Developers have been dabbling with green construction methods for a while now, but none has captured eco design quite like South West Eco Homes. Tom Idle paid a visit to the Great Bow Yard project in Somerset and spoke to regional co-ordinator, Cara Naden
Two years ago, the piece of brownfield land in question had been playing host to the agricultural industry.
It was then bought by the private development arm of the Somerset Trust for Sustainable Development charity, and South West Eco Homes set about constructing homes offering an example of of sustainable practice. "This project was a way of us setting up an exemplar so that developers can come down and see that we don't just talk the talk - we walk it too,"says Naden.
The project is a first for the organisation and the UK's first ever sustainable development of private sale dwellings. Of course, eco housing has been pioneered before - the BedZED project in south London has been featured in these pages - but never sold solely to the public, in a rural location.
The site consists of 12 houses - town houses designed with small families in mind, houses with in-built home offices, and two one-bedroom flats. This first phase is complete, with most properties now occupied. Phase Two will commence soon, involving the refurbishment of a listed warehouse, which dates back to 1780. This will be converted into small offices, a riverside restaurant (next to the River Parrett) and community exhibition area.
But what's so special about this development? Well, while most housing developers dabble with the idea of incorporating green measures into the design process of their vast estates, South West Eco has taken a top-to-toe approach to environmental elements. Designed by architects Strides Treglown, the properties feature numerous innovations to harvest rainwater, prevent heat loss and capture the sun's heat, improve health and support local wildlife. Meanwhile, locally sourced, recycled, reused and organic materials have been used wherever possible to reduce energy waste and cut the road miles of many of the key suppliers and contractors.
Eco housing projects are often seen as gimmicky and unattractive. But, interestingly, more than 60% of the houses have been sold off-plan, which demonstrates a clear demand. But has the green nature of Great Bow Yard been the sole basis for purchase? "A range of people have moved in - from young families, and even a retired couple have bought one," Naden tells me.
"The environmental nature of the houses was definitely a consideration for those in the north wing because they've got a lot more environmental elements that you can interact with. They were very keen to have these green measures in place because of the reduced running costs.
"Meanwhile, the town houses have the opportunity to put in photovoltaics, which the government is now supporting with a new grants project. These will be subsidised by up to 50%." So, why weren't all dwellings supported by photovoltaics and rain harvesting solutions at the construction stage? "It was down to cost really. That and giving the residents the opportunity to do what they wanted."
Naden hits the nail on the head with this statement. The debate surrounding eco construction is entangled with costs. It is more expensive to build in this way. Efficient products are relatively new and unique, harder to procure and are in the early stages of entering the building marketplace. As Naden states: "It's the alternative energy that costs the most - the gadgets and gizmos - and because it's still quite a specialist area.
"But as more and more people turn to this method [of construction], it will become cheaper. "But things like using local material means you are supporting the local economy and promoting sustainable means." And its in this domain that South West Eco Homes have got it so right.
Locally sourced products are much cheaper to transport and add a real earthy feel to the design. All of the houses are made from timber frames ("all timber is FSC-accredited", notes Naden) and the development was lucky enough to source this material from nearby Stourhead. "It's not just about thinking about construction, but everything that goes into that.
"The timber was sourced locally, reducing transport and CO2 emissions." What's really nice about this is that the wood is a Western Red Cedar, which is already acclimatised to the local environment, and has the highest amount of natural oils in the timber so it doesn't need treating. No paints and carcinogenics are required here.
In terms of efficiency, the houses possess thick walls filled with WarmCell insulation, which is made from recycled newspaper ("it's becoming a lot more mainstream"). Glass on the facades allows for passive heating, and solar shading deals with overheating in the high summer. Meanwhile, rain water is collected from the roof run-off and used in the systems for flushing the toilets. If there's no rain, there is mainstream backup. But the selling strategy for the developers' sales teams centred on the cost savings that could be realised by living in this development. At almost £250,000 for a two-bedroom house on the outskirts of Yeovil, it's certainly not a cheap option. But Naden contests: "Initially, it's a little more costly but you're saving a lot in the long-term running of these buildings. Fuel prices are rocketing every year and it's really hitting those that can't really afford it."
She has a point but try telling that to the bulk of private developers, especially in the South-east, who are faced with expensive land and labour costs.
What South-west Eco Homes has achieved with this project is undoubtedly the future of sustainable construction. It's now up to the rest of Britain's builders to follow this lead. "A lot of developers have come round and because some of these houses even sold off-plan, there is a really encouraging sign that there is a demand.
"And it's like any project: once you get mainstream buy-in, the price will come down. We're very fortunate in the South-west in that we've got a lot of materials locally. Well, that's how they used to build in the old days.