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The view from Rio Drive

DESPITE the beneficial impact on homeowners’ household bills, adding resource efficiency features such as solar panels and rainwater harvesting to new homes adds a significant cost to the sale price. This additional cost is often enough to deter buyers and so make such features too much of a financial risk. At least that’s the argument employed by mainstream house builders.

So how does a developer building 200 energy efficient homes make the figures add up? That’s an issue facing Steff Wright of Gusto Homes, who wants to develop a 22-acre site called Braemar Farm in Collingham, near Newark. The solution may lie in him owning the site’s renewable energy infrastructure, enabling Gusto to receive a steady income from Feed-in Tariffs that will help pay for the additional development costs over the long-term.

Gusto made its name as a pioneer of sustainable house design when it built the Millennium Green development in Collingham over a decade ago. Solar thermal panels, high insulation, high air tightness and rainwater harvesting were incorporated into all 25 homes to reduce their energy and water use to 50% of that of conventional homes. Since then many homeowners have also paid to add solar PV to their roofs.

Steff Wright, CEO of Gusto Group, which is based Collingham, bought the Braemar Farm site 15 years ago and has now drawn up plans to build 200 houses there. The scheme would incorporate a mix of medium and low density housing, a retirement village, employment area, community green, pond and community vegetable gardens. Total development cost: £35m. But, in keeping with Gusto’s green reputation, Wright also wants to build the new houses there with renewable energy and rainwater harvesting. Since this technology added around 10% to the development cost of the Millennium Green houses, the issue facing Gusto is how to keep development costs down in the larger scheme of 200 properties. 

One solution, says Wright, could be for Gusto to create an ESCO, a local energy services company, that would own and maintain the site’s non-potable water supply and renewable energy infrastructure. This could include roof PV, solar thermal or other energy forms. The ESCO would receive income from the homes’ energy and heat via Feed-in Tariffs and the new Renewable Heat Initiative and this income would pay for Gusto’s additional development costs over two decades. In return, the Braemar Farm home owners would receive locally produced green electricity at discounted rates from the ESCO.

Developing an ESCO on site would not only make Braemar Farm self-sufficient in energy, it would also rid home-owners of the burden of maintaining the PV and thermal technology since these would be owned by the energy company.

As for water, Wright says: “There is no equivalent Feed-in Tariff for rainwater but there’s a lot of expense in getting rid of stormwater from a site. So what we could do is turn the whole system into a large rainwater harvesting system and sell the water back at a cheaper rate than mains water.”

Wright, who until recently was also chairman of Lincoln City FC, stresses that the ESCO model remains an aspiration at present. However, the Braemar Farm proposal is currently before Newark and Sherwood District Council as an outline planning application and Wright hopes that he can start building on site in 2012.

“We’re still a small company and that allows us to be quite innovative in a way that the Barratts of the world can’t be,” he says. Sitting in Gusto’s office within sight of the multiple solar panels of Millennium Green, it is easy to believe that Wright will achieve what he aspires to achieve at Braemar Farm. After all, this is also the man who gave the Millennium Green access road the grand title Rio Drive, named after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.

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