And then there was one

4th November 2015


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North West Bicester is the sole survivor of the visionary ecotown programme. With the first homes being sold, Catherine Early pays a visit

Ecotowns should have been a no-brainer. Designed as pioneering settlements with visionary environmental and social standards, they aimed to tackle both the housing and environmental crises, while improving inhabitants' health and wellbeing. Instead they were panned by critics who accused them of subverting the planning system and being expensive white elephants. Of the 10 originally championed by then Labour chancellor Gordon Brown, four were approved (see below). Of these, only one - North West Bicester in Oxfordshire - is still being developed under the core ecotown principles set out in the now defunct planning policy.

NW Bicester has been designed to meet Bioregional's One Planet Living principles and has an extensive list of environmental and sustainability targets (see below). All homes will run on electricity only and have rainwater harvesting and other water-saving features to constrict daily use to 80 litres a person. The development as a whole will include 17,500m2 of solar panels across its rooftops and a district heating network powered by a gas-fuelled combined heat and power (CHP) plant. To reduce conventional car use there will be a bus stop within 400 metres of each home, segregated cycle lanes and an electric car club. More than 40% of 400 hectares of land being developed will be allocated to green space, with wildlife corridors running around homes. The development will boast a communal orchard, fruit bushes, herb boxes and allotments. Each household will be able to choose an apple, pear or plum tree for their garden.

A residential development

The first 91 homes of the development's exemplar phase, which will eventually total 393 dwellings, are due to be completed by the end of the year. Twenty-seven have been sold since June, with buyers varying between those with a strong desire to live more sustainably to those who just like the houses, says Steve Hornblow, project director at A2Dominion, the housing association acting as lead developer. The homes have been designed to look traditional without the "eco-bling" of other developments, such as Bioregional's BedZed development in south London, with its distinctive wind cowls that provide passive ventilation.

NW Bicester's first residents will be key to how the rest of the 6,000-home scheme is developed over the next 20 years, as they will be pioneers of using the technology. Their energy use will be monitored on a neighbourhood level and the data will be crucial to determining whether the development will meet its target of being "true zero-carbon" - that is, whether all energy consumption, including the extra used by householders to power TVs and gadgets, will be zero-carbon.

As part of this, all homes will come with appliances installed to avoid residents bringing in inefficient ones that might add to the energy load needed for the properties. This is more ambitious than the government's now abandoned zero-carbon homes target, which covered only regulated energy, meaning what is used for heating, lighting and hot water. This will make the development about 30% more ambitious than the zero-carbon target, says Hornblow. For now, A2Dominion is using historical data from existing housing stock in its calculations for energy consumption. This will be reassessed once energy use in the exemplar homes has been monitored for 10 years post occupation, with the "actual" unregulated energy use taken into account for onsite production in future phases of the scheme.

The development is receiving funding from the government body, Innovate UK, for a four-year research project aimed at monitoring the gap between the performance the homes are designed to achieve and what they do achieve. The project, called the Bicester ecotown process implementation toolkit (BEPIT) and involves A2Dominion, Willmott Dixon, Bioregional, architects PRP and Loughborough University, will test different solutions to bridge any gap. Two researchers are based on site. Hornblow says they have highlighted some simple issues such as the airtightness of pipes entering the homes and ensuring tradespeople do not accidentally drill through airtight membranes.

Meeting the challenges

A2Dominion admits that the transport targets are its biggest challenge. It is aiming to reduce the rate of trips by petrol and diesel cars from the Bicester average of 67.5% to 50%. It is aiming for 10% of residents to have electric cars by 2017. To help meet this, A2Dominion is subsidising electric cars for residents and holding events where they can tell others about their experience. All residents will be given an electric vehicle for a two-week trial, and manufacturers will attend promotional events to arrange test drives. All homes will have infrastructure for electric charging points, which will be installed free if the resident buys an electric car within two years of moving in. The presence of an onsite electric car club will also help to meet the target.

The segregated cycle lanes include a direct route into Bicester for commuters as well as more scenic routes for leisure cyclists. In a further move to encourage cycling, the developer is applying for permission to replace a 50mph road that cuts the ecotown off from the rest of Bicester with one of 30mph with segregated cycle lanes and crossing points for pedestrians.

Another major challenge the developer has faced is how to deal with the surplus energy generated onsite by the solar panels and a CHP plant. It has cost A2Dominion around £1 million to upgrade the energy network for the first phase of the scheme, according to Hornblow. "In the UK, the grid is not very good at taking energy in," he says. "We've had to pay substantial money to upgrade the network to get energy from the site into the grid. We've ended up with four substations, purely to cope with the energy we're generating, not what we're using. It's not something you normally think of when you're a housebuilder; it's been quite a learning curve for us. You can't just put loads of solar PV on every roof because that energy has to go somewhere."

Hornblow is already negotiating with energy storage manufacturers to install equipment in future phases of the scheme. Batteries the size of a small suitcase could fit inside roofs or garages to store what the PV panels produce instead of feeding it into the grid, for example. The technology will be trialled on some of the homes next year.

