“Maybe it won’t be snowing in Craghead?” my colleague joked as the snow battered our tiny car as we drove through the twisting country lanes. The sky signalled its doubt about that as it grew greyer and thicker as we headed towards the tiny village. We probably could have picked a better day for our field trip, but at the same time, the snow in April definitely added something to the experience.
The field trip was one we had decided to take as part of our Field Project module. This module brings us together in teams to undertake a reaserch project, an extremely valuable experience for anyone looking to work in academia, or indeed the wider job market. Teamwork is always valued and having a project with a specific goal in mind is also great experience.
Our group’s project was to investigate the closure of the Green Deal, a government-run scheme that enabled people to make energy efficiency improvements to their homes by taking out loans from the government. Instead of being paid back like a traditional loan, however, the Green Deal loans were paid back through the customer’s electricity bill. Ideally, the customer would see a small decrease in their energy bills, as the efficiency measures should make up for the loan that they are paying back.
The Green Deal scheme was removed in late 2015 and we have investigated its impacts on Green Deal service providers and local governments; these impacts are numerous and interlocking and I won’t go into them here. In any academic project there is always literature to review and as part of this project we also conducted interviews. It was exciting getting out of the Durham academic bubble1 to interview people in industry and when one participant suggested a field trip to Craghead we could hardly resist.
Craghead is a small village to the north west of Durham, located close to the slighly larger town of Stanley. As with many villages in County Durham, Craghead is a pit village, or old mining town, and we went to see it because it is home to an innovative housing insulation initiative.
Most modern UK houses are built with a gap in the wall in which insulation can be inserted to improve the heat retention of the house. This is called cavity wall insulation. However, older houses are built with solid walls so cannot be easily insulated. What Durham County Council have done, with the help of the Green Deal and its partner initative Energy Company Obligations (where energy companies are required to give grants to households that need more expensive energy efficiency interventions, such as solid wall insulation), is pioneered external brick-look insulation on 154 houses2.
This is what we were looking for on our snowy field trip in April. The houses with external insulation had thicker brickwork around the doors and windows. Typical cavity wall houses have brickwork that is characterised by lots of long bricks in the pattern, while solid wall houses have more short bricks in the pattern3. Using this information we were able to battle the snow to identify which houses had been insulated, which were solid wall properties and which had cavity walls.
One of the things we noticed was how the properties on the high street had external insulation, but as soon as we went down a back alley we saw uninsulated solid wall properties. As we shivered in the snow we considered what it must be like in those houses and how expensive they must be to heat. County Durham has high levels of fuel poverty and the housing stock is one of the major reasons for this4. Our field trip enabled us to see what it was like for people with badly-insulated houses in this tiny village, as well as bringing us closer together as a team.
1. Durham is famously small and insular as a city, so much so that the university’s online magazine is called The Bubble.
2. More information on Durham County Council’s housing regeneration schemes can be found here: http://www.durham.gov.uk/article/3798/Housing-Regeneration-and-Environmental-Improvement-Schemes
3. The Energy Saving Trust has a good diagram of what a solid wall brick pattern might look like.
4. For a map of the fuel poverty in County Durham, see the Council’s Affordable Warmth Strategy document, p. 8. Craghead is in an area where between 13-17% of houses are in fuel poverty.