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The Thamesmead Ecopark is a new housing project designed to show how the latest ideas about sustainable, low-energy living can be put into practice. This is not just a concept or a series of show homes - these are real homes for real people, built and run in a way that can be copied by any social housing landlord or private developer.
Many of the design features and ideas used here come from the Netherlands, where work on sustainable housing is much more advanced than in Britain. The sustainable approach affects every part of the project - from the materials used for building to the energy efficiency of the homes themselves. The energy efficiency means that the residents will use much less electricity and gas than they would in ordinary houses.
As a registered social landlord, Gallions Housing Association is also keen that Ecopark should be a real community, where the residents feel at home and are actively involved in making sustainable living a reality.
Sustainability means doing something in a way that means we won't run out of natural resources - things like food, water, land and energy.
Developed countries like Britain use a lot of natural resources like oil, coal and natural gas. We are using so much of these resources that soon they will either run out, or the reserves that are left will cost too much to mine or drill for.
Sustainability is about finding ways of living that we can keep using well into the future without running out of vital resources.
Here are some examples:
Canadian ecologist Dr William Rees has calculated the 'eco footprint' of the Earth's population - the amount of productive land each of us effectively uses. The average is 2.6 hectares per person, but people in the developed world have an eco footprint of as much as 10 hectares.
The problem is that, with the current population of six billion, the earth only has enough productive land for 2 hectares each, at the very most. With the Earth's population growing rapidly, the problem of our unsustainable way of living is becoming an urgent one.
Stand on the right-hand pad and you'll see a representation of the average 'eco footprint' of each person in the western world. Step onto the other pad to see what a sustainable eco footprint would look like – there's quite a difference.
Despite what you might think, the ideas and features used in Ecopark are nothing new. Sustainable housing isn't a new invention, but in Britain the ideas have never been put to widespread use.
A lot of the technology that we can use in a low-energy home is improving all the time. Some of the features cost more than the conventional alternatives, but the saving in running costs - and in minimising damage to the Earth - more than makes up for the difference.
Some of the features that make the Ecopark homes sustainable are:
Gallions has set up an extensive monitoring scheme to measure how effective the eco features in Ecopark's homes really are.
When the houses were finished, inspections and surveys checked features including these:
We also conducted interviews with our building contractors to learn from their experience, and with our residents as they moved in, to get their initial impressions.
Our residents will be involved in the long-term monitoring programme. They will install temperature logging sensors and collect the readings from different rooms in their home. They will also take part by recording meter readings to tell us how much of these resources they use:
Questionnaires will tell us how they have used the various ventilation options in their homes, such as the windows, vents and sunspace.
We will use this information, together with details of the local weather and information collected from an ordinary, non-eco 'control' house, to work out how effective the sustainable features at Ecopark are in practice.
At the end of 2003 we will publish a series of reports, partly funded by the Housing Corporation, bringing together all these results along with conclusions and recommendations. These will be available to anybody who is interested.
Working with our Dutch partners, we have built Ecopark to a set of standards from a scheme called the Dutch Green Financing Model.
In the Netherlands, people who buy homes meeting these standards can apply for a special loan at a lower rate than a normal mortgage. The government gives tax incentives to lenders who provide these 'Green Loans'. The loans don't usually pay for the whole cost of the home, but they do encourage people to think about buying sustainable houses. In this way, the Dutch government has been able to increase the demand for sustainable housing without having to introduce complex laws to force developers to build them.
The Green Financing Model is based on a national standard for sustainable building in the Netherlands. To qualify for the lower-rate loan, a home must meet a set of basic requirements and also score 150 points from a list of optional standards. These are measured across several areas:
These optional standards give architects and developers plenty of choice about the features they want to use. This helps ensure that the houses are great places to live as well as being sustainable.
Rainwater that runs off from the Ecopark drains into a network of canals. Here, reeds and other water plants filter the water, making it cleaner and providing a habitat for rare water voles and a variety of birds and plants. Water from the canals is automatically pumped into the Thames when needed. In heavy rain, the canals can hold water back to stop too much going into the river all at once.
The land in and around Ecopark is managed by a company called Tilfen Land. They worked closely with the Environment Agency to plan and design the canal which runs beside Gallions Reach Urban Village. The project was carried out to be as sensitive as possible to the existing plant and animal life.
As a result, the Environment Agency featured the canal in its publication 'London Environmental Enhancements Case Studies', which highlights many examples of environmental best practice. Being recognised at this level by the Environment Agency is a major achievement.
Tilfen has also worked with the Environment Agency to provide high-quality amenities and wildlife habitats around Ecopark:
These large balancing scales show how the more of the Earth's resources we take for ourselves now, the less we leave for future generations. Visitors can try it for themselves and see what happens...
Britain is a windy island, with plenty of potential for wind-generated electricity. This exhibit demonstrates how the wind can be used to generate power.
One way to understand sustainability is to think of the Earth's resources like money. Imagine a child who gets £5 pocket money each week. If they spend £4.75 each time, that's sustainable. Even spending £5 a week is sustainable, as long as they never need any extra cash for a special occasion.
But if they want to spend £5.50 every week, they're in trouble. They'd have to borrow money, maybe by asking for an advance on next week's pocket money. When next week comes round, though, they've already had 50p of their £5, so they'll only get £4.50. If they still want to spend £5.50, they'll have to borrow £1 this time - and so on. As the weeks go on, they'll soon get into big problems - there'll be nothing left to borrow.
That's what we've been doing with the Earth’s resources – borrowing from the future. If we don't do something now, then perhaps your children or grandchildren will find that we've used everything up, and they have nothing to live on.
We owe it to them to start living sustainably. That's why Ecopark is here.
Gallions believes that we can't continue to ignore the need for sustainable living. With the Earth's population expected to reach nearly 9 billion by 2050, conserving resources is an urgent priority. We want to help more people to understand the need, and what we can all do to help meet it.
As a social landlord, low-energy sustainable housing also makes sense for our tenants. Lower energy consumption means that the Ecopark houses will cost a lot less to run than conventional houses of the same size.
Most of all, Gallions wants to show how ideas and designs that are widely accepted in the Netherlands can become part of mainstream housing in Britain. Features that are commonly used in new Dutch housing developments are still seen as something out of the ordinary here. We hope that Ecopark will help to mark the beginning of the end for that way of thinking.
Through Ecopark, we want to show that sustainable living isn't something new and cutting-edge, needing a huge effort and an immense budget. We want to demonstrate that housing projects like this one are a practical, economical reality.
Are you on target with recycling? This game helps you sort out which materials in your rubbish can be recyled by throwing the coloured balls through the matching hoops.
Next door to the Ecopark visitor centre is the naked house. It's called 'naked' because it's been left unfinished so visitors can experience many of the special eco features. It's these features that make this development a real step forward in sustainable housing and, just as importantly, a great place to live.
Visitors can explore the special features of Ecopark on two interactive consoles in the visitor centre.
Gallions Housing Association will be publishing the interactive exhibition as a CD-ROM in 2003. It will include the results from an extensive programme of monitoring and evaluation to study the effectiveness of the design features used in Ecopark, such as: