Eco-homes have gone from hippy to hip. Nine out of 10 buyers, including David Cameron, would choose one, according to a recent Mori poll. People are even willing to pay extra for a green home, if it will eventually save them in running costs while helping to save the planet. But buyers are wary and need to be convinced that they are not being bamboozled into paying higher prices without getting the real green thing. They are asking for well-designed homes which are satisfying to live in and provide value for money.
This is the housebuilders' challenge, and they have already begun to play a big role in delivering government's zero-carbon agenda. Homes account for more than a quarter of all carbon emissions in the UK. As well as making new homes carbon-free, the Government wants to improve the energy efficiency of existing property. Last week, climate change minister Chris Huhne confirmed a "pay-as-you-save" green deal scheme which will enable owners to modernise their properties and slash fuel bills, with up-front costs of £6,500 per property paid by energy companies.
Pass the test
A study two years ago by design watchdog CABE showed only 10 out of 700 new developments passed a thorough "green" test. But after a slow start the industry is moving forward fast, if only because to get planning permission housing developments must be able to demonstrate their green credentials.
Developers now have to meet eco ratings based on everything from how close a home is to public transport to how thermally efficient it is, how well it tackles recycling and whether it uses sustainable materials. In other words, green housing is not just about the technology, it is about how the housing fits into the local environment and promotes ecology.
New homes are, on average, six times more energy efficient than existing properties
Since April 2008 all new homes have been covered by the Code for Sustainable Homes, which grades properties on a scale of one to six using criteria such as water-saving features, on-site power generation and solar technology. Level six is the most "sustainable" rating and requires all energy supplied to homes to come from zero-carbon sources. Properties should be self-sufficient by producing enough energy in a year to cover what they draw from the national grid.
Greenwatt Way in Slough, an affordable housing scheme of 10 houses for key workers, is one of an elite group of homes to have achieved this status. According to the Department for Energy and Climate Change, there are only 20 or so completed code six schemes and most are single houses. New homes are on average six times more energy efficient than existing properties, generating over 60 per cent less Co2 emissions and reducing energy bills by more than £500 on average, says National Energy Services, an independent body.
But banal technicalities of green homes and industry jargon of biomass boilers and grey water collection are a turn off for many buyers.
This is why architecture has a big part to play. Zero-carbon homes that look good as well as being functional will always be more sought-after. Most developers committed to green design are leaning towards contemporary architecture and using more energy efficient factory production. If houses are to be innovative in the 21st century, they should look innovative — mock-Tudor homes with wind turbines tend to look daft.
But while leading housebuilders are embracing green homes, it tends to be niche developers who push the design boundaries and use the most advanced technology.
Green with envy
Airtight, triple-glazed, south-facing and massively insulated, four new-build houses at Aubert Park in Highbury look fabulous, too. So energy-efficient are these homes that virtually no heating is required — but an underfloor system utilising ground-source heat pumps has been installed anyway alongside an air cooling and ventilation system. Hot water and heating costs are about £30 a month.
The technology is based on a low-energy German construction standard called Passivhaus, now backed by the Government's Building Research Establishment.
Built on a former factory site amid Victorian terraces, the 3,000sq ft family homes have the restrained modernist look of the best Scandinavian or Continental architecture. The timber frame structure has a thermal skin wrapped in crisp white render, iroko and zinc cladding. Internally, every room has a full-width bank of glass allowing light to flood in. External electronically operated aluminium blinds act as sun screens to stop the house overheating.
A galleried lounge looks out over the garden and down into a double-height Bulthaup kitchen. The basement acts as a kids' den, gym or home cinema while the upper floors are four-bedroom suites with lots of bespoke storage, white, minimalist bathrooms with resin floors and access to two roof terraces.
Such homes need not cost a fortune to build: "About £150 a square foot, which is less than in the housing association sector," says Pieter Brons-Harper, the developer, who sourced many of the materials abroad for a cheaper price.
Of course, there is the cost of land, professional fees and a profit margin, meaning buyers will have to stump up £2,250,000 for one of the houses, which equates to more than £700 per sq ft. Call estate agent New London on 0845 643 1500.
Efficiency at its best
Going green means more than merely using the latest technology. For many the location and setting of their home are as important as energy-saving features when it comes to healthy living. When developer Alan Driscoll discovered Old Mill Island, a 10-acre quadrant of land between the River Frays and the Grand Union Canal in west London, he was captivated by its charm and oasis-like location, tucked away down a country lane and surrounded by water.
Once-derelict listed buildings have been restored to form seven houses that mix reclaimed materials and contemporary finishes such as full-height glass walls, while nine timber-clad homes have been built in the re-landscaped grounds.
The scheme has bags of character and comes with the added value of top eco ratings, courtesy of solar technology and an insulation system developed by NASA used in the UK for the first time. Prices range from £399,950 to £695,000. Call Savills on 01344 295361.
29 Trinity Crescent in Tooting comprises nine apartments built in Art Deco-style architecture on a former garden plot. Its Quad Lock concrete structure gives optimum insulation, and together with its sedum roof and water recycling it has gained a green design award.
The apartments are a step up in quality too, with oak floors throughout, underfloor heating, luxury kitchens with granite worktops, generous-size balconies plus secure parking and bicycle storage. Prices start at £249,950 and rise to £435,000. Call Rochford Stokes on 020 7801 6789.
Scandinavian design is the inspiration for the latest phase of homes at The Hamptons in Worcester Park. Called Providence Place, the new buildings on this 60-acre, 645-home estate are said to be reminiscent of grain mills and quayside warehouses. Through the "feed-in" tariff, owners get paid for each unit of solar energy generated. Apartments cost from £249,950, houses from £389,950. Call 020 8337 3425.