By 2016 all new homes will have to be zero carbon and building regulations are getting tighter all the time to ensure energy and water efficiency is improved and carbon emissions are reduced in the UK housing stock.
For Terry Coghlan, founder of Brighton-based R&R Building Services,
getting ahead of the game when it comes to sustainable construction
, has become a priority. He knows just how valuable it is for the future success of his business to gain experience of eco builds.
"The regulations are going to get tougher and we need to be ready for that," he says.
Coghlan also knows just what a difference a better insulated home can make on energy bills. He built his own house around four years ago, the ground floor of which was designed to be below ground to prevent heat loss.
"Our heating bills are so low – and that is without installing renewable energy technologies," he explains.
Coghlan’s home was so unique that it was featured on a TV programme and landed him his first major eco build – a unique near zero carbon property, also built into the ground, in the back garden of an existing property in Brighton.
"It’s extremely environmentally friendly. It’s a good project to take on – the sustainable standards are much higher than required [by law] and there are lots of new products to learn about," he says.Low carbon building expertise
Coghlan says his company has benefited immensely from working on the project because of specialist low carbon architectural firm ZedFactory, founded by Bill Dunster, who is behind the renowned BedZed and BowZed eco developments in London. Although not the original architect on the Brighton build, ZedFactory has designed in many of project’s sustainable features, which followed the client’s strong desire to build out of natural materials with low embodied energy and high levels of thermal mass.
"That has been the biggest asset of working on this project because Bill Dunster is promoting this type of development and he has the staff that understands the requirements," says Coghlan.
There have been plenty of challenges along the way, however.
The original plan had been to use rammed earth for the main structural walls instead of more carbon-intensive concrete. However, the small plot of land on which the property is sited meant that plan had to be shelved and a compromise reached. In the end the main structural walls were built out of ground granulated blastfurnace slag (GGBS) – a by-product from the blast-furnaces used to make iron.
Another challenge was sourcing the natural floor and ceiling material for the downstairs of the property.
"It’s a natural clay product that had to be imported from the South of France," explains Coghlan.
In fact, sourcing materials for low carbon builds is still something of an art form, it seems.
"You can’t just send one of your guys down to the trade store and pick up some materials, you have to get it on special order," says Coghlan.
Another difficulty has been getting tradesman to change old habits.
"It’s not so much reskilling as getting tradesman to think differently – what might not have been important five years ago is now," notes Coghlan.
Investment for the future
One of the consequences of all of this is that R&R has been working on this particular project for a year and it is still not quite finished. Coghlan sees it very much as an investment for the future, though.
"We now know all about photovoltaic solar, low carbon heating systems, insulation and much more – all that knowledge we can bring into other parts of our business," says Coghlan.
And it’s not just experience that Coghlan and his team have gained. There are financial upsides to look forward to as well, as Coghlan explains: "We will be able to increase our margins substantially on projects like this in the future because work that has taken us two weeks to complete, as we learn the ropes, will take just a week when we come to do it again."Building a sustainable house: key features
R&R and ZedFactory built a near zero carbon home in Brighton to high environmental standards, using natural materials wherever possible. Key features include:
• Ground granulated blastfurnace slag (GGBS) for the retaining walls (internal walls made from GGBS blocks)
• Natural, self-finishing terracotta block system for downstairs floor and ceiling imported from France
• Glulam (engineered glue) laminated timber frame
• Local Sussex sweet chestnut wood for cladding
• Sedum mat – enhancing biodiversity and reducing rainwater run-off – on north facing roof – standing seam metal south facing zinc roof on south side to enable easy mount of solar panels
• Rainwater harvesting tank
• Mechanical ventilation heat recovery system and wood burner for heating
• Compost toiletCost of build
: £370,000Build period
: nine months to a year
(The SMART programme is funded by the European Regional Development Fund and promotes sustainable building among SMEs in the South East)