lights and laptops. The larger inverter is still needed for appliances, but it was using over two kilowatt hours per day by itself. Using the smaller inverter means they can now more easily survive the winter without getting short on power.
Running businesses together helped with teamwork
Both Ludka and Brendan were very engaged with the project, rather than one of them leading. Both have been involved right from the ground up, but they would feel strongly about different things. The important thing was to ask each other’s opinion.
Through running businesses together they have learned to delegate, so Ludka wouldn’t deal with carpentry but did do a lot of wet processes like clay plastering. Plasterboarding and decorating ceilings were two jobs in particular that provided to be long and laborious!
Creating a One Planet Development requires strong-mindedness
You have to be resourceful and dedicated. Never underestimate how much there is to do, but never give up. There is a solution to everything, and Ludka and Brendan have found they’ve become really good at researching and solving problems.
Projects don’t go the way you want them to, and you have to continuously pick yourself up from failure, but somehow it all makes sense in the end. Creating an OPD has brought a sense of integrity to Ludka and Brendan’s life, as well as a sense of community from within the One Planet movement itself.
Find out more
Get more in The Hub. Juraj Mikurcik explains how you build with the EcoCocon straw panel system
Please connect with us
Like our Facebook page
Follow us on Twitter