The BASF House

The BASF House - the future of UK housing?

On the 4th of May I visited the Creative Energy Homes project at the University of Nottingham (department of Architecture and the Built Environment). There is very little information on the project, which is a shame as to someone like me, a home DIY enthusiast looking to make his home more eco-friendly it was a rare chance to look at the next-generation of technologies we could use to make our homes a little cheaper to run, as well as a chance to see if there are any existing technologies we could make better use of.

 

The project is not open to the public, I am a Chartered member of The IET and attended an open afternoon organised by the local IET technical community. The project is a mini-housing estate where each house is made using different materials and technologies. The houses are occupied by volunteer groups which can be groups of students, lone staff members or even staff members and their families. The differing groups provide different energy usage profiles (so a young family will use power very differently from a group of students) which in turn helps to decide the best configuration of the properties.

Before I describe the houses, and what stood out to me, I should mention one big problem (in my opinion) with the way information on the project is presented; they don’t seem interested in capital vs operational cost. By this I mean that when anyone asked “so how much money does it save?” or “what’s the repayment period on that?” the answer was “I don’t know, we are only concerned with how efficient it is”. Due to this I’ve decided to write about any energy saving changes I make to my home (or gadgets I use) and make sure I include how much it will save in real terms (I’ve even added a new category ‘Energy Saving’ under the Eco-friendly group). But anyway more about the houses.

 

1930's House

The 1930's house - the attachment to the right is a n insulative wall that simulates a semi-detached property

The most interesting one, to me, is the 1930′s house. This house required special permission to build and used 1930′s equivalent materials, systems and construction techniques to build. The plan was to take the house, get a baseline for how energy efficient/ inefficient it was and then modify it to improve the level of efficiency as much as possible. They have brought it up to level 3 of the Code for Sustainable Homes by adding a combi-boiler, double glazing and lots of insulation. Next they plan to bring it up to level 6 with improvements totalling £20,000 or so (way beyond the reach of the average person). Sadly we were not able to go into the house as they are currently pressure testing it to find out if they have blocked the leaks (I don’t see a home builder or DIY-er ever being able to do that).

 

They did tell a very interesting story about the property; the first family to live there were from China (a university researcher and his family) and had come from a region with district heating, so they had always paid a fixed price for their heating (sort of like water rates). Part of the experiment was that the family were not allowed to see how much power they were using, and had to pay all their utility bills themselves. On the day the gas bill came the family, who had been happily using their heating the same way as at home, were so shocked at the cost that they broke into the instrumentation cabinet that night (monitoring their energy etc usage) and used the data to immediately drastically cut their heating bill. It goes to show just how useful real-time energy monitoring is, and how much of an impact it can have on your energy usage.

 

Houses built with current UK technology

Houses built with current UK technology (the chimney is the outlet from the biomass-boiler)

The next house we saw was a semi-detached pair of properties that were built specifically using materials and techniques available to the UK building industry today. One was built to level 4 and one level 6 of the Code for Sustainable Homes. They shared a biomass boiler as the university team found that using a boiler for just one property made the property so hot they had to turn the boiler off. We only went into the level 6 property, which achieved level 6 through very thick insulation (250mm of fibreglass in the walls alone, which were brick and block), fewer windows, conservatories (called solar spaces) on both the upstairs and downstairs south-facing windows, solar hot water and Solar PV. Whilst it was a nice property the residents have found it to be a little dark, which is a result of the limited number of windows it can have.

 

The last property we saw was the BASF house (built by BASF – see top of post for photo), which was a very unusual level 4 property. This could be said to be made from futuristic materials as its construction included state change insulation (wax balls which absorb heat when the ambient temperature is above 23°C and release it again when the temperature drops) and a metal roof which absorbs sunlight regardless of the colour you paint it. It also had foam insulation on the outside and inside of the concrete walls, 70% of the windows were south-facing (the south side was a large glass walled solar space). The solar heating system supplies a 3 section 250ltr insulated smart tank. Each tank can hold water for 3 days and are filled in a rolling sequence ensuring that there is always (except for three days last year) solar heated hot water available. It also had a ground source heat pump which both heated and cooled the property (coil was buried 1.5m under garden). The air-source heat pump (it had on too) was not enough to heat the property (I don’t know what the context of that comment was; it’s in my notes but I don’t remember why I wrote it). It also had a biomass boiler, the very one that made the property too hot (as stated above).

Inside the house the appliances were mostly A rated but they included an induction hob, which the person who was conducting the tour told us was much more eco-friendly than a gas hob (however I still think a gas hob is cheaper to run). The house also had auto-opening windows, however these had been disabled as one resident thought that a break-in was taking place and they let in noise late at night and during the day from the rest of the campus.

In all it was an informative day, but sadly all I came away with for my home was “add insulation and draft proof”. Most of the systems they have in place are too expensive for the average home owner (like me) or the repayment period is prohibitive. For example I have a bathroom with no windows that is lit by 3 LED GU10 bulbs.

The proposed solution for my bathroom, according to the university (well, not just them but I will pick on them for now) is a solar tube. My LED lights use approx 1 watt each, so for every 333 ish hours of use I use 1 kW hour of power, which presently costs me 11p. Since at most the light could be said to be on for 3 hours a day (if someone has a bath every day, which they don’t – we do wash, we shower – and if we use the loo a lot – which depends on what we ate the day before), and a solar tube costs about £250 (DIY) the repayment period will be about…….. 650 years (probably longer as we don’t have the lights on for 3 hours a day).

Of course the solar tube would improve my EPC rating, but whether it improves it so much I add enough to the value of the house to cover the cost of the improvements…..

Anyway I have decided I shall start blogging about how much money the eco-friendly things we do in our home actually save.