Inside an eco home: What life is like when you don’t have bills

Yahoo! staff writer
Yahoo! British Gas Hub
9 March 2012

Jane and Stephen Frances' eco home outside Ely
Jane and Stephen Frances' eco home outside Ely

By Harriet Meyer

Energy bills are burning a hole in consumers' pockets, with the cost of heating and lighting the average home amounting to an eye-watering £1,200 a year, according to the Energy Saving Trust.

But some households manage to reduce or even wipe out these bills entirely by putting in place eco measures to reduce their energy consumption.

So what's life like for these eco-enthusiasts off the grid? Don't all those green tweaks and energy-saving measures get in the way of daily life?

Eco home in the woods

Jane and Stephen Frances, 56 and 53 respectively, are reaping the benefits of life in a 'green' home and find their quality of life is much improved. The couple bought a four-bed house made entirely from natural materials in the Fens outside Ely two years ago (pictured above).

"We saw it online and at first were scared of its unusual qualities — but we love it now," says Jane. "It's built from natural materials, so made primarily from timber, straw bales, clay and lime — and the roof is made of shingles which are a kind of wooden tiles."

Alongside the structure, the couple have installed a multitude eco-friendly measures to reduce their energy usage.

These include a wood-burning stove, for which they gather wood from the surrounding land, solar thermal to generate renewable power on the roof and rainwater harvesting — so there is an area on the roof where rainwater is collected in tanks to reduce the use of mains water.

"From April to October we really don't heat the water at all because the sun heats it, so we benefit from extremely low energy bills during these months," says Jane. "We also have an air-source heat pump, which is a low temperature heat source — and we aim to be self-sufficient by growing our own vegetables."

Jane and Stephen's garden
Jane and Stephen's garden

However, it's not just the odd eco-home around the country that includes a range of green measures. Driven by the Government's 10—year plan for all new homes to be carbon neutral by 2016 many developers are building energy—efficient apartment blocks around the UK.

After all, a staggering 50% of the UK's carbon footprint comes from running buildings, according to the UK Green Buildings Council, so concern over climate change is seeing developers devise new ways to reduce their impact.

A feat of eco design

An example is One Brighton, built jointly by Crest Nicholson and sustainable developer BioRegional Quintain and completed in 2010, which comprises 172 studio, one and two-bedroom "eco apartments" in the New England quarter. About 58% of the concrete frame is made from recycled materials, reducing carbon emissions by a third.

The aim of the project was to build a community designed to run entirely on renewable energy — and it appears to have succeeded. Principles include achieving zero-waste status through recycling and composting, building using sustainable materials wherever possible, implementing sustainable transport solutions and applying measures to support local suppliers, food and wildlife.

TheTop of FormBottom of Form energy on site comes from a renewable wood-fuelled boiler and photovoltaic array on the roof, with green electricity supplied from eight wind turbines. All communal areas use eco lightbulbs, with all fitted appliances being A or AA-energy rated. There is also an on-site composter.

The eco development One Brighton
The eco development One Brighton

But what are the benefits? As the 'zero carbon sustainable community' shares the building's environment facilities, you're likely to get to know your neighbours — so it's a sociable place with a shared sense of purpose.

How you can use less energy

Wherever you live there are various methods of incorporating energy-saving measures into your lifestyle to save energy in your home. Here is a selection from the Energy Saving Trust:

  • Turn your room heating thermostat down by 1C to cut your heating bills by up to 10%.
  • You can get foams and sealants available at most DIY stores to combat poor ventilation and draughts.
  • Insulating your loft is also worthwhile to cut bills, as the recommended 270mm depth can be installed at a cost of a few hundred pounds — and you could save around £100 a year on your bills.
  • Also, lag your pipes and water tank at the same time for maximum efficiency by fitting a British Standard jacket around your hot water cylinder — this can cut heat loss by over 75%.
  • A third of the heat in an un-insulated home is lost through the walls. There are two wall types — solid walls and cavity walls. Both can be insulated to improve the energy efficiency of a property. If the home was built from 1920 onwards there is a good chance it has cavity walls. A home with un-insulated cavity walls could cost up to £135 more to run each year than one with insulated cavities, so it's worth finding out the state of play.
  • You should replace your boiler roughly every 15 years and opt for an 'A' rated appliance which uses less energy and is also more environmentally friendly. Standard efficiency boilers that you may have had for ten years or more are only 50% efficient. Replacing a G rated boiler could save around £300 a year on running costs. Worcester's 'A' rated condensing boilers, for example, are particularly efficient.
  • Double-glazed windows can save up to £165 on heating bills compared to a single-glazed property.
  • Heavy lined curtains can help keep the heat in if double-glazing can't be fitted.

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