LONDON (Reuters) - “Eco-friendly” is the buzz-word of the 21st century, and the environmental conscience is increasingly determining decisions on the home front.
A growing trend for ecological homes epitomises the modern zeitgeist — and “green” homes are set to account for a growing proportion of the housing stock.
The government has promised to make all new homes zero-carbon by 2016, and those worth up to 500,000 pounds will be exempt from stamp duty until 2012.
Consumers’ concern over the future of the environment is yet to reach an apogee, but Britons are already revamping their homes with environmentally friendly features.
More than 100,000 households have installed renewable energy appliances — wind turbines and solar panels — among them celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and Conservative Party leader David Cameron, who notoriously fell foul of planning rules after his wind turbine was erected in the wrong place.
That figure is expected to balloon to 1.3 million by 2020.
Such measures are environmentally sound, but are they economically so?
Eco-features can require a substantial investment: buying and fitting a wind turbine for example can cost up to 25,000 pounds.
Energy cost savings stand to be made — a standard wind turbine can cut around a third off the average electricity bill, while a solar panel can generate up to 70 percent of the hot water needed for a three or four bedroom house — but it can take years to recoup the initial outlay.
Mike Childs, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth (FoE), told Reuters: “We’re not going to fully address climate change unless we ‘green’ people’s homes considerably.
“It’s great that individuals are exploring how they can fit micro-renewables to their homes — but it’s still a minority, because it isn’t cheap.”
The Department of Trade and Industry’s (DTI) low carbon buildings scheme offers households grants towards the cost of micro-generation devices, and planning costs could be eliminated if the government pushes through proposals to relax the rules.
At present, planning applications cost up to 1,000 pounds and can take three months to process.
But homeowners will be able to install wind turbines and solar panels that have little or no impact on neighbouring properties without planning consent, under a move announced by Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly last month.
If the plans are accepted, they will be included in planning proposals to be published later this Spring.
Any move that makes the process easier and more affordable should be welcomed, but there remains insufficient incentive for homeowners to ‘go green’, says Childs.
The government should, firstly, ensure that Britain’s housing stock — among the “worst in Europe” — is double-glazed and property insulated.
Then, it should take a “carrot and stick” approach, giving more generous grants to those willing to make their homes greener, and taxing those who add to carbon emissions — by driving gas-guzzling cars, and the like — he says.
“Grants need to be much more substantial: they run out very quickly, and few people can apply for them.
“The only real incentive at the moment is a moral one.”
Despite the high cost to consumers, green issues are gathering momentum in the housing market.
Given the choice between two properties of a similar size and value, 82 percent of 1,000 people surveyed by Nationwide say eco-features, such as solar panels, would have more influence on their decision to buy than attic rooms (68 percent), period features (63 percent) and walk-in wardrobes (62 percent).
Energy performance certificates, set to be introduced in England and Wales under the controversial home information pack scheme in June, will put greater focus on the eco credentials of homes for sale.
But while some house-hunters might be attracted to properties with eco-features, others might find the addition of micro-generation devices unsightly and off-putting: studies by the British Wind Energy Association and Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors show that wind farms have a detrimental impact on the value of properties in the vicinity.
And although some might see the appeal in eco-friendly features, few would actually pay more for them.
Although the majority of 2,000 people questioned by insurer More Than say they would invest in environmental improvements if they moved — a third would pay up to 500 pounds, a fifth would spend 500-1,000 and a tenth would fork out more than 1,000 pounds — only 17 percent would bid more for a “green” property.
Fionnuala Earley, chief economist at Nationwide, said: “It’s great to see that, given the choice, most of us would opt for a ‘green’ home, although there’s currently no evidence to suggest that environmentally friendly properties command a higher price.
“Having said that, with the recent publication of the government’s Climate Change Bill and the pressure on households to become more energy-efficient, it’s inevitable that environmental home improvements will have some impact on house prices over the long-term.”
For now though, being eco-friendly can be reward enough.
Caroline Dunn, 29, and husband John, 27, bought a flat at Greenwich Millennium Village, southeast London, in 2003 and like it so much they moved to a larger property there last year.
The complex aims to cut primary energy use by 80 percent by using low-energy building techniques and renewable energy technologies.
Properties have high levels of insulation, low-consumption appliances — taps and kitchen goods, for example — and access to recycling facilities.
But although they have made energy cost savings, their eco-principles are yet to bear much financial fruit.
“We probably paid a bit extra for the combined heat and power system, as the kit costs a couple of thousand pounds more than a boiler,” says Caroline, an insurance underwriter.
“But I don’t think we’ll get any extra money for the flat: the value has moved much in line with the rest of the area — no more or less.
“That’s not of prime concern though; the fact that it’s built with ecologically sound features makes it special.”