Energy efficient property: the lure of the 'nil-bill' home

Energy efficient property: the lure of the 'nil-bill' home

By day Stephen is a project director involved in building Terminal Two at Heathrow, which will cost around £3 billion. But at night he returns to his children Beth, 15, and Wills, 14, and the pleasures of the house created with his wife Anne and local architect David Gregory. It is one of a tiny number of new houses to achieve an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) top A rating.

The Barn House draws energy from the ground using a ground-source heat pump which extracts warmth from the earth through a labyrinth of underground pipes. “We also have photovoltaic panels which use solar energy for the electricity, solar thermal for the hot water, and a heat recovery system which is constantly taking out stale air, bringing in fresh air and heating it,” says Stephen. Half the electricity is sold to the National Grid.

The house works like a mini ecosystem. Sewage goes into a bio-digester.

“In our old house we had a septic tank, and a lorry came to take away the sludge. The bio-digester bubbles air through the sewage-soup and breaks it down so the water which runs out at the end is completely clear.” There are underground tanks to collect rainwater for reuse.

“At any one time I can see how much water, electricity and solar power we have used. We have to live a bit differently to catch the photovoltaic energy during the day, so we always put the dishwasher and washing machine on before it gets dark. It is a good way to live because you control your environment.” Though the family love the house, they are selling through Knight Frank (01962 850333) at £1.2 million. “We have got the bug and want to do an underground house next,” says Stephen.

Individuals rather than developers appear to be the true prophets of green technology. Nick Price was a Sustainability Code assessor and became so interested that he built two energy-efficient houses in Winchester which attained Sustainability Code 5. The top level is Code 6, which very few reach. Then he bought a run-down artist’s studio and garden, near where he lives in Bury St Edmunds, to go one stage further.

He demolished the studio and built Evergreen House with a system of super-insulated panels and a flat roof. “I put in lots of triple glazing on the south side, made it airtight with a combined heating and ventilation system which extracts stale air and heats fresh air. It keeps the house in perfect balance, so there is no need for radiators.” They have a log burner for when it gets cold and a little underfloor electric heating in the barefoot areas but that’s all. Solar panels heat the hot water and the house makes enough electricity to pay its own bills. Bedfords (01728 454505) is selling it with an EPC top A rating at £550,000.

“There is a tipping point in house buyers’ understanding of energy use and we are reaching it,” says Nick. At a time of acute fuel-anxiety these energy-saving features can shave hundreds, or even thousands, of pounds off utility bills.

Research by Knight Frank shows that houses which have high EPC ratings sell more quickly than they did in 2010. “Though EPCs were introduced in 2007, it is only in the last year or so that buyers have started to pay attention to them,” says Rupert Sweeting, head of country residential property at Knight Frank. “We have also seen an increase in the popularity of traditional houses which are eco-aware. Those heated by wood-chip boilers, for example.”

Nick and Bridget Sweet bought their derelict former water pumping station at auction in 2009 with the aim of creating a “nil-bill” house. They didn’t know at the time that it would lead to television appearances — on Restoration Home with Caroline Quentin, and You Live In What? in the United States.

Nick travels the world as a partner of Barton Willmore, planning and design experts, extolling the virtues of new eco cities. “I do so much preaching that I really want to live the life too. I wanted to do a showcase project,” he says.

Nutbourne Studio, near Pulborough in West Sussex, is now self-sufficient in electricity for cooking, heating, lighting and hot water. “Firstly, look at all the ways to save energy because you have to make sure you don’t lose it before you start generating it,” he says. The first step was to add “half an acre” of insulation to the outside of the building. An array of solar panels qualified them for feed-in-tariff. In March, the house qualifies for the Renewable Heat Incentive and there is a 20-year contract with Southern Electric which generates £3,500 a year.

The Sweets were able to drop the pipes for the ground-source heat pump into boreholes which already existed deep inside the pumping station. “It was perfect,” says Nick. They installed a wood-burning stove, individual thermostatic controls in each room and an instant hot-water loop system.

The basement is a huge open area where the twins Willem and Francesca, aged nine, and their shaggy Bouvier dog can mess about. A huge sunken water reservoir lies next door, on which they have got planning permission for an annexe or studio. But as the children’s school takes too long to drive to each day they are selling through Strutt & Parker (01403 246790) with an EPC top A rating at £1.5 million in order to embark on another project. 

Watch for 

The Energy Performance Certificate: every property for sale or rent must have one. It shows, on a scale of A to G, how much energy is used.

The Sustainability Code: complements the EPCs and is a way of assessing the environmental and energy performance of new homes on a scale of 1 to 6. 

06 February 2014 The Telegraph

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