The Bournville area of Birmingham has had a pioneering role in the use of solar energy in Britain, which should be more widely known. This paper seeks to explain why and how this happened, and recognises the crucial role of some quiet heroes of the solar revolution, who set out to make a difference.
One day a young man sat down to read a book that would change his life, and through him that of many other people. His name was Tom Greeves, it was 1972, and the book was The Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome[i]. It reported on the first attempt to use a computer to model the global use of resources, and showed that their accelerating rates of depletion, with the accompanying rise in pollution, meant that continued economic growth using existing technology was not sustainable and could threaten everyone’s future survival.
We had seen the image of a small, limited Earth as viewed from the Moon, now here were the numbers to back up that understanding. Tom recalled later how this book had changed his ideas as an engineer and given him a mission, to develop the clean and efficient technologies that were going to have to replace existing fuels. The oil crisis of 1973 made it clear that Britain was dangerously dependent on imported fossil fuels, especially oil. Many people felt they had to respond to the crisis and set up a wave of new organisations such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and the Centre for Alternative Technology.
Tom Greeves was already half-way into a career in 1972 as an engineer at the Cadbury’s chocolate factory in Bournville, Birmingham. This gave him the chance to apply his ideas, for example to making the processes in the factory more efficient in terms of energy and materials with a systems engineering approach. However, new sources of energy were also going to be wanted, and Tom joined those who were determined to show the practical use of the sun to provide heat, light and power to buildings, as being the most relevant approach in a city. He completed an electronic engineering degree with the Open University[ii], whose ground-breaking courses pioneered a social responsibility approach to engineering. Solar power had been used to operate spacecraft far from the Earth, could it now do the same nearer to home, and even power our communities?
Tom and his wife Isabel were prepared to live by the principles that they advocated, and so they filled the cavity walls of their house in 1974 and installed solar water heating panels in 1978. They lived from 1955 on the model Bournville Estate, which surrounded the Cadbury factory. Tom was a grandson of its founder, the 19th century philanthropist George Cadbury, whose daughter Marion was Tom’s mother.
George and his brother Richard had been brought up in a Quaker family, and wanted to show how their faith could change the lives of ordinary people by taking them from the dark, crowded slums of industrial Birmingham, out into open space, sunlight and fresh air, at a previously-rural site at Bournville. This would make people healthier, happier and more productive – a very far-sighted project for the 1880s.
The Cadburys were, in effect, developing ideas going back to George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement (Religious Society of Friends) in the 1600s, who believed that there is the “light of God in every man”; the light being a powerful force of good, contrasted with the darkness of ignorance and violence. With their new settlement of Bournville from the 1880s the Cadburys put into effect a plan of moving people from Birmingham out to a Garden Village; every house would have large windows, with surrounding gardens, in their words, for the “enjoyment of sun, light and air”.
Their architect, William Alexander Harvey, was challenged to make homes that were spacious and light, but inexpensive though well-built. New transport technologies and plate glass allowed Bournville to pioneer a low-density and healthy type of housing for the 20th century. Their success inspired the wider Garden City movement, and town planning in the West Midlands.[iii].
The Bournville estate was never owned by the chocolate company, but set up by the Cadbury brothers as the Bournville Village Trust (BVT); its role, as defined in its founding Deed of 1900, was to continue with their housing ideals and experiments. Members of the Cadbury family were often asked to serve, and Tom Greeves was trustee of BVT for 32 years, from 1971 to 2003, acting as vice-chair for 14 years. As unpaid trustees, responsible neither to shareholders or voters, they could follow the vision of their founders and take some reasonable risks. Tom Greeves was able to contribute his technical knowledge to the Trust and his long term commitment to solar energy.
Birmingham University had a seat on the board of trustees, so there was a potential for partnership in designing and monitoring any experimental projects. However, the BVT had no government funding and had to make every building capable of earning rent, so the technologies had to be reliable and effective. There was still a considerable amount of land to build on in Bournville and all the elements were in place by the 1970s for the solar pioneers of Bournville to go ahead.
The Trustees had investigated solar housing in the 1930s, the concern at that time being the cost of home heating (coal fires) at a time of unemployment and economic depression. The sun has the advantage of not charging for its energy. At Bournville, the Trust built some Sunshine Homes, which used south-facing windows to heat the rooms. They were also known as Ten Shilling Houses, emphasising the modest rent, as well as the low heating cost, and people still live in these homes along Griffins Brook Lane (below).
About 60% of a home’s energy use is generally space heating in Britain, so the approach of passive heating by glass has a lot to recommend it, particularly in this island’s climate with its long, but not severe winters.
