The eco revolution that's transforming Britain's houses

Forget the usual sprawl of identical 'burbs. The green revolution is inspiring homes that are not just low-carbon, but high-design too. Jonathan Christie sees the future take shape
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The Independent Online

Forget wet rooms and halogen lighting. In future, estate agents will put other things on property details. You can expect to become more familiar with phrases such as "air-to-water heat pumps", "passive solar collection", "hydroponic systems" and " low-embodied energy".

In last week's Budget, Gordon Brown kick-started the green building goldrush by dangling the carrot of stamp duty exemption for all new "zero-carbon" properties, up to the value of £500,000. That could mean a saving of £15,000 for anyone buying such a home. At the moment, there are almost no houses in the UK that measure up to the Chancellor's standards. To qualify, the homes will have to have "zero net emissions of carbon dioxide from all energy use in the home".

That means no fossil fuels for light or heat. Instead, features such as solar panels, hydroponic systems (fancy greenhouses that redistribute energy and grow food), as well as materials that have low-embodied energies (such as locally sourced timber) will start to be used. Plus, you can expect to see plenty of wind turbines appearing. All of these technologies exist now. And within a few years, the first generation of zero-carbon homes will be ready.

One of the most ambitious schemes for self-sufficient homes is planned at a site near Ilkley in West Yorkshire. Myddelton Construction (01943 603125, www.myddelton.co.uk) is planning to build an innovative eco-village consisting of five sustainable homes, 11 live/work units, a microbrewery, offices, meeting rooms and a conference space. The development will produce its energy from micro generation on site, through photovoltaics (solar panels) and thermal panels as well as a biomass boiler, which uses fuels crops, such as woodchip, that only emit as much CO2 as they absorbed while growing.

Ecos Homes (01458 259400, www.ecoshomes.co.uk), based in the West Country, has five units at Stawell in Somerset due for completion by Christmas 2007. Prices will start at £250,000 (saving at least £7,500 on stamp duty) for the three- and four-bedroom houses that use solar and biomass heating to gain their zero-carbon badge.

Another developer, ZEDHomes (0845 1228656, www.zedhomes.com), has just received planning permission to build 12 two-bedroom apartments in Harrow. These will have zero-carbon credentials, such as 300mm insulation, solar panels and biomass boilers.

One of Britain's first zero-emissions developments - a terrace of five houses at Hockerton in Nottinghamshire - was completed in 1998. It set the benchmark for sustainable homes, being entirely self-sufficient for its energy needs. The most high-profile development so far, though, is BedZED (not connected to ZEDHomes), at Sutton in Surrey. It was built in 2002 through a collaboration between the Peabody Trust and the environmental charity BioRegional. BedZED was a pioneering project based on the principal "zero energy, zero carbon emissions".

Near Zero (0191 272 8228, www.nearzero.co.uk) offers the self-builder a route into this brave new world by providing a range of options. Experienced DIYers can just buy the plans for an off-the-peg home, while total novices can have a fully managed build. The quality of the architecture is high, so you'll be raising your style status as well as reducing your carbon footprint.

But even if your current home seems a lost cause in the zero-carbon stakes, it's still worth thinking about reducing its environmental impact by installing some of these gadgets. In 20 years' time, a poor energy rating could put off eco-conscious buyers.

What it's like to live in an eco home

Helen Woolston is an environmental and climate change co-ordinator working for Transport for London. She has a four-year-old daughter and has lived in a two-bedroomed flat at BedZED, a zero-emissions development in Surrey, for five years.

"My initial thoughts were how very light and airy the flat was - I spent time just enjoying the architecture. The sitting room has a south-facing wall of glass and an unusual 'Sun Space', like a glassed-in balcony. I also have a bridge that leads to a private 'Sky Garden'.

"In the winter it's really warm. The structure here seems very solid and there's 300mm insulation and a district heating system that's all connected up to the heating plant on site. We also have larger than average hot water tanks that generate a lot of heat and my heating bills are now significantly lower than before.

"People generally only move within BedZED - hardly anyone moves away. There's a ZED bar on site, an active residents association and plenty of outside space including allotments if you want one. It is a densely designed development, but the cleverness of the design stops you feeling like you are living on top of each other.

"All the roads run round the edge and the carbon footprint is reduced further by less car parking spaces and a car club. I can't really think of any downsides, although there isn't much storage, but that's true of so many new builds. I'd recommend it to anyone."

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