Donnachadh McCarthy: The Home Ecologist

Kit homes tick all the right boxes

They are orange, mauve and pink, but they also claim to be green. Some of the first homes to be built as a result of John Prescott's Design for Manufacture competition are on sale this summer at Oxley Woods, Milton Keynes.

The competition was to design homes to be built for less than £60,000 but that would still meet various space and environmental criteria. They are being built by George Wimpey, one of the winning developers, with the designs by Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners architects.

Sadly, the target price of £60,000 does not include the cost of the land. The first two-bedroom properties go on sale for £200,000, with three bedrooms costing from £230,000, which unfortunately fails the original purpose of making homes available to low income earners.

The architects have gone for a minimalist industrial design with various brick-, wood-and steel-frame options available. The steel and wood frames are designed for off-site flat-pack pre-fabrication to reduce costs.

They are calling them flexi-houses, as they come without internal walls or structural pillars to allow owners to change the layout in line with individual requirements.

They claim this will allow childless couples to have an almost total open-plan downstairs and a "huge open-plan bedroom covering the first floor", until the children arrive.

The second unusual feature is what they call an eco-hat, which is an internal chimney that carries all the service piping but also assists with ventilation, capturing some of the heat from extracted air to be reused to heat the incoming air. The eco-hats also aim to bring more daylight into the centre of the buildings. Passive solar water heating is an optional extra. The hope is that the construction reduces heat requirements by 40 per cent and 50 per cent if the solar hot-water system is included.

It is good to see some mainstream builders moving in a more eco-direction, but the fact that the buildings come with no internal walls means radiators will tend to be placed on the outside walls, losing the benefit of heating internal walls.

In addition, promoting large open-plan homes for childless couples means that a larger space will be heated than would be otherwise the case. Also, on an aesthetic level, suggesting such flat-packed minimalist designs can be "adjusted to the local vernacular" will usually be a bit economical with the architectural truth.

While such competitions can make a small difference, there is no way they will make the deep eco-revolution needed in house building fast enough, to ensure we get zero-carbon housing as fast as the climate crisis dictates.

The Government took 10 years to introduce a voluntary sustainable code of practice. It is clear that it is not the cost of building housing that is making them unaffordable but the cost of land. The new Brown Government must therefore grasp the nettle firmly and make the sustainable code of building compulsory as fast as possible.

The time is now far too late for demonstration projects, laudable though they are. Eco- homes urgently need to be the norm now and not the exception.

Donnachadh McCarthy works as an eco-auditor and is the author of 'Saving the Planet without Costing the Earth'

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