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U.K. 'zero emissions' housing development misses target, but satisfies most residents

LONDON -- Nine years after opening its doors as the United Kingdom's first carbon-neutral housing development, the "Beddington Zero Emissions Development," known as BedZED, is underperforming its carbon targets but easily meeting the expectations of its residents. There is a long list of people waiting to move in.

With its visually striking and brightly colored weather-vane ventilation cowlings, rooftop gardens, photovoltaic (PV) panels and unique building design, the community of 100 apartments stands out from the usual two-up, two-down suburban red-brick houses about 10 miles south of Central London.

But its residents are devoted to it, and many have been there from the outset -- several moving multiple times into larger apartments as their families have grown.

"Normal people live here. You don't have to be an eco-activist. There is a real community feel to the place," said resident Steve Tarbard, 47, who was among the first to move in when BedZED opened in 2002. He told ClimateWire, "Our dilemma is, where could we possibly go from here if we eventually decided to move? This place is unique."

The development is the brainchild of architect Bill Dunster and the result of a close collaboration among his ZEDfactory, the BioRegional Development Group and the Peabody Trust, an affordable housing group founded here in 1862 by George Peabody, an American philanthropist. BedZED was in every sense an experimental prototype when it began. At its core was the goal of carbon neutrality.

It was built facing south to catch the most sun; had triple-glazed external windows and super-insulated walls; generated most of its own electricity and heat; harvested rainwater; grew some of its own food on green or living roofs; boasted high-efficiency electric appliances like refrigerators, freezers and stoves; had a pedestrian-only center; and largely excluded cars.

Recycling a sewage plant

Where possible, building materials were sourced from within a 35-mile radius of the site, a former sewage plant -- although there were notable exceptions, like the triple-glazed windows, which came from Denmark.

BedZED was well ahead of its time. It was several years after it was completed that the then-Labour government set a target for all new homes to be carbon-neutral from 2016.

With the ownership of BedZED apartments divided into 50 percent owner-occupier, 25 percent shared ownership with Peabody and 25 percent social housing, it was full from the outset. "There has not been a time when the place has not been fully occupied. Right now, there are 220 residents. It has a population density similar to Soho in Central London, but it certainly doesn't feel like it," said BioRegional spokeswoman Jennie Organ.

At the beginning, BedZED outperformed or came very close to its design targets for reducing energy use. Space heating was 88 percent below the national average against a target of 90 percent; hot water, 57 percent below, against a target of 33 percent; electricity, 25 percent below, versus a target of 33 percent; and mains water, 65 percent below, against a target of 50 percent.

But not everything went according to plan. A gasified wood combined heat and power unit was supposed not only to supplement the electricity from the PV panels, but also to export some as well as providing all the development's hot water.

"It didn't work. It was a prototype. The company went bust, and no one else could service it, so it was taken out in 2005," said Organ.

Cutting energy bills with some discomfort

In its place, as an interim measure while a new power unit is chosen, BedZED is using gas-fired condensing boilers to provide the community's hot water. And that hot water is only used for washing. Uniquely for a housing development in a country that can have very cold winters, none of the apartments has central heating.

"The south-facing aspect, external triple-glazing, super-insulated walls and wind-driven ventilation are designed to make the temperature almost constant regardless of the weather outside," said Organ.

But for resident Chris Lovelace, 40, who moved into the complex in the middle of 2006, that is not quite how it works.

"We can be walking around inside in January and February in shorts and T-shirts when it is freezing outside. Just boiling a kettle can be enough to warm the whole apartment," he said. "But in July and August, it can get swelteringly hot, and we have to bring in cooling fans."

Even so, the annual energy bills for BedZED's apartments are about half of the £1,185 national average calculated by the Energy Saving Trust. Even without the old power unit, the average BedZED resident has an annual carbon footprint of 9.9 metric tons against a U.K. average of about 12. If the unit was working, the footprint would have shrunk to 8.9 metric tons, according to an assessment carried out two years ago. It noted that a determinedly green resident could reduce that still further to 6 tonnes.

Using the 'membrane bioreactor'

BioRegional, which maintains an office on-site to handle residents' queries or complaints and the hordes of tourists from as far afield as China and Canada, wants to go beyond that. As part of a three-year wastewater processing experiment, Peabody and the local water utility have installed the United Kingdom's first "membrane bioreactor."

It separates out the solid waste into a giant cesspit under BedZED's wildflower garden, cleans up the remaining water and sends it back for toilet flushing and irrigation. (So as not to confuse the experiment with outside water sources, rainwater harvesting has been temporarily suspended and the tanks disconnected.)

Clearly visible from a distance because of its iconic weather-vane ventilation shafts, which resemble ship ventilation shafts but are mounted on ball bearings to swing with the wind, BedZED has been a magnet for business.

"I have a whole page of people looking only for property in BedZED. But they don't come up that often," said Alex Boyle, a local real estate agent. "I had three-, two-bedroom apartments come up at the end of last year, but before then I had nothing for about 18 months."

Does this mean everyone's happy at BedZED? No. For Tarbard, the kitchen was poorly designed, so he got down to work and made more work surfaces. For Lovelace, the very uniqueness of the place has its own pitfalls:

"Everything was specially designed for this place, so if something breaks, it is not a matter of just nipping down to the local shops to get a replacement. I am not sure that Peabody understands that."

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