The people who live in a new generation of eco-homes in Swansea

Bob Harris may come across as an unlikely pioneer, but he was one of the first tenants in what could be the homes of the future.

In 2018, Mr Harris moved into the first properties built by Swansea Council for more than a generation – and they weren’t your average bricks and mortar.

Keen to tick environmentally-friendly boxes, keep tenants’ energy bills down, and develop a skilled in-house workforce, the council built 18 super-insulated houses and flats in Colliers Way, Portmead.

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Designed to so-called Passivhaus specification, the 10 houses and eight flats weren’t cheap to design and build, coming in at £153,462 per unit. They’ve got thick walls, thick exterior doors, triple glazing, and a ventilation system which recirculates the air. The idea is that the homes effectively remain sealed, with gas and electricity bills far less than a conventional home.

Bob Harris, outside his one-bedroom Passivhaus flat
(Image: Richard Youle)

“They were just finishing when I had a viewing,” said Mr Harris. “The tiler was still here. It looked nice. We were told when we moved in not to open the doors and windows as it’s a sealed unit. And you’re not allowed to drill holes into the wall.

“It took a while for everyone to get used to it. We seem to have got it all sussed out now.”

It is a warm day when I appear unannounced, and Mr Harris answers the door to his one-bedroom flat bare-chested.

“I walk around inside like this in the winter,” said the 60-year-old. “I very rarely put the gas on. My gas bill for the last three months was £64.”

But he said his electricity bills were comparable to his previous flat in nearby Penlan.

The council, he added, had needed to come out to adjust the ventilation system, which is operated from a locked unit at the front of the building. In fact, you can hear a gentle hum if you stand close to it.

Mr Harris said his rent had gone up from £79 per week in 2018 to £92 per week now, but he’s not complaining.

“I love it here,” he said. “We’ve got nice gardens. We have barbecues, and we all get on great.”

Sitting comfortably: Bob Harris in his living room
(Image: Richard Youle)

Mr Harris conceded that he could hear his upstairs neighbour, which he didn’t expect when he moved in, but asked if he would prefer to move back to his old abode in Penlan, he replied: “You’d have a fight on your hands! I’d never move back there.”

A few doors down is Demi Tait, who moved from Mount Pleasant to the new development in 2018. She shares her two-bed rental home with her son, and her experiences largely mirror Mr Harris’s – cheap gas bills, similar electricity bills to normal, and air circulation system snagging issues.

“It’s really nice, it’s warm, and it’s a quiet area,” said the 28-year-old, although she wished there were shops closer by.

“Everything seems normal really.”

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Another tenant said there were more snagging-type problems than he had anticipated. The man, who asked not to be named, claimed he never turned the gas on but still received unexpectedly high monthly gas bills. He was also having trouble getting the internet installed.

He said his electricity bill had come down since he had got rid of his hot tub.

The house though was warm in winter, he said, as long as the windows stayed shut.

“It is a very good place to live,” said the father-of-two. “I would not like to move from here. The views from upstairs are unbelievable.”

Indeed, even from the driveway you can see the Loughor Estuary far down in the distance.

The houses and flats surround a courtyard area and greenery out front. It feels spacious and there is hardly any noise.

Some of the Passivhaus homes in Colliers Way
(Image: Richard Youle)

It may be stating the obvious to say that a warm home, combined with greenery and a quiet environment, is likely to keep stress levels down.

Swansea University researched the effects of upgrades to council houses in a decade-long project with Carmarthenshire Council, which at the time was modernising its 9,000 houses and flats. The researchers found a substantial decrease in the number of emergency hospital admissions for cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, as well as fall and burn injuries, among tenants in upgraded properties. Prescribed asthma medications and GP visits also dropped.

Upgrades to social housing, concluded the study, could relieve the pressure on the NHS.

There are also the environmental benefits. Heating draughty and/or poorly-insulated homes wastes energy and increases carbon emissions.

Gas boilers are to be phased out in the UK this decade – a huge undertaking we maybe haven’t quite grasped yet.

A few yards away from the Passivhaus development is another new council scheme – and this one is gas-free. The new properties have ground source heat pumps, solar panels and large batteries which store electricity. They are built to what is now known as the Swansea Standard – energy-efficient and energy-producing, well-insulated, but not the fully airtight spec of Passivhaus homes.

Kaitlin Davies and her young daughter have just moved into one of the new two-bed homes.

