Good green fun

It may be a jungle now, but within a year Will Anderson's inner-city plot will contain a stunning modern home, delivering stylish urban living for almost zero cost to the environment. As he begins his self-build project, he sets out to prove you can have a high quality of life beyond fossil fuels
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The Independent Online

I'm standing in a small patch of neglected land in a quiet corner of Clapham, south London. A tiny urban wilderness of creeper, brambles and bracken, ignored by humanity, it is home to robins, foxes, squirrels and innumerable scurrying invertebrates. The horizontal extent of the plot is less than 150 square metres, but it is dominated by the vertical presence of a mature multi-stemmed sycamore, a towering structure that reaches up and out to the sky. Here, on a bright August day, the overgrown plot is transformed by the ever-changing light in the tree canopy and the gentle sway of the branches in the breeze.

I'm standing in a small patch of neglected land in a quiet corner of Clapham, south London. A tiny urban wilderness of creeper, brambles and bracken, ignored by humanity, it is home to robins, foxes, squirrels and innumerable scurrying invertebrates. The horizontal extent of the plot is less than 150 square metres, but it is dominated by the vertical presence of a mature multi-stemmed sycamore, a towering structure that reaches up and out to the sky. Here, on a bright August day, the overgrown plot is transformed by the ever-changing light in the tree canopy and the gentle sway of the branches in the breeze.

The biodiversity of the smallest patch of land is dramatically improved by a tree. Recent research by the University of Sheffield into the density of bugs in urban gardens found that planting a tree is one of the best ways to encourage local wildlife, especially invertebrates. You are effectively laying the foundations for a grand condominium of urban flora and fauna, a luxury habitat that protects its tenants from the ravages of the elements and provides them with a rich supply of nutrients. Everyone benefits, from the beetles that burrow in its bark to the millipedes that forage in the decaying organic matter at its base.

Rather different foundations are planned for this plot, however: deep shafts of concrete, driven into the untouched earth. For this little patch of ground, never built on in modern times, is now a building plot with full planning permission for a three-storey house. Any day now the piling rig will arrive and the local ecosystem will be ripped up. I have set this process in motion, but the house that will rise here will be reflected a million-fold across the country as the Government embarks on its giant leap to overcome the housing crisis.

The Government describes its building programme as creating "sustainable communities". Yet it is fairly obvious that building is still far from sustainable. Not only does house-building destroy local wildlife habitats, it also consumes natural resources and creates little engines of ongoing consumption, above all of carbon-intensive energy. Buildings account for half of our energy use, houses for about a quarter, so the way they are built and the way they function is critical to the task of tackling climate change and making our world sustainable. Yet current building practice is a long way from "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" - the original definition of sustainable development in the 1987 Bruntland Report, Our Common Future. Every new house is a new burden on the environment that future generations may pay for dearly.

There is another way. The house I am planning for our little slice of Clapham will not place any burdens on the future. Despite those concrete foundations, it will be built primarily with low impact, non-toxic materials. The principal construction material, timber, will be sourced from well-managed forests. Water consumption will be cut to half the typical rate. Waste will be driven near to zero. The immediate natural environment will be protected and enhanced. Above all - and this is the really tricky bit - the house will be so energy efficient that all our power and heating needs will be met through our own renewable energy generation, on-site. We will be self-sufficient in energy and so free from fossil fuels. Arguably, this will be the most "environmentally friendly" contemporary home in Britain.

But that's only half the story. My number one priority is to build a house that is a truly wonderful place to live. I want to make contemporary environmental design work for me as well as for the planet. If "green living" is all about sacrifice, forget it. I want more: more light, more comfort, more beauty, more health and more style. I am confident that a holistic approach to environmental specification will deliver this quality of life for me. This, I hope, is the future: houses, technologies and products that fully integrate consumer and environmental interests.

