Here are ten inspiring houses that show a way forward on sustainable housing. It’s not a scientific top ten in any way. They’re not rated for energy efficiency or for innovative architecture – I’m looking for real-life, ordinary houses. If it’s fit only for millionaires or hippy small-holders, I’m not interested, because we all need to live in home like these eventually. And in the future, an eco-house is just called a house.
1. The Tree House
This London home used so many techniques that hadn’t been tried before in the UK, owner Will Anderson had to pay for manuals to be translated from Swedish. The Tree House is a net energy producer, has a vast rainwater tank underneath, and is regularly visited by government ministers wanting to know what a zero-carbon home looked like. It’s a great example of ‘urban in-fill’, squeezing new houses into empty plots in cities.
2. The Yellow House
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Yellow House is ex-council and as unglamorous as you can get, but it’s still a bona fide eco-home. Climate campaigner George Marshall retrofitted this 1930s house with painstaking attention to detail, and his website is a goldmine of useful information. We can’t knock everything down and build new, so this kind of pioneering experimentation is really important. I also like this one because my own house is very similar, a 1920s terrace of four, and it shows what our place could be.
In 2005 the government responded to a housing shortage by challenging developers to come up with an energy efficient house that could be mass produced and built for £60,000. The winning design has a glass roof for natural light and solar gain, and a heat recovery ventilation system. It can be built in 35 different configurations, can be erected in as little as three weeks, and estates of SixtyK houses have been built in several locations. It’s not as efficient as some of the houses here and later versions are improving on the original design, but it shows that sustainable housing can be done cheaply on a large scale.
4. Kesteven Straw Bale Houses
Natural building uses local, renewable, low-tech materials to make highly efficient houses. Straw bale houses use one of the cheapest and simplest techniques, but the ones in Kesteven are particularly notable – they’re council houses. Proving once and for all that natural building can be mainstream, North Kesteven District Council built these straw bale homes to provide affordable housing. If the council estates of the future look like this, we’ll be fine.
Another apparently ordinary house, 3 Acorns was not only London’s first certified zero-carbon retro-fitted home, but is now carbon positive. A decade-long project by Donnachad McCarthy, the 1840s Victorian terrace has been kitted out with solar panels, solar hot water, and a rainwater harvesting system that provides 70% of water needs. The house is a net exporter of electricity, and a net importer of waste – McCarthy claims to have thrown away just half a wheelie bin in a whole year.
I ought to include some apartments in this list, and OneBrighton is a good place to start. It claims to be the most sustainable residential building in the country, allowing residents to cut 95% of their housing emissions. Designed for ‘one planet living’ in the city, its 172 apartments are right next to the train station, there are mini-allotments on the roof and all heating and hot water are from an on-site biomass burner. There are no parking places, except for the car club and a couple of disabled spots.
7. Leicester Ecohouse
Open to the public all year round, this was Britain’s first environmental show home. It’s run by the charity Groundwork and has a cafe and a bookshop, and you can drop by for a tour or advice. As well as demonstrating household efficiency and renewable technology, the house is a showcase for greener living more generally, and is set in a large organic garden. It was built in 1989, and is currently being refitted for the 21st century.
From the same group as OneBrighton, Bioregional sat down and devised the Beddington Zero Energy Development as a holistic vision for a sustainable community. The buildings are low energy, it is planned with walking in mind and has an onsite car club. It’s become a powerful symbol of what sustainable housing developments could be, helped along by its iconic multicoloured roof vents.
9. Chimney Pot Park
Britain’s cities are full of streets of Victorian terraces, cheap but sturdy houses built for industrial workers. They’re a little small and not particularly popular, but they’re good houses and they’re compact. Terraces are also more energy efficient because they only have two external walls. Chimney Pot Park radically re-imagines the Victorian terrace by fitting a whole new house inside the walls, and building decks across the back. It’s a very clever regeneration initiative that created desirable new houses without changing the existing architectural heritage of the area.
10. BRE Innovation Park
I saved this one for last because it’s a collection of buildings. The Buildings Research Establishment have built an entire village of experimental test houses on their Innovation Park near Watford. There are seven eco-homes here and a health centre, demonstrating modular construction, natural building materials, renewable energy and ’emerging technologies’. Construction companies such as Barratts and Hanson have road tested their designs here, and you can book a visit if you want to see for yourself.