Making our home more sustainable proved too costly for now

When we bought our current home over a year ago, I was in love with it. Affordable, in a nice and quiet neighbourhood, lots trees and plants, a decently sized garden. The only caveat was the air heating system, because I wanted my home to be sustainable. Because there weren’t much alternatives, we decided to buy our home and figure out ways to make it more sustainable later.

For sustainability advice I contacted Hoom, a non-profit organization which provides advice on sustainability measures for homes. They send an expert to inspect your home and determine which improvements can be made. This is free of charge, they only charge a small fee for the rest of the process. This starts when you actually want to proceed with making the improvements and ask them to gather and advise you on bids from construction companies. Afterwards they also evaluate the results of the improvement measures.

In November 2016 I had made an appointment with their expert to inspect our house. He was a nice and knowledgeable man who was honest in his advice: I shouldn’t do anything because I wasn’t going to break even on any of the measures I could take. To make our home seriously sustainable, the recipe would be underfloor heating at low temperatures, which in turn requires good insulation. Solar panels on our roof would reduce the electricity bill and a heat pump could replace gas used for heating.

Underfloor heating would require breaking up the floor, a costly measure. The insulation is still decent for a home from the 1980’s, further improvements would have a minor effect but cost lots of money. We couldn’t inspect the insulation of the floor because I couldn’t (and still can’t) locate an entrance to the crawl space. We can’t have solar panels placed on the sunniest southern half of our roof because the large flat roof dormer there can’t carry weight. The remaining free space there just isn’t enough to accomodate a decent surface area of solar panels. And a heat pump is still very expensive and possibly not sufficient to abandon gas completely.

After evaluating our electricity and gas bills I concluded that, even with our relatively inefficient air heating system, we don’t use much gas for our house type (a house at the corner of the block). No more than 1000 m3 compared to 1570 on average. Surprisingly it’s the other way around for electricity, more than 3600 kWh compared to 2930 on average. I don’t have the idea we use devices demanding much electricity often though and most of our lighting uses LED’s.

Sustainability is an ideal for me. I’d also appreciate the comfort of underfloor heating very much, because the air heating system does a very poor job at heating our attic in the winter. However, I’m also motivated financially and don’t want to spend a large percentage of my modest savings. I’ve heeded the advice of the expert and won’t perform any home improvements for now. I’ll focus on figuring out how we can reduce our electricity consumption, that would definitely be the low-hanging fruit now. At the same time, it’s disappointing that I can’t take serious measures. I’ll probably ask Hoom or another organization for a new opinion in a few years.

Our new house in The Hague

Earlier I had written about the mortgage for our new home in The Hague, but now I shall write about the house itself. I think we got lucky in our search for a new home. The house had just been placed on Funda (the most popular Dutch website for advertising real estate) for a few days when we visited it. We had to hurry because others were about to visit and place bids as well. Shortly after our inspection we were convinced and placed our bid. After a short negotiation we reached an agreement on the same day. In June we moved in.

Because I consider it important that no one can determine my address from my blog, I won’t be very specific in my description of our home. It’s a single family home from the eighties with two floors. It’s located in the district of Loosduinen, a former village in the southwest of the municipality of The Hague. Dit is the good part of the city, which is further away from the center. It doesn’t feature much dense construction with high-rise buildings. It’s relatively green, opposite our front door there are no other homes but a nice row of tall trees. A great location if you consider that it’s an urban environment.

The house has a very small front garden and back garden which measures 70 square meters. The previous inhabitants filled it with tasteless pavers, except for two borders with plants near the fence. They probably thought that an actual garden would take too much work or cost to much (hint: neither are true). We do appreciate the beauty of nature. That’s why we removed most of the pavers from the front garden near the end of the summer. After we dug out a large amount of sand we filled it with garden earth and planted a row of boxes and a rhododendron, both evergreens. The back garden will be done in the spring of 2017. We will replace half of the pavers with grass.

The interior of the house had already been improved by the last inhabitants. We didn’t need to do anything, except for a small paint job. The kitchen is just a year or two old and looks good, same for the bathroom. The only thing I’d like to add are reproductions of paintings and photos to decorate the walls.

There are also some disadvantages. We have an air heating system instead of water heating. Good thing that we don’t see radiators, but it’s less efficient than water heating. I knew so at the moment we decided to buy the house, but it was not a critical issue for me. I will discuss the sustainability of our house in a later post.

Another problem is that it’s not easy to get a UTP-cable to the attic, where I placed my PC. Now I’m using a power-line adapter, but it’s unable to utilize the full bandwidth of the cable Internet access. It also gives me a lot of interruptions in the connection, something the Spotify web app can’t cope with. WiFi is not an option either with my current router, the signal from the ground floor is too weak. I want to investigate if there is a possibility to push a UTP-cable to the attic through an existing electricity cable tube.

