What life is like inside an eco-friendly community

If developers had got their way, Ashley Vale would be just another faceless estate. Sanjida O'Connell meets the Bristol residents who joined forces to create a unique, eco-friendly community

Thursday 04 October 2007 00:00

As you travel by train through Bristol there is one area that stands out from all the city's terraces, graffitied walls and gritty flyovers. It nestles in a green bowl – a patchwork of allotments, a mini nature reserve, a city farm and, at the bottom, a collection of surreal-looking houses made of copper, wood and glass in strange shapes, glinting with solar panels. This oasis of calm is Ashley Vale, a collection of 26 eco-houses that were designed and hand-built by local residents in response to a developer attempting to take over a brownfield site in the St Werburgh's district.

The project began in 2000 when a developer proposed turning a scaffolding yard into a housing estate. Local residents banded together and formed AVAG, the Ashley Vale Action Group, to oppose the development and put forward their own, alternative, vision. They won their case – and the right to build a sustainable, mixed-use community on the yard – but had to work quickly to buy the land.

The idea was to divide the two-acre plot into 26 and sell each section individually. Jackson Moulding, now a self-build consultant, and his partner, Anna Hope, were among the original residents who opposed the developer but hadn't thought about buying a plot themselves. "I got involved because I was working in environmental areas and wanted to push whatever happened here to be sustainable," says Moulding, "I wasn't there to build my own house, but then thought I should be involved." Moulding and Hope were among the last people to end up with a plot of land – one of the smaller sections in an awkward wedge-shape they have turned to their advantage.

Once all the land had been bought, the self-builders formed a co-op and met three times a week for over a year to design houses with their neighbours-to-be. The first problem they faced was that the plot was covered in concrete, which would be difficult to remove and result in landfill. So they decided to keep the concrete and treat it as a raft, building timber frames on top. Everyone had to design their houses themselves. "I read lots of books and doodled on beer mats," says Jonnie Brockwell, an engineer. Hope and Moulding built a very cute balsa model and Ian and Jane Coles, who work for Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity, "drew it out on squared paper and paced up and down other people's houses to find out how big they were".

Most people had no or little building experience, nor were they primarily motivated by the idea of creating their own eco-houses. Moulding, like most of the self-builders, says, "We couldn't even afford to buy a small terrace house in this area – but we knew we could afford a bigger house if we designed and built it ourselves." Ian Coles says: "It was a very steep learning curve. I went from having an IT job to being in charge of a building site."

At the time, there was a lot less information about building eco-houses than there is now, so the process involved a considerable amount of research and trial and error. Having a group of people all wanting to build in roughly the same way made it easier. As well as the timber frames, most used Fermacell boards instead of plaster board (they're made with gypsum and cellulose from recycled paper). The cavity walls were filled with Warmcel – made from newspaper – and many of the double-glazed windows came from Rationel, a Dutch firm that only uses sustainable timber.

Bedrooms are on the ground floor with the living spaces above to maximise warmth in the sitting and kitchen areas and keep the bedrooms cool. Most houses have underfloor heating and all but one have solar panels. The houses are so well insulated that residents are able to sell solar electricity to the grid. The houses are built around a central plot that functions as a community green and recycling centre. The south side of the roofs hold the solar panels, but are short so that they don't block neighbours' light; the north sides are long and without windows to give the neighbour on the other side some privacy.

During construction, most people lived in caravans on site. Building their own house at weekends and in the evenings meant a long stay for most residents. Jonnie Brockwell was in his caravan for nearly three years and was one of the last people to move into his house. "It was a fantastic feeling," he says. He moved, however, into the only room that was semi-finished, the back bedroom, which contained a sink, a Baby Belling and a stopcock tap.

The group agreed that they would use material from the Bream Guide to Sustainable Building Material that had been given an A rating for sustainability. However, B-graded materials could be used with permission from the group. Some people wanted to use only local materials. These differences of opinion resulted in compromises that rankled with some members. For instance, the house next door to Moulding's has been built higher and placed further back than was originally agreed, which blocks some of the light and the view. Only four houses on site have solar hot water systems. "A lot of us were slightly remiss about solar hot water," says Coles, "I've left space for it on the roof, although it would have been easier to install at the time. My budget simply didn't stretch to it."

Moulding's response is that it should have been mandatory to have solar water panels. "But what can you do?," asks Hope. "You can't enforce these rules and you don't want to upset people." They are also annoyed that some people built larger houses than they needed but again, as Hope points out, "People imagined that they were going to stay here for a long time so they wanted to build big homes for their future children and so their parents could live with them later. It's a trade-off between these desires and green issues."

Brockwell agrees, saying, "It's important to give people their individuality. We got very good at chairing meetings – although most disputes were sorted out in the pub." Coles adds: "There were lots of big characters and everyone wanted a say. But we ended up with everyone being allowed to express their individuality. If we hadn't had that flexibility the project would have failed."

The result is a collection of unusual houses: most have outer timber walls and large verandas. Moulding's, built like a wedge of cheese, has a seaside feel with wood across the front. Upstairs, it opens out and is full of light and space: there's a portal glittering with blue LEDs leading into a study area, while downstairs the bed is semicircular, built into the wall. One house is boxy and bright yellow; a semi-detached is copper verdigris and there's a terracotta terrace with Swiss-style balconies dripping with nasturtiums.

When asked whether he would do anything differently, Coles cites Brockwell's house as a good example: on the south wall is a beautiful two-storey conservatory that encloses a veranda on the second floor. It's screened by vines in summer and acts as a passive solar source, warming the house in colder months and releasing heat in summer. Moulding is disappointed he wasn't able to make his house completely carbon neutral: "Anna and I put a huge amount of work and thought into this house, but on an overcast day, we have to use gas for hot water. But it is built to a high environmental standard and there are thousands of houses being built now that don't incorporate environmental criteria into their design."

Perhaps even more importantly is the solid sense of community that building the site has created. "It's like a soap opera," says Coles. "It's not a place to live if you're quiet and introverted." He and his partner love it: "Our neighbours are our friends, we have common interests and do things together – it feels like home."

www.ashleyvale.org.uk. For consultancy in eco design and self build, contact Jackson Moulding

How to cut your home's emissions

Energy use in houses accounts for 30 per cent of all carbon-dioxide emissions in the UK and as three-quarters of domestic energy use is for heating, building or altering your own house can radically minimise carbon emissions, which will also lead to lower fuel bills. The main ways to do this are to:

* Insulate well

The Bristol self-builders used a newspaper mulch called Warmcel as a cavity insulation. Another environmentally friendly substitute is British wool. Loft insulation and draft exclusion will also help to lower your energy costs.

* Install underfloor heating

Provides an even heat and is very efficient, running at about 35C, rather than the 75C of conventional radiators. Runs best with a condensing boiler as it's more efficient at low temperatures.

* Use passive solar heating

This uses warm air rising through the building, replacing it with fresh air coming through a "buffer" space, such as a south-facing conservatory. It's possible to obtain over half of a house's heat using this method.

* Double-glaze your windows

Houses with single-glazed windows can lose up to a fifth of their energy through the windows but double-glazing can cut this loss in half. You can double-glaze windows simply by putting clingfilm over them. The best way to alter them is to get a joiner to fit a second window inside the first one. If you're going to replace windows, use Field Studies Council-certified timber frames with "e"-coated windows filled with argon gas.

* Use alternative energy sources

* Solar panels, solar water, wood as a fuel and wind turbines can all be fitted to existing properties.

More information at the Centre for Alternative Technology (www.cat.org.uk)

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