Carbon Neutral Housing Takes a Step Forward

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The Greenwatt Way development is piloting carbon-neutral housing (Photo by Sara Bartlett/SSE)

Zero-carbon is trendy just now – as emphasis on building and design shifts towards sustainability the world is competing to produce zero carbon theaters, football matches, even a zero-carbon bra.  In the UK, energy company SSE has developed a series of ten dwellings where zero carbon living has become a reality.

What are Zero Carbon Homes?

The definition of zero carbon is complex and fraught with difficulty (a UK government paper on the subject ran to a bewildering 111 pages.) On the basis of the most recent statement by the UK housing minister it can effectively be summarized as a requirement for house builders to take account of sustainability in the design of new-build properties according to certain specifications.

Chris Wilford of PRP Architects, who were involved in the design of SSE project, told Decoded Science, in a June 23 interview, that current definitions “don’t account for the offsetting of carbon from the embodied energy – which is the energy required to extract, fabricate, transport and install the materials used to construct a house” – though rules now in place allow for some flexibility.

It’s unlikely, therefore, that any new buildings can be described as truly ‘zero carbon.’ However, new developments will increase energy generated through such features as solar panels, while reducing the amount of energy used through improved design. Under such a scenario, a carbon neutral  property might be defined as one which generates at least as much energy as it consumes over the course of a year.

The Zero Carbon Experiment at Greenwatt Way

In the town of Slough, in Berkshire, energy company SSE has established a complex of ten houses and flats which are a pilot project for sustainable building and sustainable living. A mix of timber-framed and masonry-built properties on a brownfield site, the homes have been occupied since September 2010.

A range of features, including a single energy center to provide electricity and hot water for the whole development, means that the homes at Greenwatt Way are highly efficient. Windows are triple glazed while rainwater harvesting and greywater recycling reduce water usage.

According to Ross Easton, SSE employee and Greenwatt Way resident, the benefits for SSE are threefold. As an energy supplier, SSE is able to test sustainable products. As an energy distributor, the company will learn what impact a shift towards renewable sources will have on the National Grid as patterns of use vary, for example, seasonally. And over the longer term, there are issues relating to generation of energy from more conventional sources.

Although building homes is only a part of sustainable energy use, the humans who live in them are, of course, the ultimate arbiters of their success. Ross Easton testifies, however, that living in an energy-efficient environment does have an impact on behavior,  for example in terms of using appliances at times when the solar panels are generating. And it certainly seems true that an energy-efficient environment such as Greenwatt Way can make a difference to future sustainability.

Sources
SSE. “SSE Zero Carbon Home development.” Accessed June 23, 2011.
HM Government Definition of Zero Carbon Homes and Non-Domestic Buildings Consultation paper December 2008. Accessed June 23, 2011.
Shapps, G.  “Written Statement on Buildings and the Environment” 17 May 2011. Accessed June 23, 2011.

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