New construction: sustainable for the environment and bank balance


A fresh approach to housing construction has been long awaited. Two of the most important issues that it has been facing concern affordability and the impact on the environment.

To address the issue of young people not being able to afford property, the coalition Government announced plans to build 100,000 cut-price homes for under 40s. Now with the general election looming, David Cameron has promised to double that number if the Tories win.

But with such a high volume of buildings on the cards, what steps would be taken to ensure the UK adhered to its energy consumption plan?

A new approach to construction

The UK’s construction sector has to reduce energy consumption by 50% and carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. Needless to say, huge changes will have to be made before we can hope to reach such targets.

Discussion continues to grow around how shipping containers could be repurposed and recycled to provide environmentally friendly and cost-effective homes and shops. But new and frankly more aesthetically pleasing possibilities are coming to the fore as construction companies try building more sustainably with wood.

Straw homes

Until now, modern construction using wood has been the preserve of glamping and luxury tree house specialists. Their world leading approach to sustainable construction has seen them creating beautiful structures like treehouse offices, yoga studios and wilderness lodges using natural materials. But now, thanks to an engineering research project led by the university of Bath, straw bales and wooden boards could become the norm for the future of cost-effective, low-energy housing.

The first straw houses to go on sale in the UK have a 20% lower build cost and could enjoy a 90% cut in bills. Currently on the market in Bristol, they’re situated on a street of traditional looking brick-built buildings. Though you might think they’d be easy to spot, the only way you can tell them apart is through a “truth-window” that shows a section of straw.

Yes, although the houses are prefabricated with bales of hay stuffed inside wooden boards, the whole edifice is eventually encased in brick.

For those who worry about the resilience of wood and straw, construction experts say that timber and straw could be the construction materials of the future. When pinned into tight layers, timber can be as strong as steel, and straw, of which there is a huge surplus amount left from cereal crops, can be so efficient as an insulator that it could cut heating costs by much more than half.

An additional environmental benefit is that straw also absorbs carbon dioxide. So by using it as an insulator, carbon becomes locked into the walls of the straw houses.

Around the world

The Dutch company Heijmans have been making the news with their prefabricated, multi-purpose designs. Spurred into action by a lack of high-quality and affordable housing and unnecessarily derelict urban areas, they’ve created high-ceilinged, spacious and light buildings that can be easily dropped into place.

Transportable prefab housing, such as Hejimans’, can also be used for a number of purposes: to house victims of natural disasters, families with homes under renovation or people struggling to get on the property ladder.

In Australia, ArchiBlox have been making waves with carbon-positive prefabricated constructions. These buildings will produce more energy than they use over the course of their existence.

Options such as these prove the feasibility of constructing multi-purpose homes over sticking with unsustainable traditional methods. Hopefully it won’t be too long before we start seeing similar designs all over the world. Although we don’t have houses capable of fuelling our energy needs just yet, with Bristol accommodating new builds that cut up to 90% of energy bills, we’ve got a good place to start.

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