SUCCESS STORY: Eco-friendly living made easy

Posted: 14 April 2004

Author: Emma Duncan

Julie and Rob Starsmore had no intention of moving from their flat in a regular housing development just outside London. But that was before visiting BedZED - a new "eco-village" in the UK that gives residents a high standard of living and at the same time reduces their impact on the Earth's environment. Emma Duncan reports.

For Julie Starsmore, a 30-year-old nurse, it was love at first sight.

"We were driving past the construction site one day, and my husband wanted to have a look around. When I saw the apartment, I fell in love straight away. It was our biggest-ever impulse buy," she recalls, laughing.

BedZED housing development
BedZED housing development
BedZED housing development.© BioRegional

"I loved the space, I loved the amount of light inside the flat, I loved the look," says Julie. "I had no idea of the BedZED concept though. I didn't even realize that there was no central heating. It was a nice surprize when we got our first electricity bill!"

Rob, who's studying to be an architect, was more familiar with sustainable architecture. He knew a little about BedZED before he saw the site.

"But actually, I was more taken with the quality of the living space and the aesthetics," he says.

Steve Tabard, a sales manager in his early 40s, tells a similar story.

"My wife, Sue, and I had always been interested in recycling and saving water and energy," he says. "I saw an article on BedZED and really liked the concept. But what sold us was the architecture and design - it's modern, it's unique, it's convenient. "

Sustainable and attractive

It might seem a bit strange that the residents of the UK's first sustainable housing development are more taken with the look of their new homes than with the environmental benefits. But in fact, attractiveness and quality of life are extremely important to BedZED's creators.

"It's usually easier for people to choose the less environmentally friendly option," says Pooran Desai, director of the BioRegional Development Group, a partner in BedZED. "For example, you have to make an effort to find efficient electrical appliances that use less power, and they're usually more expensive. Plus there's less choice - and often, the most environmentally friendly product is not the most attractive one."

Jean-Paul Jeanrenaud from the global conservation organization WWF agrees. "Environmental groups often give people unappealing options: advice like 'turn down the heating and wear a jumper', 'ride a bicycle instead of using your car', and 'grow your own vegetables'. This works for some people, but for many it's either too difficult or simply not possible."

So when Pooran started the BedZED development, a key factor was to design and build homes and offices that make it easy, affordable, and attractive to live and work in a sustainable way. This concept helped the project gain financial support from a range of organizations, including WWF.

Saving energy

The eco-friendliness starts with the building material. The homes and offices were built using reclaimed steel, and timber from well-managed forests that have been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Most construction materials were sourced within a 60km radius of the site, reducing pollution and environmental damage by minimizing freight transport.

The buildings are also designed to save energy. The well-insulated homes have large, south-facing windows and conservatories to trap as much sunlight as possible, reducing the need for artificial lighting and heating. In contrast, the offices face north to reduce the need for air-conditioning to keep office equipment cool.

The homes are fitted with energy-efficient refrigerators, ovens, and other electrical appliances. Solar panels and an onsite combined heat and power plant - which runs on tree surgery waste - provide hot water and electricity.

Monitoring results indicate that heating is reduced by about 90 per cent and total electricity consumption by 25 per cent compared to conventional homes. The BedZED development uses no fossil fuels, and produces no net CO2 from energy use.

This doesn't just benefit the environment, it also benefits the residents.

"Our electricity bill is a third of what it used to be," says Steve.

Recycling made easy

On top of the energy savings, rainwater is collected for the toilets, all taps are water saving taps, and sewerage is treated on site using biological reed beds. This has reduced mains water consumption by 50 per cent.

Recycling is made easy through segregated bins inside the homes, and conveniently located collection bins onsite. And, rather than owning their own car, the residents and office workers are encouraged to use public transport, shared onsite cars, or electric vehicles powered by the onsite solar panels.

"The beauty of BedZED is that there's no need to compromise on lifestyle or comfort in order to live in a more sustainable way," says Steve. " We are doing something for the environment simply by living here, and the things we used to do already, such as recycling, are now easier. On top of this, we're not paying any extra: our townhouse was very reasonably priced and we have cheaper energy bills."

For Julie, living at BedZED has changed her views.

"I wasn't very environmentally aware before moving here," she says. "I used to do a little recycling, but it was a bit of a pain to collect everything and then take it to the recycling station."

Now, thanks to the convenience provided by BedZED, Julie and Rob recycle everything. They sold their car in order to buy a Smart car, which is more fuel efficient. They've decided not to use disposable nappies when their first child is born in a few weeks. And they also encourage their family to recycle.

Community spirit

BedZED isn't just an eco-friendly place to live and work - it also encourages an active social environment.

"There's a good community spirit here," says Steve. "We meet for Friday drinks, there's a book club, a crèche, and an allotment we can all work at. But it's not forced - people are free to join in as much or as little as they like."

"A lot has been made of BedZED being a green development," says Rob. "But actually, the people living here are real people. There's families, couples with no kids, retired people - and everyone is very friendly. The social angle is nice."

The burning question for both couples is what to do when it's time to move.

"We will need to move eventually, but I don't think I could go back to a more traditional flat or terrace, or to higher electricity bills," says Steve. "So my biggest concern is, where's the next BedZED going to be?"

"When we move, it will have to be to somewhere that has the same principles," agrees Rob.

The BioRegional Development Group and WWF do have plans to create further sustainable developments in the UK as well as other parts of the world.

"Our new One Planet Living programme aims to establish five sustainable communities in Europe, the US, China, South Africa, and Australia," says Pooran. "These communities will be based on the principles developed at BedZED."

The idea is that these communities will then be replicated by local developers and that eventually, sustainable housing will be the norm.

There are signs that the shift is already beginning in the UK. In his studies, Rob has seen that sustainable architecture is now covered by most schools, and he believes that it will be become an essential core component.

"My hope is that BedZED isn't simply admired as an example of good ecological design, but instead that it becomes mainstream," he says. "There's nothing here that another developer couldn't replicate. BedZED shouldn't be so unusual - everyone should be living like this."

  • BedZED stands for Beddington Zero Energy Development. It comprises 90 homes and enough office and work space for 100 people, and is located in the south London borough of Sutton, UK. BedZED was initiated by environmental organization BioRegional Development Group and leading architect Bill Dunster, and developed by London's largest housing trust, the Peabody Trust..

    Emma Duncan is Managing Editor at WWF International, based in Gland, Switzerland.

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