Property: Designs on a green future

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Given the Earth's dwindling energy resources, rising pollution and ozone layer depletion, few people these days can consider the environment with anything but concern. But while we might willingly recycle paper and lug empties to bottle banks, the same attention has not been paid to buildings - even though they account for 60 per cent of total energy consumption.

Now that's all changing. Green building has moved on from the dreamy low-tech vision of the 1970s to the up-to-date "healthy" house and the "sensitive" high-tech house, with an awareness that materials, and the act of construction itself, produce lethal toxic substances. Green is smart now.

Pastoralists still have their voice. The use of timber frames, readily available materials to boost local economies, straw bales, and recycling are all part of environmentally sound housing. Bodies such as the Centre for Alternative Technology stick to their principles while refining their approach.

Some insulation is now so efficient that rooms are too hot, leading to sick building syndrome - the very thing green designers seek to avoid - so natural ventilation, light and space are back. Occupier health is paramount.

Water conservation is addressed by, for example, installing dual flush toilets using less water for liquid waste. A compost toilet needs no water at all.

Climate change due to the greenhouse effect relates directly to housing. The main greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels - coal, gas and oil - so low-energy living is essential in the future, and being addressed by architects.

Community housing is a more radical concept. This might not be everyone's cup of tea, but the argument is sound - after all, why have separate televisions, lawn mowers and kitchens when people can easily share them?

It was only a matter of time before computerisation entered the housing domain. Domestic microprocessors can now control every system in the house. The sensitive - or intelligent - house can co-ordinate burglar alarm, boiler, thermostat, radiator valve, television, video, cooker, and telephone.

In an intelligent house, if the inhabitants are going away for, say, two weeks, they will only have to touch a control panel to tell the computer, and energy wastage is cut to a minimum. It is even possible to call home from a mobile phone and have the oven switch on your dinner. When you get back, an electronic notepad will flash up any phone messages.

Leading the way in intelligent housing is the Integer Project. Its assembled architects are pitching their vision at what is affordable, and housing associations and local authorities are queuing up for a slice of the action. The elderly and disabled will find computerised households particularly useful, it is claimed - an effective variation on care in the community.

The holistic approach extends too to the process of building so that client, architect and builder co-operate from the start. And women, through empowerment groups such as Amazon Nails, are starting to muscle in on this most male of preserves. Perhaps visible bum cleavage and wolf whistles from the building site really are crumbling away.

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