Then the environment. During the summer our home seemed like a permanent vacation home, with the beach at 15 minutes distance with a bicycle. The beach at Kijkduin is busy and has too much construction for my taste. The beach between Kijkduin and Scheveningen is less developed and more beautiful. The market of The Hague is the largest market of the Netherlands is nice. There is plenty of choice in Surinamese and Indonesian restaurants. A tram stop lies at a distance of five minutes by foot from my front door. Unfortunately the tram is quite slow, I wish The Hague had a metro like Rotterdam.

My new apartment in Rotterdam

At the end of 2013 I expected to be successful in a solicitation procedure for an information management traineeship in the Hague. I knew it could still turn sour, but I was curious what kind of house or apartment you could get in the Hague. I started looking and quickly came to the conclusion that the Hague was expensive for my taste. In Rotterdam however, you could buy a reasonable apartment for a much lower price. I was enthusiastic about the prospect of living on my own. I was still living with my parents because I hadn’t found work since I graduated. When I was told I wasn’t selected for the traineeship I was quite disappointed, with my expectations dashed.

Fortunately my amazing parents offered to support me. They could offer me a home loan of € 55.000 with 3% interest if I wanted to buy an apartment. I quickly decided to see the cheap apartments in Rotterdam I had been eyeing. In the end my choice fell on an apartment on the ground level with a small garden for which I paid € 60.000. I got bang for the buck when I compare this with other apartments in the same price class: my apartment was renovated in 2013 by the housing corporation which owned it. So it has a modern central heating system instead of a gas furnace and a very nice shower cabin.

The apartment did have one big issue: it had a wall separating the kitchen and the living room, which made both rooms very small. It was also detrimental to cooking as a social activity. The first thing I did was hire some handymen to take out this wall for € 2.900. It turned out the wall didn’t support the weight of the roof, which made the job less complicated. The removal of the wall resulted in a merged living room and kitchen, a big improvement.

While that was done my family and friends helped me with cleaning, painting, laying the laminate flooring and other work. I’m so grateful for their help, for without their skills it would have taken me much more time and money. While I’m good at assembling computers, I have little experience with do-it-yourself tasks around the house and couldn’t have done such a good job as they did.

The original kitchen didn’t include a cabinet with a built-in gas stove, so I got one second hand. My father, the master handyman, managed to elevate it at the same height as the original kitchen cabinets so that it blends in reasonably well. The fridge was a present from family members, the convection microwave is new. The kitchen takes up a prominent place in the living room, so I’d prefer a new kitchen with built-in appliances, but that will have to wait until I have the money.

The garden is important to me because I got used to having a garden at my parent’s house. It wasn’t maintained for quite a while, so I’ll have a lot to do when spring comes. I plan to sow grass and some flowers. With a few dwarf evergreen trees it won’t look like a wasteland in the winter. I don’t like the small balcony which separates my garden from the back entrance of my house, it’s ugly and occupies space which could have been part of the garden. I would have preferred a small set of stairs from the back door. Apparently it’s difficult to demolish the thick layer of concrete which constitutes the balcony, but we’ll see about that later. The garden has a small shed were I can place my bike safely. Right now the rubble from the former wall in my living room is still in my garden because it was cheaper if I got rid of that myself.

I chose to live in Rotterdam primarily because this apartment happened to be here. My opinion of Rotterdam hasn’t changed much so far since I lived here last time, when I studied at Erasmus University from 2006–2007. It’s okay, it’s not a bad city to live in, but it lacks the beauty and atmosphere of Amsterdam’s canal ring and Utrecht’s center for example. Rotterdam is praised for its architecture, which was apparently the reason for Rough Guides to mention it in the top 10 cities to visit for 2014. But you’ll only find that architecture near the city center and the Kop van Zuid, not in the Tarwewijk neighborhood in Southern Rotterdam where I live. There you’ll see the same 1930’s era apartment blocks over and over. I haven’t explored most of the city yet, but I simply haven’t seen a cozy square with cafe’s and restaurants at all. Something similar to the Tolsteegbarrière in Utrecht for example.

On the other hand, some of the finest Dutch beaches in the Zeeland province can be reached within two hours with the public transport. I live at a distance of 1,2 kilometer from the Zuiderpark, the largest city park of the Netherlands with 215 hectare. I feel that distance is just a bit too long to go running there regularly though, in that light it would have been better if my apartment was located a few hundred meters further to the south. Rotterdam also has some nice gardens like the Cultuurhistorische Plantentuin and the Arboretum Trompenburg, which I intend to visit soon.

I haven’t made photos of my bedroom and bathroom because the 35 mm lens on my camera doesn’t offer a sufficiently wide field of view to photograph such a small space. I should get a wide-angle lens for that.