“I was on the (housing) waiting list for two years,” she said. “I love it here. We’ve got gardens round the back. I could not wait to move in.”

Kaitlin Davies and her daughter outside their new Swansea Standard rental house
(Image: Richard Youle)

Her electricity bill, she said, was £27 per month.

“I’m very lucky – I feel like a millionaire,” said the 24-year-old.

A neighbour a couple of doors down also said she felt lucky to be the first tenant.

“It’s really warm,” said the woman, who asked not to be named. “There’s no trouble here. It’s quiet.”

Around the corner, in a small cul-de-sac, lives Hassina Bahfir and her five children. They invite me into their Swansea Standard home. You can almost smell the paint, and the garden lawn feels newly-laid. It is bright and airy, and you get the impression of a tidy and well-organised household.

“We moved in two months ago,” said Ms Bahfir. “It’s nice – I’d like to live here for quite a while.”

Two of the large Swansea Standard homes off Colliers Way
(Image: Richard Youle)
A new Swansea Standard housing scheme by the council at Parc Yr Helig, Birchgrove

The family had moved from a smaller property in Penlan.

“This is a massive improvement,” said Ms Bahfir’s 23-year-old daughter. “There’s much more room, and the garden at our old house wasn’t as nice as here.”

The council is continuing its roll-out of Swansea Standard homes, which generate a portion of the energy they use.

It is part of a wider “homes as power stations” project, which is being developed and accelerated across South West Wales as part of the city deal for the Swansea Bay City Region. This deal uses a mix of public and private sector money to invest in energy projects, advanced manufacturing, life sciences and digital networks.

Building green homes from scratch is one thing, but what about all the council and social housing dating back decades? The answer could be to retrofit them, as has been piloted in Craigcefnparc, in the Swansea Valley.

The council, in partnership with Cardiff University’s Welsh School of Architecture, has completely overhauled six bungalows in Fford Ellen, which aren’t on the gas grid. Oil-fired and LPG heating were replaced by ground source heat pumps, solar panels, and thick exterior insulation. The roofs were renewed, and air circulation systems installed. Each bungalow has a large Tesla battery to store electricity.

The council estimated in February, 2020, as the work neared its end, that around £55,000 would be spent on each of the properties.

Lynn Carter has lived in one of them, with her dog, for a year.

“It took me a couple of weeks to get my head around everything,” she said. “I’m not that great with tech, but the council were really good. It is quite warm, and the bills are lower than my previous place. I can’t actually remember feeling cold. I’ve got my heating set at 19C, but it (the heating system) rarely comes on.”

Ms Carter said she liked the area, and the park at the rear.

“Everybody is so friendly, and it’s so quiet,” she said. “I certainly won’t be moving, unless they me carry me out!”

The retrofitted bungalows in Fford Ellen, Craigcefnparc
(Image: Richard Youle)

Tom O’Malley and his wife moved into their bungalow in 2015, so can give a before and after comparison.

Mr O’Malley said the electricity bill for three summer months now came to around £100. But he said it was £340 for three winter months – and that had been a surprise.

“We thought that we would be paying pennies,” he said.

Mr O’Malley said he and his wife weren’t using energy-hungry gadgets, except for an efficient tumble dryer in the winter when needed.

He said two other bungalow tenants also had higher-than-expected electricity bills.

He added that the council was coming out this month to investigate the matter.

“They are addressing it,” he said.

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Retrofitting properties seems like a hard nut to crack, given that they’re all different. Some solutions will work well on one, but not the other. And you wonder who is going to fund all this work, given that emissions from housing simply have to come down to help meet legally binding cuts.

The council has financed its new-build and retrofit projects with Welsh Government grants and its own housing revenue account money. It has been a learning curve, and it is hoped that costs will come down as supply chains grow.

The prototype Passivhaus homes in Colliers Way while under construction in 2017

Just having a nice place to live seems be the overriding message from these pioneering tenants, judging by their conversations with me.

Cllr Andrea Lewis, cabinet member for climate change and service transformation, said the authority had pledged to develop up to 1,000 new energy-efficient homes in Swansea between now and 2031.

“When we embarked on this ambitious programme, our main aim was to develop modern, energy-efficient new homes for local people that would assist in tackling issues such as fuel poverty,” she said. “I’m really proud of what we have achieved so far.”

WalesOnline – Swansea