Behind the green door: a look inside Ulster’s eco dream home

Jenny and Graham Austin

Jenny and Graham Austin

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Is this the greenest house in Britain? LAURA McMULLAN pays a visit to the home of Graham and Jenny Austin, whose four-bedroom family home won first place in the category of Most Environmentally Sustainable Construction Project at the Action Renewables Awards 2016. It’s striking features? It generates all its own heat and power - which means it is completely unconnected to the National Grid. Intrigued? So were we...

Earlier this year the Daily Mail ran a story about the “most eco-friendly” house in Britain - a four-bedroom abode in Berkshire that was so super efficient and built to such ecological standards that it doesn’t even need central heating.

But we’ve found a home in the Craigantlet Hills that can boast of being so ‘green’ that it neither requires a heating system, nor connection to the National Grid.

To the casual passing motorist, 55 Holywood Road, Newtownards, may look like any other new build nestled in the Co Down countryside, but take a further look, and you might just detect those 36 solar PV panels on its south-facing roof, panels that are responsible for not only powering all lights and appliances during the day, but which also feed a 48 volt battery bank, to provide electricity for night-time use.

Indeed, the 3,000 square foot building is entirely ‘off-grid’, which means that it is completely unconnected to an electricty cable, and totally responsible for supplying its own energy.

A diesel-run back-up generator is on hand to provide extra power if needed.

It also boasts an impressive list of ‘green’ features including triple glazed, air tight windows, ICF wall construction featuring 226mm of insulation surrounding 150mm of poured concrete, 66 low energy LED light fittings, and a thermodynamic solar panel for water heating.

In fact, the house is so well insulated that the family who live in it and built it - Jenny and Graham Austin, and their young sons Sam, three, and Josh, 19 months - are warm and cosy with just the use of a wood burning stove in the living room.

The couple together run their own business, Green Energy Store, supplying and installing renewable technologies, in particular solar water heating and solar PV systems, so the creation of their own ‘eco friendly’ family home was in every way, a true labour of love.

“I sale agreed this land and didn’t even tell Jenny,” reveals Graham, 33, showing me the views from where we’re sitting in the house’s main living area.

I can almost understand why he took such an impulsive decision; they are simply stunning. The Bangor man tells me that on a clear day you can see the Mournes, and it was this vista that he fell for, and knew that the site’s elevation and location were perfect for the creation of a home that would be self-sufficient in basically every way possible.

“We used to live in Kilmaine in Bangor, and for years and years I wanted to build my own house. I remember walking up here when it was just a field and thinking, this is amazing.

“And because we work in the renewables industry, and were in a lot of people’s houses, we had a good idea about what we could do, and what would work and what wouldn’t.”

Initial investigations with NIE to connect the Austins’ dream home indicated a cost of between £15,000 and £21,000, so understandably, they decided to look at other options.

Given the couple’s business background, it was a given that they wanted to make their ‘forever’ home as environmentally friendly as possible, and Graham was determined to do as much of the work himself as he could.

And Jenny, 30, laughingly verifies that turned out to definitely be the case.

“Graham marked out the plans for digging the foundations, drove the dumper truck while the founds were being excavated, made sure all supplies and labour were on site at the right time for all trades coming in at each stage, did all the plumbing and drainage, fitted the window sills, covered the flat roofs, fitted the full solar PV system, and much more,” she says, adding that he did all this alongside his regular panel fitting for the business.

It sounds exhausting, but what’s even more remarkable is that it was done in eight and half months; the diggers arrived to break ground in March 2015, and the family were able to move just before Christmas.

And to give you an idea of how this incredible, four-bedroom, T-shaped abode is functioning in terms of its energy provision, its panels are able to generate 8,000 kilowatts a year. The average home generates between three and a half to five thousand annually.

“Our wood burning stove will heat the water, but there are no physical radiators or underfloor heating or anything like that,” says Graham.

“Thanks to the insulation and the triple glazed windows, it’s an airtight house, There are vents for heat recovery - they move the air around the house and keep it fresh. There’s so much insulation in the roof as well that the heat can’t go anywhere. When we first moved in it was cold, the house had just been built so never had any heat in it, but by next winter that heat which has built up will have stayed.

“When it snowed a couple of weeks ago it was minus one or two outside, yet this room was as warm as it feels now.”

He added: “It really is like living in a normal house. The intention from the the start was to make it a home that we could make money on. It’s cheap to run, and also, it showcases our own products.”

The eight and half months spent constructing the house was hectic, but, the couple say, fairly straightforward.

Graham eased into a rhythm of spending his days completing jobs for Green Energy Store customers, and his evenings up at his own project.

“I really enjoyed it, although I lost about two stone,” he laughs.

But Jenny teases him that he couldn’t have coped with any other way of proceeding, and the thought of handing over the reigns of control to an outside party would have brought him out in a cold sweat.

“To be honest, when we moved in, it was as if we had always been here, because we had pictured it in our heads for so long,” she says, explaining that they “pretty much” designed the layout of the building as well.

“It was as if I knew exactly what the rooms would look like. It was just as if it had always existed.”