How green is your plumbing?

If your house is environmentally friendly, your neighbours probably won't be. Anne Spackman on `hippie' houses
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The Independent Online
By far the angriest letters I have received in this job came in response to an article about a family who had built a new, environmentally friendly house. Only someone who had never set eyes on the place could describe it as attractive and well-concealed, spat the neighbours. It was a carbuncle on the back of their Edwardian terrace, and so on.

Had the same people been polled about energy efficiency in the home, they would have given the "green" features the thumbs up: yes, they want double glazing, good loft and wall insulation and recycled or renewable materials in the construction. But within a traditional facade.

Most mainstream housebuilders have been adapting to that compromise, incorporating features such as double glazing as standard on new properties. Admiral Homes, based in the South-east, makes energy efficiency one of its strongest marketing points. At its 19-house development at Selborne in Hampshire it became the first developer to score an "excellent" rating under the Building Research Establishment's environmental assessment method.

In Nottingham, Hassall Homes is flirting with the idea of taking energy efficiency a step further. The company is about to launch an experimental "house of the future", which combines the latest in technology and environmental friendliness in the prosperous village of Edwalton.

One of the house's smartest gizmos is a built-in vacuum cleaning system, with a motor and dust collector in the garage and vents to the outside. You work it by plugging a hose connector into one of the wall outlets. Such a house could find a ready market among asthma sufferers.

But while Hassall Homes is prepared to experiment with such internal features, it is not willing to go the whole hog and introduce a modern house design. The house of the future will sit inside a Victorian carcass.

This may please the majority of home owners, but it doesn't suit the seriously green. These people aren't only looking for low heating bills, they want trees, clean air, and a location that cuts down the need for a car - as well as a house that will have as little environmental impact as possible. They may well prefer close links with their like-minded neighbours to the isolation afforded by a garden fence. Though their numbers are small, they are not being ignored.

One company hoping to fill this niche is Ecological Development. It has bought a site near Ipswich docks where it plans to build one large and five smaller eco-friendly homes. The firm has learnt the hard way that finding buyers for radically green homes is easier than finding planning authorities willing to approve them. Its first project in Lincolnshire was thwarted by a combination of local villagers and a chief planning officer. There wouldn't be any of these hippy types in their back yard, thank you.

In Ipswich they have avoided the features that proved most contentious in Lincolnshire - grass roofs and a communal centre - and have, so far, been warmly welcomed.

The focal point of their house design is a double-height conservatory that acts as a thermostat for the rest of the house and brings extra light to the main living rooms. The larger house will have five bedrooms, two living rooms, two bathrooms, a study/office - and possibly a compost lavatory in the basement. The smaller houses will have similar living space, but with three bedrooms and one bathroom.

Apart from the conservatory, the main visual features will be the solar panels on the pitched section of roof and the large number of windows to the south. Residents will look out either over their garden or over an acre of woodland with a pond.

Inside, the energy-efficiency features are so effective that they go right off the so-called SAP - Standard Assessment Procedure - scale for homes. There will be triple glazing, double layers of insulation in the walls and roof, passive solar heating and gas-fired condensing boilers.

Most of the people expressing an interest in the scheme are professionals, though they come in all groups and family sizes. Sarah Matthews and her husband live in Ipswich with their three small children. They were attracted to the scheme because of the site, with its wood and views of the docks. "We moved here from Wales and we missed the greenness," she said.

They were particularly keen on the energy efficiency features of the Ecological Development homes. "I'm mean about things like electricity," Ms Matthews said. "I don't like the idea that the house pollutes and contributes to global warming. I have a pipe dream about a house that can sustain itself, in which you even deal with your own sewage."

Ecological Development is small enough to contemplate that kind of demand. "We have no need to appeal to the mass market," said Martin Dyke Coomes, architect for the project. "There is a proportion of society that is not being catered for because the majority is perceived to want a certain form of architecture. We're looking to break from that."

Whether they succeed will depend partly on how far that majority is willing to let them. "These houses don't have to be totally glass and exposed timber structures," said Norman Beddington of Ecological Development. "I don't see why ecological housing can't be well-designed."

If my experience is anything to go by, he'll soon find out.