The nature of the Trust favoured such innovations. As the trustees were not elected, there was no downward pressure on rents, so quality housing was possible and this was the original intention of the Cadburys – better housing, using better design at reasonable cost. This has contrasted with the rather cheap materials and methods used on Birmingham City Council housing in the 20th century, where the need for quantity often meant houses performed poorly, for example, in energy efficiency.
At BVT they used more expensive materials and new equipment, considering them as being a long term investment, for example using double glazing or central heating before these were usual in homes. However, the Trustees always had to cover the costs, so there was an emphasis on the careful measuring of energy use and financial savings to prove the effectiveness of the new methods.
A protected “niche” had been created where solar technology could be demonstrated, in a period when cheap fossil fuels still dominated our energy supply.
The Trust expanded Bournville during the 1970s, building up the Rowheath area, where a development of sheltered flats for the elderly, called Rowheath House, provided them with an opportunity to demonstrate the benefit of solar water heating. This kind of communal accommodation uses a lot of hot water, so Tom Greeves designed a south-facing roof covered with solar thermal panels, which were built by a local company and continued to meet the demand for most of the year, forty years on.
The Trustees’ environmental agenda here overlapped with their social agenda, solar having a role in controlling the energy costs of an ageing population, and in this way the ethics of the Quaker founders’ practical idealism was being pursued. They developed further residential buildings, again for elderly people: Lucton House was given a combined heat and power system, to give warmth with much less waste.
For Christopher Taylor House (above), named after a longstanding trustee, they took care to design with solar principles, using large south-facing windows, and a wall that stored heat; this was found to use one third of the energy for space heating of a standard construction. It was a continuation of an approach begun by Bournville’s first architect, William Alexander Harvey, with his almshouses of 1897 that faced onto a sheltered, sunny courtyard. The height and angle of the roofs surrounding the courtyards were designed to allow the maximum of winter sunlight into the flats.
As private dwellings were built at Rowheath in the 1980s they provided the Trustees with an opportunity for showing how “passive solar gain” could reduce the need for space heating in the British climate. Tom Greeves, serving as chair of the Finance and Development Committee, led on securing outside funding, and worked with Professor Leslie Jesch of Birmingham University, to implement designs for houses that were solar heated by very large south-facing windows and conservatories.
Heat loss was reduced in these homes by putting garages to shelter the north side and by building walls with 100m cavities filled with insulation. Professor Jesch was determined to live in one of the new homes and prove that his novel approach to housing worked in practice. A range of measures were put into his Solar Demonstration House – very advanced for 1985 in being virtually self-sufficient from the sun for space heating and hot water. It also had a glazed wall that trapped and stored heat to release through the evening – called a Trombe Wall, after the man who originated the idea.
Working with Dr. Lubo Jankovic and the Solar Energy Lab at Birmingham University, Professor Jesch was able to demonstrate that ordinary houses in the British climate with solar energy could show a major reduction in the fuel required to heat them.
When Rowheath Solar Village opened in 1985, its ninety houses were reported to be the largest solar development in Northern Europe. Notably, this was not done by government funding, or a commercial company, but by a private philanthropic trust, led by a small number of committed people who knew and trusted each other.
Thousands of visitors from different countries came to view the achievement and be inspired [iv], as had happened with the original garden suburb of George Cadbury.
The year 2000 saw the planning of a new low energy housing development by the BVT at Lower Shenley, with which Tom Greeves was involved for the last time before he retired from the Trust in 2003. The Bournville solar principles were extended to 167 homes, using input from local eco-architect John Christophers of Associated Architects, who designed the houses with glazed sun spaces and solar water heating.
Not far away in Birmingham was the ‘Summerfield Eco-Neighbourhood’, where a housing association used government grants to pay local companies to install solar water panels on 300 houses occupied by people on lower incomes. When better-off neighbours saw others having these panels they often paid for them to be put onto their own roofs, so that a novel technology here became the new norm. Solar water heating has, however, struggled to compete with cheap natural gas in Britain.
Entering the 21st century, Britain’s North Sea fields were peaking production after 30 years. There were wars in the Middle East, partly over oil reserves, and massive public protests against them. Rob Hopkins started the Transition Towns movement challenging people to prepare for a way in which their town would function when using much less fossil fuel. Carbon emissions had been steadily rising from the 1980s and their effect on temperatures had been discussed by those concerned about the environment and at international summits, but the wider public did not seem to be aware of this, until 2006 with US vice-president Al Gore’s campaign to alert Americans and the release of the film “An Inconvenient Truth” [v].
Birmingham had been visited by an unexpected and destructive tornado the summer before, which seemed to be off the scale of usual British weather and to bring climate change home, damaging hundreds of buildings. There were unprecedented floods in Pakistan. Quakers with Friends of the Earth and others organised a well-attended showing of “An Inconvenient Truth” in the city centre, and this shocked those who attended into a realisation that a transition from fossil fuels was now urgent.
