London's net-zero tower blocks herald new era of sustainable living

Developers respond to consumer demands for green urban homes with living roofs, eco-friendly heating and even insect hotels

One Thames Quay promises to be one of London's most sustainable residential tower blocks. Photo: Kallaway
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Green buildings are growing in popularity and a wider choice of homes is rapidly opening up for eco-conscious buyers.

Developers are adapting to consumer demands for sustainable energy systems in properties, and green thinking lies at the heart of many major projects springing up across the UK.

But experts say it will take more than living in an environmentally friendly home to significantly reduce a person’s carbon footprint.

Social norms need to change

Nadine Storey, a researcher at Green House, a think tank dedicated to the development of “green thinking” in the UK, said while she agrees in principle with carbon-neutral homes, the wider landscape of harmful societal habits needs to be looked at.

“If having housing that is carbon neutral becomes something that people aspire to, then that is a good thing,” she told The National. “But it’s just one part of a much bigger picture.

“Even if there’s a focus on buildings being retrofitted [with low-carbon energy systems], we think at the same time there needs to be a big push for people to change their expectations and the ways we live as a society.

“Social norms need to change. We need to rethink how we live.”

A bold public campaign to nudge people in the right direction is long overdue, she said as she called for the government to step up.

“We need a wartime approach to this. There needs to be a big social message urging people to make choices that are better for the planet,” she explained. “We are in this together. We need to reduce our energy demand.”

An unparalleled balance of luxury living, sustainability, and green spaces
Rami Atallah

Domestic energy use accounts for 21 per cent of Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to Nesta, a UK-based agency that explores solutions to social issues.

Ms Storey said it is difficult to put an accurate figure on how much an individual could reduce their emissions by switching to a green property, simply because people’s habits outside the home vary massively.

But, going by the statistics, she said the average Briton could wipe away around a fifth of their carbon footprint by living in a more eco-friendly home.

Green clean living

One Thames Quay, among the latest projects to rise up in Canary Wharf – London’s second-largest financial district, promises to be the first building of its kind to use no fossil fuels in heating and cooling.

Eco-friendly fan coil units will warm the apartments in the 48-floor tower and bring down the temperature during the hotter months.

Triple-glazed windows are installed throughout to reduce heat losses and gains.

The building includes a lounge and gym on the 46th floor with a view of some of the capital's iconic buildings including the Shard and the O2 Arena in Greenwich, as well as a bowling alley, a cinema and a spacious outdoor play area.

It also features electric vehicle charging points, and rainwater collected from the skyscraper's roof will irrigate plants in a full-floor canopy garden.

The building is being developed by Chalegrove Properties – the firm behind Landmark Pinnacle, the UK’s tallest residential tower, also in Canary Wharf.

The project is being fashioned as a crossroads between urban living and the natural world.

Rami Atallah, director of the company, said One Thames Quay is a “unique development that offers an unparalleled balance of luxury living, sustainability, and green spaces in one of the most sought-after locations in London.”

The apartments, set to be ready in the fourth quarter of 2024, range in price from £499,950 ($631,000) to just over £1.2 million ($1.5million).

Landmark Pinnacle is home to a tropical garden, and a site containing bug and insect hotels recently opened on its doorstep.

Ms Storey welcomed the movement among property developers to run green threads through their projects, but appeared unconvinced that the benefits would be profound.

“On the one hand we don’t want to knock any [green] action that’s being taken, whether that’s wild gardens or bug hotels – it’s all good,” she said. “But it looks a bit like greenwashing.

“We should not be building skyscrapers because they are carbon-intensive.

“It’s not for the average person. It’s a little bit tokenistic, but we don’t want to knock it because the habits that are often adopted by the elite can filter down to other parts of society.

“If they’re going to build skyscrapers then at least if they’re doing it in a way that they’re offsetting [emissions], that’s a step forward.

“But there are bigger questions that arise. Homes are becoming bigger and bigger. The shift needs to be towards smaller homes that require less heating.”

Populations in cities are booming and limited space leaves developers looking for new ways to bring a splash of green to concrete landscapes.

Green roofs covered with plants have long been considered an easy way to improve the skyline and encourage biodiversity in urban areas.

They provide buildings with a rainwater buffer and help with energy saving by regulating the indoor temperature.

Solar panels are also proving to be a more common sight on roofs, although when the panels heat up beyond 25ºC their efficiency reduces significantly.

Experts in Australia say there is no need to choose between having plants or solar panels on a roof as having both can be more beneficial.

The Comparative Research Project carried out a study in Sydney comparing a “biosolar” green roof – one that combines a solar system with plants – and a conventional roof fitted with solar panels.

They found the “biosolar” roof was more beneficial to the environment. The green roof reduced average maximum temperatures by about 8ºC and this in turn increased solar generation by as much as 107 per cent during peak periods.

Government must steer the change

Andy Willis, director of RBD Architecture and Interiors in London, said eco-friendly building materials and fittings are “constantly becoming more on the agenda because the regulations are requiring them more”.

From 2025 there will be a ban on fitting gas boilers in new residential and commercial properties. While the rule does not apply to properties built before the deadline, developers and buyers are already responding.

Mr Willis said alternatives that “harness energy and reduce energy usage” are being embraced.

“The issue of products and their sustainability is becoming more important as well,” he said.

RBD recently built a property, valued at £1.5 million, in Berkshire for well-known figure in the horse racing world.

The site, which includes a home and adjoining offices, includes an energy-efficient ground source heat pump to deliver hot water and central heating.

Mr Willis said while it is the job of politicians to set standards, everyone has a role in helping bring about a greener society.

“I think we all have a part to play,” he said. “If we all think we cannot make a difference then we will never get to where we need to be. The government has to steer us in the right direction, but it's not just up to them, it's up to us also.”

Updated: August 30, 2023, 12:33 PM