"When it comes to green living, the Germans are light years ahead of us Brits. Slowly, like toddlers being dragged to the doctor, the UK is moving towards more energy- efficient homes, while Germany swallowed its medicine long ago. The latter has fabulous incentives for green home improvements, to say nothing of its support for renewables. Compare this to grubby old Blighty, where millions don't even have decent insulation.
But this means we can learn a lot from the German experience of what it's like to live in an eco-friendly building. So once we ‘power down' our homes and sort out energy leakage, what next?
One issue that has emerged in Germany is the effect on human well-being of the buildings we live in. They even have a term for the study of it, Bau-biologie or building biology. Ironically, its roots lie in the improved efficiency of modern construction - as homes become more airtight, they deny their inhabitants fresh air and increase exposure to toxins in the building's fabric. Such thinking has been used to explain the emergence of Sick Building Syndrome, various allergenic reactions and recent increases in asthma and respiratory diseases.
The result is to emphasise ‘healthy' construction, a home that is good for you as well as the environment. ‘The movement towards healthy building started about 30 years ago in Germany,' says Oliver Rehm, managing director of design-build company Baufritz.
It is safe to say the public has some appreciation of potential problems from humidity, harmful chemicals and lack of fresh air. In the UK, there is also a growing awareness of chemical pollutants that might find their way into the home - from harmful gases in paint known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), to flame retardants in furnishings.
Baufritz's answer to humidity, toxins and lack of oxygen is to design homes with a breathable skin, a modern equivalent to dealing with moisture that stretches back centuries, and mechanically controlled windows that open and close according to the internal air quality, or a central ventilation system.
Rehm talks of the human body being affected by ‘electrostress' from overhead telegraph cables, mobile phone masts, power stations, digital telephones, wireless networks, electricity cables, microwave ovens and so on. As a result, Baufritz fits a ‘XUND-E plate' to the outside of its buildings, comprising thin layers of carbon on a natural gypsum board. This, says Baufritz, cuts out up to 99 per cent of all high-frequency radiation and low-frequency static emissions. Inside meanwhile, great care is placed on the siting of electrical circuits, avoiding sleeping areas, for example, in order to reduce exposure to potential harm.
The Building Research Establishment (BRE) says it is keen to do more research into the idea of a healthy home - after all, we spend much of our time inside our homes - and that it is not aware of any body of information on the subject. To this end, the Prince's Foundation is currently building a state-of-the-art house from natural materials at the BRE's Innovation Park near Watford, the site for a handful of show homes demonstrating the latest ideas in sustainable living. ‘Research will examine the impact of natural materials on air quality, on allergy resistance and on general sense of well-being,' says the BRE. "
If you have been to see the natural house at the BRE's Innovation Park near Watford, please let us know your thoughts.