Cutting-edge eco-features: a climate for change

Cutting-edge eco-features such as heat pumps and rain-water farming are increasingly popular in new properties, writes Graham Norwood
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The Independent Online

Double glazing is old hat and as for loft insulation - well, it's so last year. These days some UK house-builders are going well beyond those traditional tools of energy efficiency and are instead pioneering more sophisticated sustainable means of building our properties and powering our lifestyles.

There are several cutting-edge eco-friendly features now creeping in to some new properties. Firstly, for example, more homes are being built with timber frames instead of traditional concrete, brick or steel.

"Timber has the lowest carbon cost of any mainstream building material," claimed Stuart Delgarno of the UK Timber Frame Association. "The carbon dioxide emissions from a single timber frame three-bedroom detached home are 16.5 per cent less than its brick and block equivalent, and new research shows that it is possible to achieve up to 86 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases simply by increasing the amount of timber specified in buildings."

Secondly, some homes obtain heat from new sources like ground source heat pumps that literally suck warmth out of the ground and transfer it to nearby homes. "We usually position the boreholes under drives so they're easily accessible without being too close to a house," explained Andrew Murray of Morpheus, a developer of upmarket properties built with ecologically responsible construction methods.

"A conventional boiler running on fuel will give an efficiency of 0.85 on one kilowatt of power, so 85 per cent efficiency. But using geo-thermals it gives you a 400 per cent return on one kilowatt. The yearly saving is extremely clear. We like to combine boreholes with solar panels on the roof in order to cut electricity bills by up to 60 per cent," he says.

Thirdly, a few new homes are using bio-fuel - vegetable oil-based fuel to power heating systems. "Bio diesel is carbon neutral and can reduce carbon emissions considerably. Reliable supplies of bio diesel will be available in south-east England within the next couple of years which will be of importance to any large housing scheme currently being considered or in the planning system," said Mark Wilkinson of estate agent Knight Frank.

There are a string of other cutting-edge environmentally friendly features such as rainwater farming (collecting rain and using it for irrigation or toilet-flushing), waste compactors (to reduce household rubbish and recycle some of it on garden), heat exchangers (which shift heat around the house, making the right rooms warm and cold), plus low energy lighting and even working garden wells.

Certainly there are increasing numbers of properties with some or all of these features. Most are brand new schemes with 100 or more homes where economies of scale can help make new systems cost-efficient, but there are some one-off homes where environmentally-friendly facilities have been retro-fitted, too.

At Adelaide Wharf in Shoreditch, East London, there is an array of features in a new 147-flat scheme including condenser boilers, rainwater recycling, sedum-covered "grass" roofs and high levels of thermal insulation. Prices will be high - £300,000 to £427,500 (Savills, 020-7409 9993) but the properties are all at the Building Research Establishment's "Excellent" rating.

At the other extreme is the one-off River House, a contemporary property at Sturminster Newton in Dorset. Energy is provided through a soil heat pump, which captures heat one metre below ground and runs the property's entire heating and hot water at just 30 per cent of the cost of conventional heating. (See page II for further details.)

Some volume builders are now venturing into this second generation of eco-features. Crest Nicholson's £330m Bristol Harbourside development has been praised by the Government-backed One Million Sustainable Homes campaign for using harbour water for cooling, recycling waste and making maximum use of solar energy and daylight. Prices in The Crescent, the latest phase of the development, range from £222,000 to £474,000, far less than many eco-developments in the past.

In Manchester, meanwhile, The Green Building, a tower built by Bryant Homes, extracts heat from the ground to provide energy to its 32 apartments.

Antler Homes is building one of the most advanced small homes, priced at £320,000, at its Keston Woods development at Old Coulsden, Surrey. Antler's pioneering Gas Saver units recycle flue gas heat that is normally wasted, said Griff Marshalsay, Antler's managing director. "They pre-heat cold water, which results in cheaper, faster hot water and reduces emissions."

These new features are in part being pioneered by developers who anticipate that government guidelines will oblige them to fit more eco-friendly components in the future. In the past two years, new rules have already started the process.

There are already rigorous building regulations, particularly those in Part L, which decree that fuel and energy conservation measures must be built into every new home.

More influential still is planning policy statement 22, which gives local councils the power to insist that 10 per cent of a housing development's energy needs are generated on-site from renewable sources like solar panels and small wind-turbines.

"Wood chip-burning combined heat and power units have proved popular in meeting these requirements. Larger wind turbines can provide a valuable contribution on larger schemes," insisted Nick Finney, a planner at property consultancy Colliers CRE.

"Because a windmill on an estate wouldn't be very popular, we're using solar panels," said Ivan Ball of Linden Homes, a developer that is building seven housing schemes with panels in Surrey. "Each house will have a two-metre-square panel. Linden buys in bulk and uses its own sub-contractors to fit them, so it will cost only £1,300 per property."

In other areas where councils insist on the 10 per cent quota, builders are combining panels with pure wool insulation and other innovations.

Another reason developers are going green with enthusiasm is that from June every home must have an Energy Performance Certificate (see page V) before it goes on sale. Builders of new homes believe this will show their products to be far more energy-efficient than older houses, and therefore more attractive to buyers.

"Most people wanting to buy property at present have no idea how energy-efficient one property is compared to another. However, once the energy rating is available and people can draw comparisons, it will become an issue," warned Peter Bolton King, chief executive of the National Association of Estate Agents.

That, of course, is exactly what the Government wants - to make us think about how green, or otherwise, our homes really are.

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