Can your children afford to live in York?

In the US a family has downsized to a "shotgun shack" which cost little and stores carbon. In York we're considering eco-homes which have a high carbon footprint. It doesn't add up argues Geoff Beacon

The cheap and cheerful "shotgun shack" that a US family has downsized to. Is this the future for York families?

In his second Green Piece, Geoff Beacon considers the cost of housing in York – both financially and environmentally – and wonders what the future holds


The Green Piece

As well as the pounds and pence of housing discussed at the end of this article, there is another cost to housing – the environmental cost.

The most important part is the carbon dioxide emitted by building, heating and lighting our homes. The government have schemes to reduce the impact by insulating houses and getting us to use low energy bulbs.

There is one housing cost that is rarely measured – the carbon dioxide emitted in making the bricks, glass, steel and cement along with the carbon dioxide emitted running the boats, lorries and JCBs. This is usually large and was actually measured for one ‘sustainable’ housing development: the Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED). For a 100 square metre flat 67.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide was emitted.

The architect for BedZED was Bill Dunster, probably the most prominent proponent of ‘zero-carbon’ houses in Britain. His organisation is ZEDfactory. Its philosophy says: “ZEDfactory is an innovative practice exclusively committed to low energy, low environmental impact buildings and associated lifestyles.”

An obvious question is this: Is a flat that created 67.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide one of these “low environmental impact buildings”?

The website of ZEDfactory hints that building fabric should be one-twelfth of carbon footprint. The government are aiming to get our personal carbon footprints down to two tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. So the 100 square metre flat is about 400 years of a personal carbon ration for building fabric – 200 years if shared by two people.

Personally, I wouldn’t call that “low environmental impact”.

A zedfactory building at Jubilee Wharf in Cornwall

Bill Dunster recently presented to City of York Council so the council is getting some green messages. I think he now takes the carbon dioxide of construction more seriously: the RuralZED developments from ZEDfactory use much more wood and less steel.

Councillor Anna Semlyen tells me she was impressed by his presentation and Bill said that wood was the only truly sustainable material. Also that building products should come from within a 35-mile radius and create local jobs.

But even if there is progress on the carbon dioxide from construction, a ZEDfactory houses in York may be too expensive for the starter homes for your children.

A typical house in York costs £200,000 – doubled in ten years, but one bedroomed apartments can still be bought for less than £100,000.

You can buy one in Peel Close, Heslington – asking price £99,950. The deposit for a 75 per cent mortgage would be £25,000 so only the children of the well-heeled can expect to have their own property in York.

Peel Close in Heslington, York

Some of these children may have to live with their parents. In London there is already a trend for households with children and grandchildren living with the grandparents.

For £99,950 you get less than 30 square metres of floor space and one bedroom, not enough for a family but a couple that really got on really well might just be happy there.

So why not do what the couple with a teenage son did in the US? After losing well-paid jobs, they downsized from a 250 square metre house they could no longer afford to a 32 square metre shotgun shack with their son happily living in the roof space.

According to the Daily Mail: “Their house cost them less than $20,000 to make their home and they only pay $145 rent for the lot on which their shack and workshop stands.”

That’s a home for £12,500 for a family. The response by readers of the Mail was overwhelmingly positive.

In Heslington you can buy an apartment more than seven times as much that is too small for a family of three.

The development around Peel Close is Holmefields, designed by York University’s Architectural Unit in the 1970s. Back then, I visited it when it was being built with architectural students from Leeds Polytechnic.

It wasn’t somewhere I would want to live and took the students to see my nice old two-bed terraced house. The wife was furious. She wasn’t expecting 40 students and lecturers trailing through the kitchen to see the house from the back.

Inside the "shotgun shack"

But looking at the shotgun shack in its pleasant surroundings, it’s where I’d like to live if it were near cycle tracks, shops and good public transport. Give me a £12,500 family ‘shack’ over a £100k modern one-bed flat any day.

The environmental impact? Well, we can guess from the construction that in building the Heslington apartment more than 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide were emitted. The shotgun shack actually stores carbon in its wooden structure.

And what about ZEDfactory’s offering, the carbon from construction aside? The RuralZED’s website says: “Since the houses were originally designed for Upton, a refined version of the RuralZED kit house has been launched in France, which has brought the cost down by around £10,000 to £1,800/m2”

I make that £56,700 for 32 square metres – more than four times the cost of the shotgun shack.

Well, you can send your kids to Goole.