Gusto is nearing completion of Millennium Green, a small development of 24 houses and a business centre in the Nottinghamshire village of Collingham, outside Newark. What has brought it to the notice of these landowners, including such august bodies as the National Trust and the Environment Agency, is that Millennium Green has been built as a commercial, environmentally sustainable development “without a penny of subsidy”, says Wright.
He admits that he never set out to be a pioneer; it happened, he says, more by chance than design. Before Millennium Green, the company had been putting up standard houses half-a-dozen at a time. And the transition has not been easy: there’s been a lot to learn and some unexpected challenges. “I’m going to have to take a knock on this one,” says Wright, “to cover the up-front costs in developing the design.”
The Millennium Green site was originally a school playing field bought under a compulsory purchase order from a farmer by Nottingham Council. The school has since closed and the council sold the land back to the farmer with a restrictive covenant stipulating that if it was resold the council would benefit.
Wright bought the land but bridled over paying anything to the council. “It doesn’t seem right for the council to make money off land that didn’t belong to it in the first place,” he says. Rather than ploughing into a legal battle, however, Wright decided on a more conciliatory tack. “Nottingham council has an active environmental policy,” he explains, “so we offered it the option of putting the money, which was in the region of £200 000, into enhanced green features on the development.” Such an option would be mutually beneficial: Wright would keep his money and the council would gain kudos from promoting green construction.
Wright submitted a planning application for the development based on sustainable lines. “We had to scrap the original site layout and redesign the site to take advantage of passive solar gain by orientating the buildings to face south,” he says.
Unfortunately for Gusto, the council rejected his conciliatory offer after the planning application had been accepted, leaving Wright to foot the additional costs. But Wright seems philosophical about the decision. “Without the possibility of a trade-off with the council to cover the additional costs, I wouldn’t have been brave enough to have gone down the green route in the first place,” he says. In fact, Wright does not appear to be unduly distressed at all, basking as he is in the intense public interest in the scheme. Instead, he feels as though his company may have stumbled on a potentially lucrative niche.
“The development was designed in-house,” says Wright. “It had to be to keep development costs realistic for a business our size.” To date, Gusto has completed half of the scheme.
Externally, there is little evidence of ecological aspirations, save for a small green, dotted with fledgeling fruit trees, and the occasional glint of the sun glancing from roof-mounted solar panels. There is also a still-empty plot, where the business centre will go, so householders can take a short walk to work. But, with these minor exceptions, the estate of two to five bedroom houses looks much like any other out-of-town development.
Inside, however, it is a different story. The homes are packed with environmental goodies, including a system to store rainwater for flushing toilets, watering the garden and filling up the washing machine. A solar panel supplies heat for hot water and top-up central heating, which means the small, efficient condensing boiler should remain turned off for most of the year. The south-facing glazing also helps conserve heat, as does the fact that the walls, roof and ground floor are stuffed with insulation to “almost three times the level of the 1999 Building Regulations”, according to Wright.
The walls are traditional brick-block construction with a 150 mm cavity, plastered internally to improve thermal mass and reduce air infiltration. In fact, the houses are so airtight they meet strict Swedish building regulations.
Even the gardens at Millennium Green have green shoots: raised beds for growing vegetables, and a composting bin for organic household and garden waste.
Finding suitable construction materials locally was tricky. But Wright says his local builders merchant has risen to the challenge. As it happens, he says, the development has led many materials suppliers to develop an environmental policy.
Wright is amazed at the interest the development has generated. “It’s unbelievable the number of people we get traipsing around here on Sundays,” he says. “The business is opening a lot of doors.”
There have been so many enquiries that Wright is thinking of sharing his new-found knowledge with other housebuilders by opening a consultancy on how to build green.