Back at the plot, my ecological ambitions seem hard to square with the imminent arrival of JCBs and concrete trucks. But with care, I can enhance the biodiversity of the land over the course of the build. The house will only occupy a third of the plot, so I have space to improve upon the brambles and bracken. There will be a small but richly planted organic garden full of flowers that attract bees, butterflies and other insects. There will be nesting sites for birds, bats and solitary bees and wasps; an invertebrate "creature tower" made from leftover building materials; and a slowly decaying log-pile. A small pond will provide an entirely new environment and hopefully attract a range of new species. Above all, the house has been designed to protect the tree so that the human contribution to the plot's biodiversity can thrive alongside the rest of the local wildlife for years to come.

The house will in fact work like a tree. It will be a striking timber structure - beautiful, strong and adaptable - that harvests all its energy from the sun and provides a secure and valued habitat. I may be an incurable romantic, but looking up into the branches today, I am hopeful that whatever difficulties beset me during the build, life in Tree House will be worth every bit of my ecological ambition.

HOW TO BUILD A DREAM HOME - PART ONE

FIRST FIND YOUR PLOT

It took three years of dedicated searching to find a building plot that suited my self-build dreams. Gaining planning permission took another two nail-biting years. You need determination for self-build - and patience.

Actually, that's all a lie. Except for the last bit. In fact, I found the land because I momentarily shelved my assumptions about the difficulties involved and went out to look for some.

Inspiration came from London Open House, the weekend every September when buildings of all kinds in the capital are opened for public scrutiny. A day spent wandering around other people's dreams-made-real was just the incentive I needed to look afresh at my own dreams and consider the possibility that, with a little effort, they might come true.

The next day I began my search. I bought the self-build magazines - Build It, Homebuilding & Renovating, Self Build & Design - and checked out their listings of building plots. This is a good way of getting a feel for what's on offer across the country and at what prices. I subscribed to an online database of building plots that offers quick access to information as new plots come on the market. I phoned the local council to find out which auctioneer dealt with their properties. By the end of the day, I had covered a lot of ground and got precisely nowhere.

The following day I did what any property buyer would normally do first: I checked out the local estate agents. As I made my way down Clapham High Street, my straightforward query - "do you have any land for sale?" - was met with incomprehension, incredulity and barely disguised derision. Until I stepped into the very last office.

The plot came with full planning permission for a house we didn't want to build, but the precedent meant that our own application was granted without objections within eight weeks.

We were lucky, perhaps. But look around you and you will begin to see plenty of potential building plots amid existing development (ignore the open fields, where you will never be allowed to build). Our site seemed very constrained - a tiny piece of land dominated by a mature tree and surrounding houses - but we have genuinely turned every constraint to our advantage. It is constraints that shape architecture, so don't be put off when the plots you view are not the shape of your dreams. The point of self-build is precisely to discover the shape of your dreams in unexpected and often unpromising places.

COUNTING THE COSTS

Although the self-build magazines make a point of highlighting the cost savings of self-build compared to buying new, everyone assumes that my partner and I are millionaires. In fact, we are just a couple of thirty-something social researchers who, like so many others in London and elsewhere, have done well out of the property boom.

The land cost £150,000. The professional fees will be around £20,000 and the build itself is currently budgeted at £240,000; £410,000 is a lot of money, for sure, and well beyond the reach of many, but this isn't a bad price for a high-specification house on a difficult site in central London. The self-build magazines provide estimates of costs per square metre based on where you are and the quality you are after.

The big advantage of self-build is the freedom it gives you to create wonderful spaces of your own. This can be done on any scale, so don't assume that you have to build big to create stunning results. If you had only a small plot, a cheap location and a lorry-load of straw bales, you can build something remarkable for not much money at all.

Self-build finance is a growing market. We bought the plot with a mortgage secured on the land when we still had a mortgage on our home. We then sold our house to raise the cash for the build. If you don't have a stash of equity, you will need a self-build mortgage that is secured on the house-to-be and is released as the build progresses. There are lots of deals to suit different circumstances, so shop around. And be reassured that a life of poverty in a temporary caravan is not necessarily integral to the self-build experience.

* NEXT MONTH: the design process - finding an architect and designing your dream home; how to respond imaginatively to the apparent constraints of location, site, neighbours, building regulations and sustainability.

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