Sustainable living finally comes of age

A PROPERTY developer called Morpheus recently revamped three super-luxury homes on Clareville Street in South Kensington, complete with all mod-cons. Even in this climate, they sold within days of going on the market in June, at an average price of £5m. A pretty normal story for the top end of London’s property market. But what made these houses unusual was that along with the cinemas, gyms and steam rooms there were other features – geothermal boreholes that will heat and cool the houses, specially-designed staircases made of glass and positioned away from the walls to ensure that the houses can be lit with natural light, and lighting that is programmed to work at no more than 80 per cent of its capacity.

The world of eco housing is changing. Once it was perhaps associated with Swedish houses made from balsa wood, but people’s outlooks and priorities are moving on. Rather than a statement or a gimmick, having a green home is simply a sensible option. Right across the board, from mass-market housing developments up to swish new pads in Chelsea, sustainability is changing from a buzz-word to an expectation.

Take the new decision of developer Manhattan Loft Corporation to use 14 boreholes dug to a depth of 140m for its new Chelsea Apartments development, which it is working on in association with Dixon Jones, the architectural practice responsible for the most recent revamp of the Royal Opera House. These will be 74 per cent more efficient at heating and cooling the building compared to conventional methods, and will lead to 70 per cent savings on heating bills. The company will also be using boreholes in a new Fitzrovia development.

What is interesting is that none of these developments is making a song and dance about its green credentials. Giles Green, the managing director of Morpheus, says that for his clients sustainability is not the be-all and end-all, but “a nice bonus, but nothing more.” Clareville Street was only 25 per cent as green as it could have been, he says, and Morpheus dropped the idea of timber frames the moment they realised that might put off buyers.

Green says: “The interest came from people looking for the right location, the right size and quality and the security, parking and garaging integral to the houses. The eco element has definitely secondary. People are certainly showing more interest in sustainability, but it won’t make them buy.”
What is attractive is not financial (saving £1,000 a year on heating is not that interesting to somebody spending £5m on a home), but a feeling that it is right. All the Clareville Street buyers had children, says Green, and he is sure that thinking about the world your offspring will inhabit changes your attitude towards the environment.

The general change in attitude towards sustainability has been seen by Ivan Harbour, partner at Richard Rogers’ architectural practice Rogers, Stirk, Harbour and Partners, which is at the forefront of sustainable development, having worked on the Oxley Woods estate in Milton Keynes, a cutting edge development which uses hot air systems and solar panels to cut energy wastage, and whose insulation is made from recycled paper. “Ten years ago it was a difficult subject to address and 20 years ago even harder, but now it is expected as a part of any process,” he says. “I recently did a Q&A with a bunch of school children from Florida and every question they asked me was about sustainability.”

At the mass-market level, the interest is often economic. “In the Milton Keynes development people are saving 70 per cent on their energy bills, so there is a practical side.” But, Harbour says, it’s not all about money. People are starting to look at the bigger picture and that is totally changing the way they think about housing. Sustainable living is not just about having low electricity bills, it is about location too. “When we talk about green it is not primarily energy-saving, it’s about where it is. Can you walk to the local shop or do you have to jump in the car?” Everything has to come together, and people are becoming increasingly aware that there is no silver bullet that makes living sustainable. It is about the materials and the methods you use in the construction, it’s about things like energy-sharing, and not just slapping a solar panel or a windmill electricity generator on the side of the house.

The recession could well be an engine for change. “At this economic point it’s a good time to change things,” says Harbour. “We have a window of opportunity to provide people with better places to live in.”

It’s still not easy being green, if you are a home-builder, but it is certainly becoming a lot more desirable.

From £750,000
A six-storey building with one, two, and three-bedroom apartments and a penthouse.
Contact: Savills on 0207 016 3860 or MLC on 0207 631 1888

From £220,000
This development has 145 eco-houses which range in size from two-bedroom to four-bedroom.
Contact: George Wimpey’s sales department on 0845 0263 759