If you want a carbon-neutral home, try the luxury end of the market, suggests Kevin Braddock
As a means of reducing your personal carbon footprint, investing in property may not seem the obvious way to go. But with Gordon Brown's proposal to introduce "eco-towns" across the UK, former secretary of state for communities (and now Secretary of State for Transport) Ruth Kelly's announcement that by 2016 all new homes should be carbon neutral, another property may be just the thing.
What's more, it is boutique property developers at the luxury end of the market who are leading the change—and the appetites of high-net-worth individuals are enabling them to do so. They are implementing a range of sustainable features and ecologically sympathetic building practices—from geothermal boreholes to solar panels and wind turbines. It is a fast-growing market, and multimillion-pound properties that hit the high scores on the government's Code for Sustainable Homes, launched in April 2007, are becoming highly desirable.
The emergence of a sustainable property sector, says Julian Brooks of Greenmoves.com, is akin to the boom in organic food that began several years ago. "We think there will be about 5,000 eco-properties on the market this year," he says. "That is going to grow." In particular, he adds, it is the small and medium-sized builders, rather than the City-controlled PLCs that are leading the way. "The new boys with the younger, more dynamic, boards will get there first," Brooks says.
For the acquisitive property investor looking to save the planet in style, choice is currently limited, but rapidly adapting to cater to wealthy tastes.
The idea of "sustainable luxury" comes alive in renovations like the Clareville Street project in London's South Kensington by Andrew Murray's Morpheus Developments. Its three houses combine a stratospherically high-spec design aesthetic: marble bathrooms, walnut wardrobes, bespoke joinery, cinema room, mirrored gym, limestone steam and shower room and cigar humidor with eco features that include geothermal boreholes to supply green energy, solar panels, rain water farming, waste compactors, recycled lambswool insulation and low energy lighting throughout. Just about everything the Ferrari-driving Swampy could wish for is included.
Murray notes that while government planning restrictions for ecological projects are being relaxed, other more visible innovations—such as exterior wind turbines—are yet to become standard. "It's rare to get a wind turbine on top of a house," he says. "Most of the stuff we do is non-visual—it's outside the planning remit. You walk in the door and it's a very high-spec house, but you wouldn't necessarily know you were looking round an eco-house."
Jeremy Paxton's Lower Mill Estate development comprises 175 completed luxury houses across a 450-acre site in the Gloucestershire countryside. In a long-term development by Conservation Builders, the site offers a further 400 properties available off-plan, with prices up to £10m. Buyers can opt to have their bespoke visions and customisations brought to life by architects such as Will Alsop and Sarah Featherstone.
Each house comes with exceptionally high sustainability standards: building materials drawn from sustainable sources, argon-filled double glazing, rainwater-recycling systems, 90 per cent efficient woodburners (with an endless supply of fuel from Lower Mills's sustainable forest), A-rated energy-saving appliances, drought-resistant paint and an emphasis on natural light to reduce energy consumption. Meanwhile, the entire project is being managed in consultation with global environmental conservation organisation WWF to preserve the local environment. The estate's helipad may seem like an anomaly in this ultra-green environment—until you realise only carbon-offsetted flights are permitted to land.
For eco-warriors of a certain age, the new Cliveden Village development in Berkshire, set among the grounds of the stately home that hosted John Profumo's romance with the young Christine Keeler, anticipates a "very good" or "excellent" score on the government's sustainability rating scale. Targeting the over-55 "NONYs" (Not Old, Not Young), the project's build materials have all been sourced from within 50 miles to reduce transport carbon emissions. Houses are equipped with solar hot-water installations, water-recycling systems and other sustainability nice-to-haves.
For the pottering retiree in search of a few back-to-nature experiences, Cliveden Village's gardens will also feature lavender, rosemary, strawberries and raspberries to save on those ecologically-destructive, last-minute grocery trips to the supermarket. Prices rise to £750,000 for a three-bed house.
Evidently, this kind of responsibility does not come cheap. In part, argues Andrew Murray, that's because building suppliers have yet to catch up with the sustainability agenda of indie developers such as Morpheus. "We're very limited in what we can install," he says. "But they're going to be forced to keep up, because regulations are changing. In the past two years, for example, we've had to install 25 per cent lower energy lights, plus heat and sound insulation."
Though it is increasingly possible to buy an off-the-shelf, zero-carbon home—which hits the feted Level 6 on the government's Code for Sustainable Homes—the scarcity of properties coming to market adds a premium to prices, says Julian Brooks of Greenmoves.com. He estimates this at between five-15 per cent on sustainable development prices, reflecting a combination of location, architect-build value and eco credentials.
This explains why the grandiose and fantastical kind of bespoke-sustainable builds seen on Kevin McCloud's Grand Designs are rare beasts. Yet as more developers begin to pursue an ecological agenda in architecture, design and technology it's only a matter of time before the big property companies follow suit. Meanwhile, the truly wealthy in search of the ultimate eco-pad may be well advised to follow the old hippy mantra: grow (or build) your own.