The ecotown aims to reduce the embedded carbon of each home by 40% compared with a typical new build. Data from manufacturers is used to compare the carbon emitted through the manufacture of all the materials in the homes and their surrounds, such as kerbstones. It has worked on this with experts at consultancy Sustain. They calculated that the design of the homes would result in an almost 29% reduction in embodied carbon. The report has been used to inform design of future phases of the development, such as increased use of timber cladding, which has a lower carbon footprint.

So far, the project is progressing well towards its targets (see below). "There were challenges to achieve all the targets since they are very demanding," says Nick Schoon, policy and communications manager at Bioregional. "We and A2Dominion knew that, which is why we were open to the idea of reviewing the plan in the light of experience."

One thing no developer can guarantee is the behaviour of residents once they move in. But rather than tell people what they are not allowed to do, A2Dominion's tactic is to encourage behaviour change by making sustainable living as easy as possible by giving residents the information and tools to make this possible. Each home will have a tablet information system, known as the "shimmy". Residents will be able to use this to find out how much energy and water they are using, when the next bus is due and to book electric vehicles from the car club. The shimmy will inform residents about efficient use of the technology in their homes, such as reminders to switch ventilation systems to summer mode. "Over time we can bring to them the benefits of living here so that they will slowly adapt their lifestyle over time. We're not telling people that they have to be green to live here or it would never sell," Hornblow says.

Schoon also acknowledges that generating behaviour change may be hard: "Against a background in which people live increasingly individualistic lives, how are we going to create that ethos where people will go the extra mile for sustainability? A lot of that is to do with creating a strong community, taking up the opportunities around local food growing and using the car less."

It will also be a challenge to ensure that future phases of the development remain in line with the original high ambitions of the first phase, Schoon adds. The government's cancellation of both ecotown planning policy in March and the zero-carbon homes target in July should not directly affect NW Bicester, since the ecotown is now enshrined in Cherwell District Council's local plan. However, significant research and development in the housebuilding sector was geared towards meeting the zero-carbon homes target and it remains to be seen whether the supply chain will maintain that to meet the requirements of developments such as NW Bicester.

Louise Sunderland, senior policy adviser at the Green Building Council, says that, in the short term, projects like NW Bicester should not have a problem because the target was due to come into effect next year and suppliers had worked to that deadline. However, she says: "The issue is how we manage to sustain some of the big developments that have been made in improving products, practices, design and construction approaches that were made on the back of zero carbon. Now that is gone, what will drive that research?"

Willmott Dixon is continuing with its work regardless, says Alasdair Donn, the construction firm's principal consultant for NW Bicester. "While that's the political direction the government is taking, we're nevertheless aiming to set very high standards and the zero-carbon objectives that NW Bicester set out to achieve, albeit if those haven't been translated into standard practice for housing, which was the original plan."

But a source close to the project warned: "These aren't good times and the foot has definitely come off the accelerator. The supply chain may not develop in the way it needs to; the impetus is lacking." It will be more difficult for developers to undertake projects like NW Bicester in the future, he says. They will have to work much harder to prove that big sustainability gains can be made without housing costing a lot more. "If it's substantially more, then you've got a problem. With the emphasis so much on affordability, the sustainability premium must be modest. You also have to be brilliant at showing that it's a better life, that people are happier in the homes and that there's a better sense of community, and that bills are lower."


Where are they now?

The three other developments designated as ecotowns alongside NW Bicester are:

  • St Austell and China Clay, Cornwall. Being developed as an "eco-community" by Cornwall Council and government regeneration body the Homes and Communities Agency on the site of a former clayworks. A planning application is now being assessed by the council. An earlier planning application for 2,000 homes in 2011 was withdrawn due to concerns over economic viability and uncertainties about planning policy.​
  • Whitehall and Bordon, Hampshire. Located on former Ministry of Defence land, this scheme by Taylor Wimpey will include 3,350 homes, schools and 150 hectares of natural environment. It is aiming to follow Bioregional's One Planet Living principles. It received outline planning permission in April 2015 and construction is due to start early next year.
  • Northstowe, Cambridge. Up to 10,000 homes, as well as schools, employment areas, a town centre and other community services, are being developed by Gallagher Estates and the Homes and Communities Agency on the former RAF Oakington Barracks site. Environmental targets include solar PV on 26% of the roof space, which will provide at least 12% of regulated energy use.

    NW Bicester's ecotown targets

In construction:

Target

Achieved

Airtightness

3.0m3/hr/m2

2.35m3/hr/m2

Waste

Zero waste to landfill

Zero waste to landfill

Embodied carbon

40% reduction compared with typical new build

29% reduction

Carbon emitted by construction

30% reduction compared with typical new build

29% reduction

In use:

Energy

No net CO2

Water

80 litres a person a day

Biodiversity

40% of land to be devoted to wildlife and biodiversity; net gain in biodiversity

Travel

cut the number of car journeys by 50%

Car ownership

10% of cars to be electric by 2017

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