Eco pioneers go underground to help family life family life Self-sufficient settlement will be built this year

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The UK's first genuinely self-sufficient eco-settlement is to be built this year - a group of underground houses that will generate their own energy and water, and recycle their waste.

Five families will move into the houses, at Hockerton in Nottinghamshire, over the next 12 months, combining their normal jobs with small-scale food production and fish farming.

Their aim is to cut their bills, create more time for family life and "step back from the stress" of high-income living, heavy mortgages and overwork.

But the project is also intended to show that new housing can be designed with minimal impact on the environment: for example, consuming none of the fossil fuels that generate carbon dioxide.

The settlement is being built on green-belt farmland on the edge of Hockerton, and normally would not have received planning permission. David Pickles, chief architect of Newark and Sherwood Council, has given the project enthusiastic backing, saying theproject "broke all the planning rules" but would create a "fine" landscape.

More than 3,000 trees have already been planted to provide shelter and encourage wildlife; and a network of ponds, lakes and reed-beds will also be created for fish farms, rainwater harvesting, and sewage treatment.

The project is the brainchild of Nick Martin, a green builder and a member of the British Earth Sheltering Association, and will be run as a co-operative. Work is scheduled to start in early spring, and the houses could be occupied by the beginning of next year.

They have been designed by Robert and Brenda Vale, a husband-and-wife team of architects who planned, built and now live in Britain's first "autonomous house" - a traditional-looking brick-and-tile house in nearby Southwell that supplies its own energy and water and uses a compost toilet instead of mains sewerage.

The Vales have also been commissioned by Newark and Sherwood council, which has taken a national lead in energy conservation, to design 13 autonomous council houses. The council aims to build 100

autonomous houses by the end of the century.

The Vales, who were last year enrolled on the United Nations' Global 500 list for their environmental achievements, were the first winners of the Green Building of the Year award, sponsored by the Heating and Ventilating Contractors'

Association and the Independent on Sunday.

Their award-winning building was the Woodhouse medical centre in Sheffield, a doctors' surgery that was labelled a "thick building" because it used classical techniques of "thermal mass" - a heavyweight structure which husbands heat and minimises temperature swings. (Details of this year's Green Building competition, the fourth, are given below.)

At Hockerton, the Vales' ideas for energy conservation and independence from main services have been complemented by green philosophies, such as permaculture, the "permanent agriculture for human settlements", devised by Australian Bill Mollison, which attempts to minimise human disruption to nature.

The families involved will combine wildlife conservation, wood coppicing, organic food production for local householders, shops and restaurants, and animal husbandry - goats, chickens, geese and pigs. Ponds will be stocked with species such as crayfish, shrimps, mussels and carp. The householders will manage an area of about 25 acres.

One typical application of permaculture is the creation of the ponds and lakes, which will not only provide food and sewage treatment but also reflect the sunlight, adding to the solar energy that is fed into the houses through the south-facing conservatories.

The new road will also have a grassy centre section, giving it a "cart-track" look.

The back rooms of the houses will receive natural light through the greenhouse at the front. Careful orientation means that the low winter sunlight will shine through but the summer sunlight, which would overheat the houses, will not.

Energy will come from a wind turbine, solar panels, sunshine, and also from the householders themselves - each person generates about 300 watts in body heat.

There is no central heating but the half-metre of soil on the roof will almost halve the temperature swings.

Combined with the equivalent of sextuple glazing, the whole house "in effect becomes the equivalent of a giant storage radiator capable of maintaining a reasonably constant temperature at 18 degrees Centigrade throughout the year without the need for anyadditional energy input," Nick Martin says.