Your dream house could be within reach – if you're willing to get your hands dirty

From sun pipes to heat pumps, it's never been a better time to become an eco-builder. By Virginia Matthews
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The Independent Online

Houses of straw may have been derided in the fairy tale of the Three Little Pigs, but in today's eco-conscious world, any sensible alternative to bricks and mortar will have its advocates.

Be it a gracious timber-framed home constructed in green oak and in-filled with traditional wattle and daub, or a roof fashioned in thatch, turf or even hemp, today's green self-builder is willing to try anything once, says Dave Hilton, sustainability consultant to the building supply giant BuildStore.

"It's true that self-builders were usually seen as out of the ordinary only a decade or so ago, but, prompted by new legislation and by the television obsession with building and property issues, going it alone is now seen as brave and glamorous," he says.

BuildStore believes that around 20,000 Brits build their own homes each year for a variety of different philosophical and practical reasons. With homes currently consuming around 30 per cent of all the energy used in the UK, sustainability is high on the do-it-yourself agenda, along with long-term savings in energy use.

But while most self-builders say they rate greenness and lower running costs above making an individual property statement, Hilton believes that sheer snobbery in self-building is hard to avoid. "The wealthy have always looked to make their personal mark with their own grand designs, and the current fashion for eco building has given them free rein in terms of using top-quality, seasoned wood and entire walls constructed of glass.

"But I find that I'm far more interested in the middle-of-the road, bland designs that can turn any of us with a bit of courage into eco-builders in our own right, even if all we want to build is a modest bungalow with solar panels and a thatched roof."

With current Government policy decreeing that all new homes must be zero carbon by 2016, both self-builders and professional home builders are intensifying their search for green solutions.

Overall energy saving – delivered via more breathable, but relatively airtight insulation – remains the number one priority on individual builds, as well as housing estates.

Yet, ironically, says Steve Turner, who represents the Home Builders Federation, environmentally friendly and traditional homes rarely look that different from the outside. "A brand new home will typically pump out between 25 and 30 tonnes of carbon per year, whereas its Thirties-built counterpart down the road will emit as much as 500 tonnes of carbon," he says.

"What makes the real difference are the things you will never really look at: the cavity wall insulation; the loft insulation; the superior draught-proofing on doors and windows; the quality of the heating cylinder; and the more efficient boiler."

He believes that typical householders remain blissfully unaware of the greener technology used in modern house building until their fuel bills – typically £550 cheaper per year than those of older properties – land on the mat.

While big builders such as Barratts have invested heavily in energy-saving technology, Turner believes that the quest for affordability, as well as sustainability, means that the average home owner may never experience true state-of-the-art green living.

"When you look at some of the things Barratts have been doing at Hanham Hall in Bristol (below) – the country's first large scale zero carbon development or eco village – you can see that living sustainably in top quality developments is becoming truly possible.

"But this is the Rolls Royce of zero carbon housing technology, not the Ford Focus, and for the majority of developments, advances such as biomass heating or communal power supplies will not make economic sense."

To Hilton, though, there are many ways for people to live up to greener living principles without breaking the bank. "Most of us have already got our low energy bulbs, aerated shower heads and our double flush lavatories and water-saving taps, but once you've preserved energy, it's all about putting the heating back in via natural gas, LPG or perhaps electricity."

Heat pumps – that draw in warmth from the garden though large coils and then channel it through the sort of compressor that we find on our fridges – are becoming more popular, particularly in tandem with underfloor heating, he says. For anything between £2,000 to £12,000, a self-builder can buy a basic, off-the-shelf air source heat pump, but anyone expecting a piping hot radiator in return will be disappointed.

At a modest £500 each, aluminium SunPipes to bring in more natural daylight are a neat and effective addition to many self-build shopping lists, but Hilton believes that going the whole hog with solar panels for energy generation makes more sense.

And while a full set of photovoltaic cells may sound like an expensive proposition at £16,000 to £22,000, the long-term returns in the shape of 41p back for every £1 of energy you generate are attractive to many people.

Similarly, fully blown rainwater harvesting systems may sound like an expensive investment, but there's always a more affordable garden water butt solution to keep you happy while you save up for the bigger option.

"People don't think twice about going to B&Q and buying a £60 bathroom or kitchen extractor, but for only around £150, you can opt for a heat recovery ventilation unit that sends the recovered warm air back into the room. When it comes to eco gadgets, there's usually a cheaper option to the top-of-the-range solution," says Hilton.

Whether you opt for sun pipes and photovoltaic cells though, or go for broke with a reed-bed sewage system and an intelligent system to run your home and turn your lights off, Hilton believes that the cost of an eco build can be brought down dramatically by opting to get your hands dirty.

"It's tempting to simply sign the cheques and let the green experts create your dream eco home while you stay in a caravan or camp out with friends, but harnessing any talents you might have will really bring the overall cost of the project down."

By doing the hard work yourself, or by drafting in mates with building experience, the average £1,000 per square metre cost of a new build can be brought down to half that amount, he believes.