National debate led to the UK Parliament adopting targets for carbon reduction in its Climate Change Act and Birmingham City Council adopted its own ambitious target.
Dr Lynne Jones, the MP for Selly Oak ward, that included Bournville, led a parliamentary visit to Germany and came back to recommend a version of their system of payments of a “feed in tariff”, as an incentive for people to install solar or wind technology and feed clean electricity into the grid, so displacing fossil fuels.
This, they convinced Parliament, would deliver a rapid expansion of renewable energy in the UK. Photovoltaic panels (PV) became possible from 2010 as an everyday technology to make electricity from daylight, replacing that from power stations, which in Britain are mainly coal-burning and very inefficient, wasting most of their energy as heat. The panels deliver power straight from the roof and they also complement Britain’s wind energy resource, abundant in winter and this energy, from a renewable source, can be shared with others through the grid. Solar PV has great potential in a great city like Birmingham with tens of thousands of suitable roofs.
Tom left the Bournville trustees in 2003, but continued to be an enthusiastic actor in energy saving and energy generation. Close to Bournville, at Cotteridge Meeting House, Tom, together with other Quakers, discussed what they should do about the moral and practical challenge of climate change following a visit by Laurie Michaelis, founder of the national Living Witness Group in 2004. They decided to form their own Cotteridge Quaker Living Witness Group. Almost their first project was to improve the energy efficiency of their own building working the Meeting’s Premises Committee.
The Meeting raised £100,000– 20% internally and 80% externally. Cotteridge Quakers insulated thoroughly– double glazing 55 windows, applying thick insulation inside all walls and covering the roof with 160mm of insulation. They replaced 12 outmoded electric storage heaters with 5 air source heat pumps. Finally they covered one roof with 60 solar PV panels, the first such roof on a place of worship in Birmingham. By 2011, six years later, Cotteridge Meeting House had become an exemplar of a low carbon community building, having cut energy use by over 90%. In the same year the national Quaker Yearly Meeting was moved in session to declare themselves a low carbon community.
The first Church of England solar roofs were in Balsall Heath and Moseley[vi], where the congregation got their planning permission despite strong opposition from the Victorian Society. These experiences went on to inspire an energy co-operative, called Power for Good for places of worship in the city[vii].
Oak Tree House is a 1965’s building providing sheltered flats for the active elderly; it is located in the BVT but owned and managed by Quakers. In 2012-2013 Tom Greeves and Harriet Martin, together with Northfield Ecocentre, advised Oak Tree House on measures to reduce the building’s gas consumption by 70% and its electricity cost by 50%. Both solar thermal and solar PV panels covered its south-facing side roof overlooking the BVT’s old offices by the end of the project.
George Cadbury’s legacy had both its innovative and conservative aspects. PV panels posed a problem for the trustees of the Bournville Estate, because the pioneering housing of the late 19th century in the Arts and Crafts style set by Harvey, with its steep pitched red brick and red tiled roofs, had become part of the nation’s heritage. The imperative to conserve the historic appearance of Bournville was in conflict with the deployment of solar panels, especially noticeable on the pitched roofs.
The trustees of the nearby Woodbrooke Quaker Studies Centre[viii], once the home of George Cadbury, had installed solar thermal panels to heat water for guests in 2010, placing them so they hardly changed the appearance of the house which dates from the early 1800s. And in 2012 a ‘well-hidden’ solar PV array was installed, capable of generating over 8000kWh annually.
A debate echoed around Bournville about the anti-PV policy. The BVT trustees took the decision to ban PV from both old and new buildings; Tom Greeves, now in his eighties, had “solar slates” put on the back of his own roof, to show that these were less visually obtrusive than large solar panels [ix]. Harriet and Chris Martin put their PV panels on a timber structure in the back garden, when prevented from putting it on their house. The Trust has surveyed residents about their attitude to the no-PV policy and this led to some relaxation on roofs not visible from the street. A similar issue arises in regard to whether to allow external insulation on the walls of the original cottages at Bournville with their thin brick walls – energy values seem to conflict with heritage values, a widespread problem in Britain. External insulation has been allowed on some houses, but only those which already had white rendered walls: BVT’s own EcoHouse on Selly Oak Road and Selly Oak Quaker Meeting’s warden’s bungalow. In some ways it is easier to realise solar energy on new buildings and the Trust is doing this in a “New Bournville” at Lightmoor village, Telford [x].
