Government rules on green homes mean that eco-houses are coming. It’s time to get used to the idea, says Alex Delmar-Morgan
Nobody denies that if the world heats up, we will have to change the way we live, build and get around. As recently as five years ago, phrases like “global warming” and “carbon emissions” were obscure, used only by obsessives, scientists or government advisors. Now they are common currency.
Many businesses are determined to lead the way in greening their industries, and not only from tree-hugging greenery: many of them realise that carbon-reduction measures will, sooner or later, become the law. Construction and, in particular house building, is no exception.
One developer who is leading the pack is Ron Beattie, who has been in the business for 30 years. His company, Roy Williamson, is behind the Ecostessey (pronounced E-cossey) Park development just outside Norwich, a typically modern eco-friendly scheme with everything from top of the range heat reflective glass to solar panels on the roof. Refreshingly, he is up front on some of the more controversial aspects of green development. He admits that people are not yet prepared to pay extra for a sustainable home, that it is impossible to actually build a zero carbon house, and that sustainable building does not make him as much money as conventional practices. However, he is a realist.
“We’re all going to have to build sustainably in 10 years’ time. You might as well find out the pitfalls now, clear the line and start leading the way early,” he says.
“It’s about pushing the boundaries. It costs more and is better built but Joe Public is not interested in paying extra so I have not been able to pass on the costs.”
Only 11 of the proposed 22 houses have so far been built at Ecostessey, which are on the market with Savills for between £250,000 and £470,000. Among the green features are energy-efficient radiators which can be operated room-by-room and minute-by-minute, so you don’t heat rooms that are not being used. Toilets use rain-water, electricity comes form a zero carbon provider, and kitchens have waste disposal units to minimise the amount of rubbish that is produced.
There is no doubt that we will see more developments like this in the coming years. The onus will be on developers over the next decade to combine cheap methods of building with high quality design.
Although home-builders are grasping the nettle, home-buyers are for now some way behind. A report recently published by property adviser Knight Frank and consultancy firm EC Harris called Eco-Homes, Economically Sustainable? found that there was gulf among the UK public between those who thought environmental issues mattered and those who would actually invest in an eco-home.
Only 43 per cent thought that the environmental features were “significant” when buying a home and 83 per cent were even more non-committal, simply saying they purely wanted to know more about the subject.
A poll by YouGov in June showed 46 per cent of the public in favour of building eco-towns, with just 9 per cent opposed. Whatever the public thinks, many eco-homes will be built in the near future. Liam Bailey, head of residential research at Knight Frank, said: “Over the next decade we expect to see the three strands of eco-awareness, design quality and place making combining in terms of market placement. The key for developers is to ensure they are able to capitalise on these themes. However, in the short-term the slow down in the housing market is causing many, especially first time buyers, to put affordability above environmental priorities.”
The government has said that by 2016 all new housing must be zero carbon, by which it means there must be zero net emissions of carbon dioxide from all energy use in the home. (This includes energy consumed by appliances such as TVs and cookers, as well as other things such as heating, hot water and ventilation.)
In practice it is incredibly difficult to build a zero carbon home. Any materials used, whether its timber, bricks, or plaster, have been manufactured, which use energy. Even transportation of materials to a site has a carbon footprint.
Experts argue that the future of ecohomes does not just hinge around building from locally sourced materials, but constructing low maintenance homes that cost very little to run.
Catalysts for change
Mark Farmer, head of private residential at EC Harris says: “The real challenge for the industry is how to deliver the required step change towards zero carbon by 2016 within the parameters of technical and financial viability. Innovation and supply chain diversification will be key to creating a viable platform for delivery of zero carbon homes in the future.”
Eco-building methods range from the very simple to the more complex. More straight-forward measures might include the installation of double glazing to preserve heat, whereas the more expensive features include sourcing your energy via the National Grid (through renewable sources only, such as wind) and putting in a solar water heating system and ground source heat pumps. Even the most elaborate features, should, in time, get cheaper through innovation.
But rocketing fuel and energy prices could be the real catalyst for change. As domestic supplies of oil and gas dwindle, fuel bills soar and consumers realise something has to change, sustainable energy could well take centre stage, and with them, a new generation of eco-homes.