When a housing association asked architects to break the mould of traditional housetypes at a Stevenage estate, it never guessed the result would turn so many heads. In the latest in our series of revisits, Fred Rothwell, William Sutton Trust's technical director, finds out how residents Eddie and Tina Wilton like living in a local tourist attraction.
The gawpers usually start coming round at about this time of year, and they carry on till autumn when the clocks go back. We're a tourist attraction."

One of the drawbacks of living in an innovatively designed and constructed house is that its very differentness makes people stop, stare and, in the case of Eddie Wilton's home in Great Ashby, on the outskirts of Stevenage, occasionally walk brazenly up to the window and have a good look inside.

Eddie, wife Tina, and their two daughters live in one of two arresting houses built by housing association William Sutton Trust two years ago in the middle of a multi-developer site. When they were first built, the houses were the subject of heated debate in the local press, and, as Eddie confirms, they still arouse curiosity in this new community where virtually all of the other homes are standard housetypes.

The homes were not just different in their looks. They were built using non-traditional, dry-build technology, and and their ecological performance and livability were, it was claimed, superior to the UK norm. Homes took Fred Rothwell, William Sutton Trust's technical director, back to the homes to find out what the Wiltons' experiences of were like.

For William Sutton Trust the two houses were something of a departure – it does not have a reputation for thinking outside the brick box. They were the outcome of a competition for young architects that the trust launched to celebrate its centenary.

The brief was to to come up with designs for a pair of non-identical, semi-detached houses, one with two bedrooms, the other with three. Architect Sergison Bates' winning solution emphasised the individuality of the semis by positioning them at an angle to one another and setting their windows out of alignment. But what attracts Great Ashby's gawpers is the houses' unorthodox cladding material: instead of conventional brick, Eternit 2000 tiles extend from the roofs down the walls, giving the homes a hard carapace for an exterior. Both houses have brickwork at the base, but these were made from brick slips stuck onto metal lath. Behind the cladding is a Tradis timber frame with recycled newspaper insulation, which helps to give the houses their maximum National Home Energy Rating scheme score of 10.

These were expensive houses. We threw away the rule book

Fred Rothwell, technical director, William Sutton trust

The houses depart from William Sutton Trust's standard specification internally, having non-square rooms, greater than average floor-to-ceiling heights, a boarded out loftspace above the master bedroom and high sloping ceilings in the others, wiring hidden behind inset skirting, underfloor heating, and stylish sanitaryware, showers and finishes. Dry-build methods meant that the houses were constructed some 4-8 weeks faster than brick and block equivalents, but the innovations pushed their cost significantly above the trust's standard budget, although the trust will not reveal by how much.

What the tenants thought…
The Wiltons were privately renting a 1970s-built terraced house when Eddie spotted the distinctive grey and brown semis under construction, and it was his enthusiasm for the houses that brought the family here. "I asked if I could go on the waiting list to have one but was told I couldn't because they were for people whose kids had allergies. I kept on badgering them and in the end, as no one else wanted it, they let us have it," he says.

The housing officer was not the only person Eddie had to win over. "I didn't like the house because it was grey," Tina says. "I wanted one of the ordinary houses here." Eddie brought his wife to see the house every day for three weeks until she fell in love with it. The couple and their two daughters moved into their house in April 2000 and now say they want to stay there for good.

As well as exciting the interest of local people, the home's unconventional construction has been questioned by the insurance company providing cover for home contents. "I had to send them a copy of the specification to get cover," says Tina. "At the end of the day, it's a lovely house. I get very defensive when people criticise it."

"I could see the size of it. I could see that it would be spacious. The high ceilings make a difference – especially when you're decorating," jokes Eddie. "Our last house had a kitchen-diner and I thought I would have to get rid of my kitchen table but I could fit a bigger one in this kitchen," says Tina. The family frequently use their ground floor lounge and kitchen, separated by double doors, for entertaining. They also make maximum use of the flexible space in the house, the larger than average landing serving as a play area and the loft providing storage space, a temporary extra bedroom and an occasional home office.

At the end of the day, it’s a lovely house

Eddie and Tina, the residents

The energy efficiency of the homes is one of the most obvious advantages. The Wiltons like the combi boiler and find the underfloor heating economical to run, spending some £8 a month on heating, less than a third of their bill in their previous house. "We run the heating for an hour in the morning, and an hour and a half in the evening. I've not had it on at all since February," says Tina.

But their home is not quite perfect. "There were a couple of design faults," Eddie points out. "The shower and the shaver socket were far too high and they have had to be lowered. And I think the skirting is a bit big."

"We thought it was wonderful that the bathroom sinks have their plugholes at the back instead of at the bottom, but it is not practical as you have to clean them out a lot," says Tina. By contrast, the designer touch of bright blue laminated panels on the bathroom walls gets the thumbs up. "They're modern and easy to clean," says Eddie.

Although the loft provides useful extra storage space, the Wiltons are proving that you can never have enough cupboards, by storing their daughters' playthings in the landing airing cupboard. The kitchen looks to be short on cupboards, but the couple say that they have not found this to be a major problem. They have, however, tiled the wall behind the cooker in the kitchen, which they found was yellowing as a result of cooking.

Eddie Wilton and his neighbour have conducted their own informal sound insulation test by turning their stereos up to full volume, and found that neither could be heard next door. A wheelchair-bound family friend has also found the house to be readily accessible. The house was built before regulations required new homes to have wheelchair-accessible ground floors, but the design competition brief made this a requirement so the house has a level threshold, ground floor toilet and wide doors.

I wonder what a whole estate of these houses might have looked like

Fred Rothwell, technical director, William Sutton trust

After two years' occupation the Wilton family have even learned to live with the interest that their home provokes, and have gathered their own press cuttings file. "We've got over feeling like guinea pigs now," says Eddie.

… the technical director's response
The two houses at Great Ashby have become a one-off experiment as the trust has not developed any similar houses since. "These were expensive houses," explains William Sutton Trust technical director Fred Rothwell. "We threw away the rule book on technical standards. We gave the architects free rein. Now we are trying to take the best out of these houses and apply it elsewhere. We've done simple things, like putting in showers over baths. We're looking at some of the things that could help us meet the Egan agenda, like timber frame, and we're considering the brick slips. We're looking at the ducted skirting, but it needs to be better detailed."

Apart from some mould growth in the roof valleys, the outside looks much as it did when the homes were completed. "The external tiling has stood up to wear and tear. Durability can only be judged over the long term, but they look like they're holding up well," says Rothwell. "The idea of a dry external skin was ideal for timber frame, but I'm not convinced about the tiling. I wonder what a whole estate of these houses might have looked like."

He is also critical of some aspects of the interior. "The kitchen layout is poor – there's a lack of wall cupboards, and we wouldn't use that sanitaryware again."

The 80 m2 of space of the Wilton's three-bedroom home appears generous to the family but Rothwell says it is not that exceptional. "The houses are only about a metre larger than the trust's standard new homes."

The houses and the monitoring that was carried out of its performance immediately after occupation have provided useful lessons on energy efficiency. "We estimated that total energy bills would be about £450 a year. Our monitoring work has shown they are running slightly above that at £477, but that's still within the trust's overall target to cut energy bills in all its homes to £10 a week to keep tenants out of fuel poverty," says Rothwell. "We have started to use low energy and combi boilers generally in our houses. At first I was dubious about the underfloor heating, because we've had bad experiences in the past, but it does offer advantages."

The Wiltons cannot confirm the house's health claims, but BRE has carried out a test which showed that concentrations of formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds, often found in the basic materials that go into any new building, were well below World Health Organisation guidelines.