The truth about life in a 'green' house

When Sanjida O'Connell moved into a pioneering eco-development in Bristol, she hoped it was the house of her dreams. Then she realised she'd have to weed the 'living' roof...
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The Independent Online

It's a truth universally acknowledged that an environmental journalist must be in search of an eco-life. A year ago, I covered a story for this paper on a new green development in Bristol – a group of local residents had successfully campaigned against a property developer and bought the land themselves, subsequently building their own environmentally friendly houses on the site. As I was interviewing one of the residents, I remarked wistfully that I'd love to live there. He pointed out that the house next door was for sale – so I bought it. In fact, the sale went through so quickly that I moved in before the article came out. I looked out of my window one morning to see three of my neighbours wandering down the street reading my piece. I have never been so worried about people's reactions to something I'd written before: was I going to be ostracised before my new green life had begun?

According to government targets, only carbon-zero houses can legally be built after 2016. Given that most of us will either be living in an eco-build or have to reduce our CO2 emissions by 60 per cent by 2050, what is it like living in a green house? Usually I love living here, and whatever niggles I have are to do with it being a new-build that is the first "green" house the designers created. This is my dream house (albeit one without any useful storage). It has two rooms and an open-plan space with stunning design features: an ash and oak floor, gable walls made of glass and a floating fuchsia-pink kitchen (admittedly I wasn't sure about the pink but as everything else is white, wooden or stainless steel, it seems to work).

What makes the house environmentally friendly is the design, as well as the materials. The bedrooms have under-floor heating and are on the ground floor. They're cooler and have less light so provide a good environment for sleeping – although that's not quite so good when you work from home. Warm air rises, so in theory there should be little need to heat the living and kitchen area upstairs. The glass end walls can be completely opened to let heat out or kept closed to maximise solar radiation. The house is triple insulated and is made of a wooden frame clad in copper – a recycled and recyclable material. Copper holds its value even after it has been used, so I hope this doesn't mean copper thieves will visit me in the night.

Because of this insulation, just having me rattling around is enough to keep the heat at a reasonable level. I pay £20 a month for gas, most of which goes on hot water. Unfortunately, although all my neighbours have solar panels and many have solar hot water, I don't. If I had solar water I could sink my gas bill further, but I've worked out that it's not worth me buying solar panels. The original development received cheap electricity-generating photovoltaic cells so that they could be studied by Loughborough University, but if I bought solar panels now, it would cost thousands. Plus, my roof is overlooked by two other houses so I wouldn't get enough light to off-set my start-up costs.

Another good energy-saving feature, though, is the lack of a bath. Baths use 100-200 litres of water compared with around 35 litres for a quick shower. I have a wet room, which is tiled floor to ceiling with sparkly blue tiles, so having a shower is like a pre-teen disco. The downside is that a small room with thousands of one centimetre squared tiles and little ventilation is a fantastic environment for mould, and no eco-friendly products that I have tried get rid of the stuff. I have even used some nasty chemicals – these haven't worked either – and I'm a little reluctant to scrub the walls in the buff given the hazard signs on the containers. It also means every month I trail around like a waif and stray begging someone to give me a hot bath.

The roof also saves a lot of energy. It's very well insulated. In fact, it's covered with rubber, soil and flowers and made getting building insurance a nightmare. Green roofs are a haven for wildlife, but sadly I can't see it. My neighbour tells me there are trees growing on it and I need to climb up there and do some weeding pronto. Birds come and drink the water that collects on the sky lights, so when I do my sit-ups I can stare straight up a bird's bottom (that's not really an upside). Unfortunately, though, a flat roof with dodgy skylights led to a disaster after I'd been living here for a few months, and water started pouring through the ceiling. It was caused by a combination of condensation in the skylights and a hole in the rubber membrane; it was worrying and inconvenient to say the least, and now the sound of rain bouncing off the windows and copper walls no longer makes me feel cosy – it gives me a distinct chill. I'm still waiting for the windows to be fixed and hoping that the deluge we've had all summer isn't stored in my roof, waiting for one more shower to send several tons of sedum into the living room.

In terms of recycling, our street recycles more than any other road in Bristol. We have a central depot (a sunken storage container with a green roof), which means it's easier for the council to collect and you don't have to remember which day to put your rubbish out. I collect everyone's Tetrapaks – drink cartons – and take them to a nearby recycling depot and have also started a local food co-op. That sounds terribly community-minded but actually most people here do more. There are actually work days where people plant trees and weed the communal areas. On that note, one very noticeable difference about this street is that you're not allowed to drive here (unless parking and there are limited places), and there's a communal lawn in the centre overlooked by all the houses. The kids run wild there, wielding bits of sticks and stealing each other's skateboards. It feels like the kind of childhood we wish we'd had or wish our children could have. Perhaps because of the lack of cars whizzing through, there is greater friendliness. A recent report by the University of the West of England, using three streets in Bristol as case studies, showed that on busy roads residents have fewer than one quarter the number of local friends compared to those living on similar streets with little traffic. I used to be a punctual person, but now I normally have a chat with someone every time I leave the house; it's a nice reason to be late.

