A new weapon has been discovered in the battle to ease the suffering of the five million Britons who have asthma - specially designed houses.

A new weapon has been discovered in the battle to ease the suffering of the five million Britons who have asthma - specially designed houses.

The number of young asthmatics has risen sixfold over the past 25 years and British children are twice as likely as their peers in Europe to suffer from the condition, which causes shortness of breath, wheezing and sometimes terrifying attacks which stop oxygen reaching the lungs.

The cause of the epidemic is unknown. But now houses with a low-allergen design offer hope that sufferers may be able to live a more comfortable life with a lower chance of falling victim to an attack.

The first houses in Britain designed to combat asthma have proved to be a resounding success less than six months after they were completed.

Tenants of 14 properties featuring a low-allergen design to minimise asthma and allergy triggers have given a positive response to the one-, two- and three-bedroom flats in Perth since their completion in July.

Supported by funding from Communities Scotland, the social housing providers Fairfield Housing Co-operative commissioned Gaia Architects to create a low-allergen indoor environment by avoiding asthma-inducing materials used in conventional housing designs.

Arranged around a car-free communal courtyard to cut pollution, the one and two- storey timber-framed development at Tollhouse Gardens could provide a blueprint for similar developments across the country as the number of asthma sufferers continues to grow in Britain. The NHS faces a bill of more than £850m a year coping with a disease which kills 1,500 people in the UK a year.

Many academics believe damp and humid conditions created by modern lifestyles and housing designs have contributed to a plague of dust mite infestations that has caused a rapid rise in the number of asthma cases which now affect as many as one in six children across the UK.

The Tollhouse Gardens development is unusual in that various commonly used plastics - PVC materials, traditional carpets, glues and vinyl wallpapers - used in traditional designs have been banned because they are considered to help create the humid and under-ventilated properties blamed for an explosion in asthma and other allergies.

"These are the first houses of their kind in the UK," said Grant Ager, the director of Fairfield Housing Co-operative.

"Within the 14 flats we have a range of people, some with no difficulties, some with varying asthmatic problems, others with physical disabilities. Already the tenants have noticed a big difference in the quality of air they are breathing and the general cleanliness of their new homes."

He added: "One resident said he had been given a 'new lease of life' and was venturing outdoors on a daily basis, having felt trapped inside his previous abode." The new properties have each been fitted with a revolutionary roof insulation which draws air into the building while conducting out moisture to maintain low humidity in the buildings.

Lime plaster has been used on the walls instead of vinyl wallpaper, which retains moisture, to allow the buildings to breath, while chemical-soaked synthetic carpets have been replaced with smooth floor coverings such as linoleum to cut down on dust mites.

Man-made paints have been replaced by organic ones and all surfaces were made with heat-compressed chip-board to avoid the formaldehyde-based glues normally used. The project is being studied by Strathclyde University for its first year and the initiative has attracted interest from other housing co-operatives across the UK.

Mr Ager said: "Although it is a relatively small sample size, the results should show that the lives of asthma sufferers can improve if small changes are made to their homes. People do not normally associate asthma with housing but for only four or five per cent above the normal cost, some simple measures can make a 70 per cent improvement in living conditions. The feedback from the occupants of Tollhouse Gardens is that their new homes are giving them a new lease of life." A spokesman for Gaia Architects said: "We are using very passive and low technology methods to improve air quality. Even avoiding the creation of dust shelves by building cupboards up to ceiling height can make a huge difference." Once the project has been completed, a handbook may be produced to help builders and architects design similar homes.

Mother breathes easily in low-allergen environment

Just five months after moving into her new "low-allergen" home, Brenda Mortimer says that she has been given a new lease of life.

The 38-year-old professional painter and decorator has suffered from asthma since childhood and had to use her inhaler regularly.

But after just a few months she claims that her dependence on medication has dropped noticeably.

"Before I came here I was picking up my blue inhaler at least two or three times a day, now I use it only a couple of times a week or less. I feel as if I hardly even touch it any more," said Ms Mortimer, who moved to Perth from Northampton nine years ago. "This new flat has made a big difference to my life." Ms Mortimer moved into a two-bedroom first floor flat on the Tollhouse Gardens estate with her six-month-old son Philip at the beginning of July.

"At my last flat, climbing the stairs, especially with heavy shopping or a baby, could be exhausting but I don't feel it climbing the steps here," she said. "It really is a nice house and you notice a difference straight away. It is a much better environment to bring up a young child in."

Ms Mortimer had been worried that her son would also develop asthma. "Luckily Philip hasn't shown any signs of suffering from asthma like me, although he did have a a bit of wheeze recently which worried me.

"I know how bad asthma can be and I am glad for his sake as well as mine that our home is designed to cut down on the kinds of things which can trigger the condition.

"More homes should be built like this.

"We live in pleasant surroundings, have better living standards in our homes and are enjoying a greater quality of life because of a few simple design changes."