Holistic approach to powering a home

Members of a housing co-op which built an eco-village are inspiring other communities to follow in their footsteps. Hockerton Housing Project comprises five homes on a 25-acre site...

Members of a housing co-op which built an eco-village are inspiring other communities to follow in their footsteps.

Hockerton Housing Project comprises five homes on a 25-acre site outside the village of Hockerton, 15 miles north of Nottingham between Newark and Mansfield.

The earth-sheltered properties are built with heat-storing and insulation systems which eliminate the need for traditional methods of keeping a house warm.

Residents also generate their own clean energy, grow 80 per cent of their food, keep sheep and chickens, harvest their own water and recycle all waste materials causing no pollution or Co2 remissions.

They also earn a sustainable living by hosting tours of the village for people interested in a greener way of life – and provide consultancy services to help others deliver sustainability in their home, community or workplace.

The village was designed by groundbreaking architects Professor Brenda and Dr Robert Vale, famous for creating the UK’s first ‘autonomous’ town house, a four-bedroomed property in nearby Southwell with net zero CO2 emissions and solar heating.

Builder Nick Martin, a key player in the co-op who designed its water systems, persuaded them to take on the Hockerton project. Others landscaped the site.

Hockerton was registered as a co-operative in 1997 and the homes were completed in 1998. In the ensuing 17 years, the community has become a role-model for sustainable development.

Engineer Simon Tilley is one of Hockerton’s nine directors and has been there from the start in 1993As he recalls, it was no easy task getting funding for the project.

“Due to the unusual nature of the development and the fact that it was a self-build, many conventional lenders were unwilling to consider financing the project,” he said.

“We are grateful for the foresight, willingness and flexibility of the Co-operative Bank and Ecology Building Society who worked with us to overcome the challenge of financing the project.”

The Co-op Bank initially provided loans, which were later converted to mortgages. An internal contract was agreed within the group committing each family to provide finance up to a common stage of development.

Each family had to separately fund their share of the work. A finance sub-group calculated relative payments and a position of equity was achieved on a monthly basis.

From the start, the intention was to achieve low construction costs combined with minimal or even zero running costs to reduce the financial burden.

In the years since the houses were built, the idea of sustainable living has become far more mainstream but Simon acknowledges the holistic approach of Hockerton, where everyone lives in harmony with the environment, is still relatively rare.

“Our co-housing approach, where individual homes are private, but land, water and energy systems are shared, enables residents to do more with less. It also encourages social interaction and skills which can be lost in more insular housing developments.”

Though, he admits, there aren’t huge numbers of people wanting to live more sustainably.

“However,” he adds, “there are many positive signs that this may change. Initially people were just curious – now they are trying to do this themselves and asking how we take on what you have learned.”

This is a question of changing people’s attitudes, argues Simon.

“It is not just about recycling. We need to reduce our impact on the environment and get people to value the important things.

“It’s also about getting people to relate to future environmental impacts. Younger people getting educated at school now have far more awareness of the need for sustainability.”

The co-operative works with a wide range of community organisations, schools and universities and also housing associations looking for sustainable solutions to building new homes while conserving energy

“If someone wants to build a sustainable house we can help with the specifics of how to do that. We have carried out a lot of projects including two more sheltered houses and a community building.

“Everyone works at least one day a work on the project. We do educational things on site like showing university students round and outreach in schools and we also do talks and lecturing.”

These pioneers of renewable energy built their first solar PV panel and a small wind turbine in 2002 followed by a second wind turbine in 2004 and further solar PV panel on their visitor centre in 2012.

In 2010, they project-managed the financing and installation of a bigger 225kW turbine, which provides returns to its shareholders and the  nearby village of Hockerton, and is one of the first community-owned wind turbines.

Members of the co-op also take part in an Energy Mentoring Programme run by Co-operatives UK and supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, giving new community groups support from experienced practitioners.

“We joined the programme relatively late,” says Simon, “but have supported other groups that want to do something similar.

“We offer advice and support and point them in the right direction, mentoring them through the process.  We are helping a York community group which is thinking of building wind turbines and solar panels.”

Their sustainable approach extends to checking out the environmental policies of manufacturers, using available, low- to-medium technology materials and sourcing local supplies to minimise transport energy.

Any fees from consultancy work are ploughed back into the co-operative and everyone gets paid the same rate per hour. Tasks with ongoing repairs and maintenance are also shared. Though many of the original families remain, there is currently a three-bedroomed house on the market for £450,000.

Despite the progress made since the 1990s, Simon believes much more needs to be done to raise awareness of environmental issues.

“Sustainability can still get shifted down the agenda, as the Government is currently doing.

“We would want to see similar projects spring up all over the country but it’s not happening at the moment – although people are afraid of the future and worried about the consequences of environmental change.

“However it’s easy for us to carry on when we see the smiles on the faces of people going away after a visit. It’s not all hair-shirts – in fact it is a very pleasant way to live.”

For more information, visit www.hockertonhousingproject.org.uk

In this article

Join the Conversation