Moving into a community that has grown together over six years has been an interesting experience. I know more of my neighbours than I've known anywhere else I've lived: I hope if I move many of them will remain friends. Last winter, when the builder "fixed" the one radiator in the place he managed to put the boiler out. Within half an hour a neighbour came over and sorted it out; another appeared with electric heaters in case I got cold. However, I guess it's only natural that people who have had meetings three times a week for several years while discussing how to build their own houses might end up having a couple of bitter feuds. I hope I never get on the wrong side of this community – but I think in that respect it's like a bygone era. There's no hiding behind your Leylandii if you upset your neighbours – particularly as we all have each other's phone number and email. Really, though, given that we're all supposed to be green, there isn't too much censorship. One neighbour gave me a stern look when he saw me carrying a bunch of supermarket flowers and berated me on my carbon emissions. I have to fly to America for work now and again, but he said there was no excuse to hop on Easyjet for a week in Tuscany. He is, however, going to let me share his allotment, so perhaps I have been forgiven.

How to be green: Top tips

* Insulate: Wall insulation can save 0.7 tons of CO2; underfloor heating and insulation can save a third of a ton and draught-proofing doors and windows saves one-tenth of a ton of CO2 each year.

* Install double-glazing: It saves half a ton of CO2 each year. Use an environmentally friendly company.

* Replace light bulbs: You'll save between 50 to 75 per cent of the energy used for lighting your home by switching more than half the bulbs to energy saving ones.

* Switch appliances off: You could save around £37 a year.

* Buy A+ rated appliances: An A/A+ washing machine saves 35kg of CO2 each year over other models.

* Use green products: Use cleaning products and paints with low volatile organic compound ratings.

10 ways to green your home: For under £50

Interflush device: A non dual-flush handle toilet wastes up to 30 litres of water for each person in your household every day. This device stops the loo from flushing when you let the handle go, saving up to nine litres. This could save you up to £100 per year, if metered. £19.90 ( )

Organic paint: A five-litre tin of organic gloss paint spruces up interior woodwork. It costs about £20 more than the equivalent (petrochemical) gloss, and eliminates carcinogenic emissions from regular paints. This means you can sleep in the room the day it's painted. If you paint internal woodwork every three years, that's £7 a year to be an eco saint! £45 ( )

Stand-by buster: Eliminate up to £40 of wasted electricity every year with this device, which at the touch of a remote control turns off your stand-by equipment at the wall. £29.99, set of three ( )

Radiator reflectors: Radiators placed on outside walls lose a lot of heat through the adjacent wall. Reduce this by installing reflective panels behind them. They can reduce your bills by up to 20 per cent, covering their costs within one winter. £30 for 10 panels ( )

Solar security lighting: Improve outside security without increasing your carbon footprint by installing solar-powered LED security lighting; a dual-lamped movement sensor option is very effective. £35 ( )

Chimney seal: Seal up rarely used chimneys with a chimney balloon. They prevent heat being lost up the chimney if your central heating is on when the fire is not being used. Can also be used with the criminally wasteful coal-effect gas-fires if they don't have permanent pilot-lights. £20 ( )

Laptop light: If you're alone at home surfing the web, you really only need one light to see the keyboard, which is where a Kensington Flylight comes in handy. It slots into your USB port and the light is easily directed. It consumes only two watts of electricity. £16 ( )

Battery restorer: With battery prices going through the roof, you can restore your alkaline batteries with this handy device. It restores AA and AAA alkaline batteries up to 100 times, saving you money and removing toxic batteries from the waste-bin. £20 ( )

Chemical-free cloths: These amazing cloths radically reduce the need for toxic cleaning chemicals at home (cleaning products are a major source of childhood poisonings). You can get a two-pack with a general cleaning cloth for sinks, chrome and steel and another for glass and mirrors. They also save money as you need significantly fewer cleaning products. £9 ( )

Bamboo towels: To show you can have real eco-luxury for under £50, you can treat yourself to a beautiful set of hand, shower and bath towels made from 70 per cent bamboo fibre. This means the pesticides used in manufacturing cotton are avoided, and they are still wonderfully soft. £45 ( )

Donnachadh McCarthy is author of 'Easy Eco-Auditing' and the founder of National Carbon Footprint Day ( )