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.

20 comments on “Can your children afford to live in York?

  1. Lisa emailed this to me as a comment to add.

    I was very interested in the article by Esther Dent Dodsworth.

    I’ve been living in a holiday home, similar to the place her grandma lived in, on a site near York. At first it was just a stopgap but I’ve grown to really like it and here and I’m thinking of staying permanently. There’s nothing more life affirming than waking up surrounded by nature- woods, birds, the occasional deer and falling to sleep to the sound of hooting owls. The space and the fresh air put a bounce in your step!

    The people staying here are friendly, everyone always says hello, and the site manager and wardens go out of there way to make sure you’re okay and can always be contacted, even at night which gives the site a sense of community yet it’s easy to maintain your privacy.

    The financial benefits are great. The cost of living in a large caravan for the year is £30 per week and the overheads are low as it costs very little to heat a caravan. The static vans, which have two bedrooms and a bathroom, can be bought between £5,000 and £30,000 depending on how new they are. Many families live here all the year round and find it good way of life.

    Living here feels like being away from it all but it’s also so well situated to get into the city in no time at all. It’s a different way of life, affordable, fun and safe. What more does a home need? I’d recommend it to anyone, young or old.

  2. San Franciscans Divide Over Pint-Size Apartments*

    “the Board of Supervisors had been scheduled to vote on proposed legislation to change the building code to lower the minimum size for apartments, allowing developers to build so-called micro-units as small as [22 square metres].”

    Good points made for and against tiny homes. One criticism – “Are we saying it is acceptable to box people up in little tiny spaces?” This may not apply to the shotgun shack solution as it does for these tiny apartments.

    Tiny homes can be “park homes” in pleasant surroundings – and very much cheaper and a bit bigger than the “pint-sized apartments”. To see more tiny homes look at Tiny House Blog** for some beautiful examples.

    Think sitting in your 6 square metre car overlooking a beautiful view. Do you feel boxed in?

    * http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/27/us/micro-unit-apartment-proposal-divides-san-francisco.html

    ** http://tinyhouseblog.com/

  3. At Glastonbury I saw some capsule homes that were compact in design and also there are shepherds huts that can be used as spare bedrooms. Seems to me like the low carbon future is through making better use of existing homes – eg with lodgers, retrofitted energy efficiency. Did a cut your energy bills event today and about 20 people came. Graham and I are doing another open house on 28 Oct 5.30-7pm at 24 Grange St. Come and see how we cut 7.85 tonnes per year of carbon (50%).

    1. Thanks Anna

      You’re right except that you imply “making better use of existing homes” is the only way. We may also need some new homes that are really affordable to both the young and the old. These should be carbon negative and this is possible.

  4. I live in a tiny home in York.

    Shame about the Council’s lack of interest – that is unless it means prosecuting folk for back dated council tax – the places weren’t valued – then they were – and everybody was landed with huge bills!

    The places are worth lessen 3K but are valued as being up to 40K

    Apparently, its a billing issue – meanwhile summons are writ and bailiffs call.

    Its stupid.

  5. How well insulated can you make these shacks? I wonder how the BREEAM ratings stack up for them as compared with BedZed – does anyone know?

    1. Thanks Richard, good point.

      Back in 2008, I had an email exchange with York Council about the measurement of embodied carbon in BRE’s BREEAM methodology. THe answer they got from BRE included:

      “Broadly speaking embodied CO2 of materials is covered in Materials & Waste section. BREEAM takes into consideration embodied energy of materials when looking at them under a LCA perspective. The Green Guide to Specification does take into account the environmental impacts associated with the manufacture of building material and building products used in the specifications.”

      In 2009 I met the Director of Sustainable Energy at BRE at a conference. His second of the exchange of emails said:

      “BREEAM does not put an absolute value on the embodied carbon, it’s true. Partly because the science behind the process is still open to debate. I aims to provide a relative assessment, and gives credit to those buildings which choose the lowest impact solutions out of the available options. Absolute values are still rarely comparable with the emissions arising from a lifetime of HVAC, lighting and equipment use.”

      “At the plan stage, providing the plans contain details of the
      construction materials etc, the officers would be able to check whether the design minimised the embodied carbon impact, though couldn’t put a value on it. It’s not clear to me why they might want to.”

      I don’t think these statements match. “It’s not clear to me why they might want to [measure embodied carbon]” surprised me.

      I will ask my local councillors to clarify the situation.

      1. Email from Tom Riorden, Chief Exec of Leeds says “[Leeds] aims to encourage developers to build to high standards of sustainable construction, including consideration of the use of materials, and where possible re-using existing buildings, in line with the Code for Sustainable Homes”

        I wonder what Tom has to say about this from http://www.building.co.uk:

        BREEAM / Code for Sustainable Homes / LEED / Green Star

        All these assessment methods are very useful in addressing the wider range of sustainability issues for the built environment, but they deal only partially with the analysis of embodied carbon and operational carbon emissions. For example the placing of bat and bird boxes on a building may gain more points under some assessment procedures than retaining the structural frame of a building, which may embody many tens of thousands of tonnes of carbon.

        http://www.building.co.uk/Journals/Builder_Group/Building/30_April_2010/attachments/724_Carbon_Profiling_VIEW.pdf

  6. Very good point Geoff.
    I don’t live in York now, but the housing situation, although not as severe as York, is similar further North.

    In this area (coastal/rural Northumberland), there are several holiday chalet /static caravan parks, which are
    not immediatley visible as they are well landscaped – certainly not an eyesore. Often the parks are
    set in secluded spots surrounded by trees etc.
    it is quite common here, for retired people to sell their ‘normal’ homes and buy a holiday chalet to live in. The drawback,
    as you point out, is they can’t live in holiday chalets or caravans all year round. Do you know if it is the planning
    or Council tax laws that dictate this?
    I know many younger people who would also jump at the chance to live in these homes if the laws were not so restrictive.

  7. My Grandma lived in a Victorian house in Bristol. She didn’t know her neighbours and there was a busy road outside. She could walk to the shops using her stick, but when she slipped over on the ice no one helped her up so she became housebound during the cold weather.

    Her family bought her a holiday chalet by the sea in Westward Ho! It was hoped she’d spend a few weeks every year there.

    But she began living there 9 months a year. The rules at the holiday vilage meant owners weren’t allowed to occupy the chalets any longer than this.

    Aged 90 she swam in the sea. The chalets were arranged in a u-shape and she knew everyone. Her neighbours watched for her curtains to open in the morning and came knocking the day they remained closed. People looked at her photos, gave her a lift to the shops and invited her for dinner.

    Last year she said she dreaded going back to Bristol for the winter. She enjoyed her time in Westward Ho! so much. But knew she wasn’t allowed to stay over much past November. One of her neighbours called me to say she’d had to use the spare key my Grandma had given her to get into her chalet one morning in late October. It was gone 12am and Nora’s curtains were still closed.

    I believe she died because she couldn’t face the loneliness and struggle she faced back in Bristol.

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