Enigma variations

Written by: Geraldine Faulkner | Published:
Angus Carnie in the porch of Enigma

A log cabin made entirely from waste is attracting positive attention in Scotland. Its innovative creator gives Geraldine Faulkner a look inside

Devotees of Grand Designs, the Channel 4 programme presented by Kevin McCloud since 1999 and which looks at one-off and unusual self-build projects in which (to quote Channel 4) “intrepid individuals attempt to design and construct the home of their dreams”, will be disappointed to hear that Angus Carnie won’t be featured anytime soon, even though he has built a home entirely from waste materials. Stick that missed opportunity in your pipe and smoke it, Mr McCloud.

Not that Carnie is losing any sleep over it, as both HRH Prince Charles and the Archbishop of Canterbury – both enthusiastic eco warriors – are reported to be keen to visit his house, or to be more precise, his log cabin made with waste.

Why a log cabin?

“I didn’t want it to look like a spaceship, so I decided to make it a log cabin so that it gives everyone a warm and fuzzy feeling,” says the irrepressible Carnie. “My main aim was that wherever possible I would use materials that had passed their useful lives and recreate them into something totally different – particularly if these items are currently going to landfill or expensive disposal. However, I wanted the house to be very normal from an everyday point of view.”

A practical environmentalist, Carnie is quick to point out that the eco build still needs to function as a normal house, and for this he frequents his local electrical store in Dundee for products such as
hybrid batteries, inverters and solar panels. Alongside all the day-to-day items such as batteries, he says: “I have a robotic hoover and low-energy lights to give the house a technical edge without compromising its eco values.”

Eco holiday home

Sited at his native Carnoustie, the house (christened ‘Enigma’ because “it’s not what you would expect”) sits beside the famous golf course and seaside.

“The plan is to use it as a holiday home,” says the 55-year-old entrepreneur, whose permanent base is in Cheshire.

The house might look like a traditional Scottish log cabin, but the list of recycled elements is endless.

First, the cabin is painted using a special mixture containing waste toner powder, from photocopier which currently all goes to landfill.

“The insulation is super-efficient and is made from waste printer bottles, which are extremely difficult to recycle,” explains Carnie. “The worktops come from waste plastic hospital bed sheets, which currently have to be incinerated at huge cost to the NHS. The internal walls are made from fast-food packaging, and apart from the obvious litter advantages they have many other advantages, such as the fact they are lighter, require no maintenance and repel water, which is particularly useful in bathrooms.”

Damaged pallets are used for fencing and in other areas.

“Internally my theme of ‘I-used-to-be-something-else’ is everywhere,” chuckles the businessman, whose day job involves selling shredding consoles and lockable bins.

“The kitchen units are made from damaged confidential waste bins, furniture includes whisky barrel and orchard boxes, electronic waste as coasters, jam jars as light fittings, coffee table from electrical cable reel and so on.”

Although Carnie makes it all sound obvious and easy, it was nonetheless a challenging project and required all his powers of persuasion, especially when it came to securing planning permission and sourcing materials.

The decision to build the eco house in Scotland was obvious, according to Carnie.

“I built it in Scotland deliberately as they are so much more positive in general when it comes to all things environmental. I first had the idea a couple of years ago. People said ‘Oh no, you can’t do that’, but once I found a piece of ground it all went from there.”

In terms of lay-out, Enigma comprises two bedrooms, a bathroom, a walk-in wardrobe, a big living area and the kitchen; all laid out on one level.

Its construction took seven months and Carnie admits that the process “wasn’t dull”, which in the entrepreneur’s modest shorthand means “demanding”.

Educating tradesmen

Carnie again: “The challenge was getting all the things you need because it’s not like going to a builder’s merchant. I had built up lots of friendships with waste people who were innovative. Getting tradesmen to do it the way I wanted to do it took a bit of time as I had to get the right type of tradesmen who didn’t want to use a bit of plasterboard to fill any gaps. I found that quite hard work as you were effectively educating tradesmen.”

However, he stuck to his game plan.

“Everything had to have been something else originally. If it didn’t fit into that, I didn’t use it. It was quite funny when the tradesmen like the electrician and plumber got into the project. They started coming up with ideas as they were intrigued by my aim – they thought I was mad,” he remembers with a laugh.

What about the cost of the project?

“It came to £40,000 and is built on an acre of land. It has a big garden and drive as I don’t intend to rough it,” adds Carnie, who admits: “I’m more of a committed environmentalist with a commercial eye.”

He laughs as he recalls people’s reactions when they first visit the house.

“People, including members of my family, come round and when you flick a switch and the light comes on, and water comes out of the taps, they are amazed,” he says, alluding to the common misconception that living in an eco log cabin isn’t conducive to having all the mod cons.

“I’m not connected to the mains as my electricity comes from renewable energy which is broken down into different categories, including solar panels from Maplin and vertical wind turbines, so it doesn’t matter which way the wind is blowing. The power generated is converted into 12v electricity which a silent little box in the corner then converts into 240v. Basically, I’m connected to nothing, nothing at all.”

The entrepreneur says that he had “a lot of fun” doing his research.

“I have met some fantastic people. A Nigerian professor gave me the idea of using microbial fuel cells, and it works. If you create a battery using algae from mixed food waste and urine (not manually), it produces electricity. When you realise you’ve got to create your own electricity, it gives you the incentive to look at all kinds of systems.”

Carnie also has a generator as an emergency back-up, but it has never been connected, nor has he gone so far as to feed his excess into the National Grid. Instead leisure batteries used in caravans are his way of storing excess electricity, and these are swopped every four to five days.

A confirmed ‘dumpster diver’, Carnie recalls how he recovered his patio doors and front door from a skip.

“I spoke to the lady who was getting rid of them, and asked if I could take them away. There is nothing wrong with the doors, she just wanted to have the latest versions. In fact, she has been to the house to see her old ones in situ.”

Looking ahead

So what about the future? What is Carnie’s next step?

“I would like to build a two-storey house next, no more than two and a half metres high. Larger is my next aim. I would like to build a family house; this would offer a great future for affordable housing.

“For instance, in Cheshire it costs about a quarter of a million pounds for a one-bedroom studio flat, so if you can build affordable housing, youngsters can get onto the housing market.”

So far, the entrepreneur has been keen to maintain control over the project, both in terms of finances and design.

“Zero Waste Scotland is very excited about the house and is extremely keen to promote it. In fact, they offered me money to build it, but I said ‘I don’t want your money. Let me build it and we’ll talk about it afterwards’.”

Nor is the project at an end. Carnie stresses it is an ongoing process as he continues to explore waste materials that can be reused for the most unusual of purposes.

“When my dog passed away I wanted to do something special, so I had a gravestone made from plastic used in food preparation, including the overshoes people wear to visit food manufacturers. Like a lot of recycled plastics, it has an elastic which goes yellow when you melt it so it produces a marble effect that looks absolutely stunning. It’s not a cheap thing to do, but worth it as it is so satisfying. The tombstone is blue as well so it fits in with my fencing. I think it looks beautiful and is almost like marble,” enthuses the environmentalist.

He pauses before adding: “I am so committed to this project and I am pleased I kept to my core belief. Also I have met some really innovative recyclers who are so helpful. In fact, life-long friendships have been made.”

Looking to the future, and with an eye on ‘spreading the eco word’, perhaps Kevin McCloud and Grand Designs might even get a look in when Carnie moves onto his next Enigma project.

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