Is it 'home Swede home' for the UK?

Sensemaking / Is it 'home Swede home' for the UK?

Skanska is bringing its sustainability expertise, and Scandinavian style, to the UK housing sector.

30 Oct 2012

Skanska is bringing its sustainability expertise, and Scandinavian style, to the UK housing sector.

British home buyers may not yet have sustainability at the top of their tick lists – but an influx of smart Scandinavian design could turn this around. The Brits have grown accustomed to modern developments of small-windowed Edwardian-style homes which express nostalgia for the past, yet fail to charm. Things look very different at Seven Acres, a plot of 128 homes in the new district of Great Kneighton, Cambridge. Here are sharp-angled, flat-roofed buildings with floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows, offering views of lofty rooms. This is design with zero tolerance for net curtains: you see right through from front to back.

They are being built by Skanska – a familiar name on office building site hoardings in the UK, and most notably the group behind London’s Gherkin. Now, the Swedish construction company, which has been building homes in Scandinavia for over 30 years, is bringing its sustainability expertise and Scandinavian aesthetic to the UK housing market.

One design feature to set this development apart from tradition is the value placed on the public realm. No cordoned-off gardens with hedges and gates: instead, each porch features a built-in wooden bench, inviting residents to sit and chat on with their neighbours – a new take on chatting over the garden fence. There’s a large central lawn for residents to share, which the architects, Formation and Place Design + Planning, hope will offer the neighbourhood space to relax and throw the odd party. And, as one-in-five UK residents grow their own food, the design includes raised planters for fruit, veg and herbs.

Shifting the focus away from private space is only the ‘soft’ side of Skanska’s commitment to sustainability. The ambitious construction company is also keen to beat the current market’s energy efficiency standards. The homes here will meet a minimum of level 4 in the Building Research Establishment’s Code for Sustainable Homes, which mandates a 44% improvement on 2006 regulations. (For level 5, the homes must be 100% more energy efficient, while at level 6, they must be completely carbon neutral.) To achieve level 4, Skanska uses a range of sustainable technologies from the ancient to the cutting-edge, including water butts to collect rainwater for watering the garden, triple-glazed windows to prevent heat loss, roof-mounted photovoltaic panels to harvest sunlight for energy, and heat recovery ventilation.

“There is definitely a growing demand for sustainable homes in Britain and we have identified a niche for us to expand into here”, says Magnus Andersson, President of Skanska Residential UK. “We are bringing Scandinavian thinking to Britain, and if we can serve as an inspiration to other house-builders, then great.” The design emphasis is on style, though, not sustainability. The PV panels are invisible, shielded by a parapet on the flat roof. As Michael Richter, Director of Formation Architects, says: “You could celebrate features like wind turbines or PV panels, but no one actually wants a house that looks particularly green.”

Stewart Baseley of the Home Builders Federation adds, “The Government has committed to a target that all new homes must meet a zero carbon standard by 2016; if this is what the code level four and five homes are going to look like, we have few fears.”

Skanska is preparing to rise to the challenge, with a prototype house, named Eve, built to level five. “It is being constructed differently”, explains Richter, “using thick polymer Structural Insulating Panels that mean hardly any heat can be lost through the walls.” An office at the bottom of the garden has a green roof, while the main building’s roof features 18 PV panels (compared with one for the other homes) with a combined capacity of 4500 KWh: enough to fulfill the house’s energy needs.

So why aren’t all the new homes here at level five? The cost is simply too high: “Until demand for new high performance materials reaches a level where they become cost competitive this will remain the case”, says Andersson.

Nor are these cheap homes. Prices start at £295,000 for a two-bed apartment, and rise to £925,000 for a four-bed house: about twice the price of a new build four-bed Barratt home a few minutes up the road. Yet Skanska is pleased with its sales – in just six months, 21 of the 35 properties put on the market have been snapped up.

Emily Pacey is a freelance journalist specialising in architecture and design.

Skanska is a Forum for the Future partner.

Photo: Max Grizaard

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