The green houses are clearing the air

Melanie Bien on energy-saving measures that can help the environment and cut your bills
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The impact of global warming, thought to be the main cause of increased flooding in the south of England and elsewhere in the world, is making home owners more conscious about measures they can take to help the environment.

The impact of global warming, thought to be the main cause of increased flooding in the south of England and elsewhere in the world, is making home owners more conscious about measures they can take to help the environment.

And they can help themselves too. The Energy Saving Trust estimates that home owners could save up to £200 a year on their energy bills by adopting some basic measures (see efficiency tips, far right) that reduce harmful emissions.

But while switching off the lights - powered by energy-efficient bulbs, of course - when leaving a room, turning down the heating and recycling your newspapers all contribute, for some people this just doesn't go far enough.

Colin and Margaret Will- iams decided to start from scratch and build an environmentally responsible home in Mattishall, Norfolk. So impressive is their property that last year the couple won Norwich & Peterborough (N&P) Building Society's "Eco Build" competition.

Their home has low CO 2 emissions due to their high levels of insulation, while they have also managed to halve water consumption by using a rainwater recovery system. Sustainable materials have gone into the construction of the property, with the couple using lime mortar rather than cement, Warmcell (newspaper) insulation and European softwood.

Low-energy lights and oil-fired cooking have reduced electricity consumption, and even the paints, stains and varnishes are all natural - entirely plant-based and using no petrochemicals.

It wasn't all plain sailing, though, especially with the rainwater recovery. "These systems are still in their infancy in the UK, and the system purchased was slightly Heath Robinson [unnecessarily complicated] in some of its components," recalls Mr Williams. "Some of these components failed to survive more than a few weeks without problems. However, better- quality components were supplied and the system now works extremely well."

That said, the couple experienced further problems with the passive stack ventilation system, which airs the whole house automatically without consuming electricity. "I had not appreciated how difficult it would be to persuade heating engineers to install a non-standard system," says Mr Williams. "Some even refused to submit a price. Many told me that the proposed system would not work.

"I took advice from a consulting services engineer who had specialised in environmental designs. He suggested some minor changes and I was able to engage a local firm of heating engineers, who installed the system to a very high standard - and it works."

The cost of the project meant the couple were forced to do much of the labour themselves. "It was a commitment of over five years without holidays or weekends off, and few free evenings," he says. "We have roughly calculated our work at £80,000 - £10 per hour for a tradesman, £5 an hour for a labourer."

But while this is a huge commitment, smaller steps can be taken to help the environment, such as applying for a green mortgage. Both N&P and the Co-operative Bank offer home loans linked to reforestation schemes.

The Co-op makes an annual donation to Climate Care through its eco-mortgage, which aims to offset around 20 per cent of an average home's carbon dioxide production for every mortgage agreed. As a result, new woodlands are being created in Uganda. N&P's new-build green mortgage aims to make new homes "carbon neutral"; for each mortgage it sells, it plants 40 trees over five years with Future Forests in East Anglia and Lincolnshire.

N&P also offers green mortgages to those who are either buying an existing property or remortgaging and looking to improve their energy efficiency. Customers get a free energy survey and £500 cashback towards recommended home improvements.

N&P also offers a "green further advance" to any existing mortgage customer who wants to carry out energy-saving improvements to his or her home. The Ecology Building Society provides mortgages for energy-efficient housing and derelict and dilapidated properties.

Borrowers needn't worry about paying over the odds for being green, either. "You will pay a modest premium because you won't have the whole mortgage market to choose from," says Ray Boulger, senior technical manager at mortgage broker Charcol. "But the rates from these lenders are all respectable."

Readers who have built an environmentally responsible property from scratch and want to enter this year's Eco Build competition can pick up a form at any N&P branch or call 0845 300 2522. The prize is £5,000 and entries must be received by 31 December.

www.co-operativebank.co.uk; www.ecology.co.uk; www.norwichandpeterborough.co.uk

Keep the heat in

* Close your curtains at dusk to help stop heat escaping through the windows.

* Turn off the light when you leave a room.

* Avoid leaving appliances on standby.

* Don't fill up the kettle to the top; only boil the water you really need.

* Make sure your thermostat is never set at more than 60C (140F).

* When buying new appliances, look for the orange and blue Energy Efficiency Recommended logo.

* Ensure your home is properly insulated. Install double-glazing, eliminate draughts and fully insulate your roof and cavity walls.

* Buy energy-efficient light bulbs. They last up to 12 times longer than regular bulbs and cut energy waste by over 75 per cent.

* If your boiler is 15 years old or more, think about replacing it; this could reduce fuel bills by more than a fifth.

* Install solar panels. Government initiatives pay for up to 50 per cent of the cost of installation. For more details, go to www.est.org.uk.

Source: Energy Saving Trust

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