The solar pioneers wanted to spread their message to a wider public. One approach has been to open their own homes to visitors, as part of the ‘Old Home Super Home’ network [xi], so home owners could visit the Greeves and the Martins. John Christophers opened the Zero Carbon House in Balsall Heath that he lived in with his wife Jo and son. This was John’s response to their home being hit by the 2005 Tornado and it was, for a time, the most energy efficient house on a street in Britain. Followup studies have shown that many visitors come away inspired from meeting these pioneering homeowners and then take low carbon action themselves, insulating and using solar and other technologies.
On the Bournville estate, the BVT created an EcoHouse in 2007 which was open to the public for some time, but is now occupied. It was built in the 1920s and retrofitted by the Trust with a range of energy features, including ground source heating. (Ed: A local resident informs me that the pump broke down soon after installation). Britain is said to have the oldest housing stock in the world due to early industrialisation, so the challenge of making it energy efficient is great.
Birmingham City Council also took on the challenge to some extent, with its Birmingham Energy Savers scheme[xii], whose first phase benefitted council tenants by fitting solar PV on their houses, although the second phase of insulation paid for by the Green Deal was much less successful. Birmingham Friends of the Earth estimates that 90% of suitable roofs in the city have yet to get solar panels, while many people still struggle to pay high energy bills over which they feel that they have no control[xiii]. We have yet to see solar PV as a normal part of the way in which buildings satisfy their energy needs, so the aims of the solar pioneers are not yet satisfied.
Northfield EcoCentre[xiv] came into being when a derelict building owned by Central England Quakers became empty in 2007. Tom Greeves worked with other Quakers to persuade them that it should be transformed into a centre that would take the Living Witness approach forward by promoting sustainable lifestyles to the general public. For this purpose demonstration energy measures and technologies were installed, including heat pumps, PV panels and sun tubes. A volunteer committee was formed with Tom as its treasurer, Judith Jenner, Esther Boyd, Harriet Martin, Duncan and Audrey Miller and others. The Central England Quaker Area Meeting provided most of the money for the project from the sale of their meeting house in Stirchley and Tom funded an additional committee room. Northfield Ecocentre opened in 2009 – the only facility of its kind in the West Midlands. The lessons from Bournville were spreading into a much wider area, informing people across Birmingham about adopting a more sustainable lifestyle.
The death of Tom Greeves in 2014 led to a wave of thanks and appreciation for his long commitment, his passion for Bournville and his ability to earn respect and friendship. Around him was a group of people who sought to give a lead through practical action to a future where technology serves social ends. Technological change is marked by the attitudes of those involved, and Tom expressed his own aspiration in his own words:
“We are people trying to learn to live in harmony with one another and to care for a lovely planet … the meaning and purpose of life is therefore centred around that endeavour, lightened by beauty, joy and laughter. To succeed we need to develop the power of love…”[xv]
This sounds very much like the values of his grandfather, George Cadbury the “practical mystic”, who began Bournville and its long-running experiment of hope.
[i] “The Limits to Growth“ http://www.clubofrome.org/
[iii] “When We Build Again” BVT publication, 1941
[iv] “Building Green – Bournville’s Solar Village experience”, ed. LF Jesch, 1990
[v] “An Inconvenient Truth”, film by Davis Guggenheim, 2006
[viii] Woodbrooke Quaker Studies Centre http://woodbrookegoodlives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/woodbrooke-has-solar-pv.html
xv Tom Greeves to Cotteridge Meeting’s “Living Minutes” project 2004. More on Cotteridge Meeting House: Cotteridge Meeting House retrofit: http://www.energysavingtrust.org.uk/organisations/sites/default/files/reports/Cotteridge%20case%20study.pdf and http://www.cotteridge.quaker.eu.org/concern_for_the_environment.htm
Bournville Village Trust https://www.bvt.org.uk/our-business/our-environmental-commitment/
“Bournville; model village to garden suburb”, Michael Harrison, Phillimore, 1999
“Ninety Years On – an account of the Bournville Village Trust”, Phillip Henslowe BVT, 1991
References and papers added later, during revision:
T.W. Greeves, L. Jankovic , L.F. Jesch. “Microcomputer Control for a Solar Space Heating System”, Advances In Solar Energy Technology. Proceedings of the Biennial Congress of the International Solar Energy Society, Hamburg, Federal Republic Of Germany, 18 September 1987. 1988: 973–977.
L.F. Jesch, T.W. Greeves, L. Jankovic. “Variable Volume, Variable Flow rate, Radiation Controlled Solar Heating and Storage. Intersol Eighty Five, Proceedings of the Ninth Biennial Congress of the International Solar Energy Society. 1986: 98-102.
About the Author
John Newson, writer and environmental and community activist, has a PhD in Technology Policy from Aston University. He has lived and worked in Birmingham since 1978.
The report was commissioned by Greening the North