Planning & Building Transition Homes

Chris Bird
Thursday, 5th November 2015

Transition Town Totnes are working towards the first build of Transition homes. Here Chris Bird explains the journey so far, so that community groups can learn from the process.

After seven years planning and consultation and almost £400,000 spent, Transition Homes Community Land Trusthas finally submitted an application to build 27 low cost sustainable homes just outside Totnes in Devon. With several years still to go before the development is complete we definitely qualify as a ‘slow solution’!

So what are Transition Homes, why are we justified in calling it a ‘permaculture designed’ project, and what have we learnt so far?

Around seven years ago, the Building and Housing Group within Transition Town Totnes2 decided to move beyond our largely educational role to become property developers. Undeterred by the fact that we had neither land nor money we set out to create a development of affordable low energy homes built with local and natural materials for local people in housing need. In the grand scheme of things a few dozen ‘eco-homes’ is just a drop in the ocean but an exemplar project that inspires others could make a real difference.

So we started with lofty ambitions; homes built to passivhaus standards but using local timber, straw and wool insulation; renewable energy systems supplying all the needs of the site; space to grow a significant percentage of the food needs of residents as well as biomass and wildlife areas; grey water systems and compost toilets to turn ‘waste’ into a valuable resource; creating a real community and making all this affordable in perpetuity as part of a community land trust (CLT) for local people in housing need. And all this would be done with real community involvement from start to finish with meaningful consultation for local people, volunteers contributing to and learning from the build process and potential residents working alongside permaculturists to design the site.

It’s been a long and rocky road but most of our vision is still there in the planning application. So how did we make it happen and what has changed?

Our first step forward came with support from the National CLT network3 that provided consultancy and funding to help us set up a local CLT, develop a viable business plan and learn from other CLTs around the UK. We then spent several years in fruitless discussions with landowners Dartington Hall Trust. In hindsight this delay gave us the opportunity to refine our ideas but at the time it was extremely frustrating and we were all relieved when another site came up for sale and we could walk away from stultifying negotiations over option agreements with the Trusts property department.

When a viable site between Dartington and Totnes came up for sale we had less than £2,000 in our CLT account but decided to offer £150,000 and worry about how to raise the money later! We didn’t know it at the time but Goethe must have had us in mind when he said: ‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it! Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it.’

By this time the project had a good profile locally and support from both Dartington Parish Council and Totnes Town Council. So when it became known that we were bidding on this site a few local people offered to lend us the money. We eventually got into a bidding war with a mainstream developer and had to pay £250,000 for seven acres but after almost five years we finally had a site, a place to ‘observe and interact’ with. Of course, we had been observing and interacting with local people and potential residents for several years already but owning a site was a huge boost to the project.

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Chair of Dartington Parish Council helps us plant a tree to celebrate our purchase of the 7 acre site

The next big step came with loans from a fund administered by CAF Venturesome4, set up to support CLT projects, and various government grants totalling more than £100,000 that enabled us to start the onerous and expensive work required to support a planning application. Architects, planning and traffic consultants, structural engineers, ecologists, surveyors and a host of others all had to be appointed, instructed and paid. Until now the project had been run entirely by volunteers but with the huge increase in workload depending on volunteer time became a bottle-neck and we appointed a part-time coordinator.

Permaculturists stack functions but planning laws appear to stack dysfunctions to deliberately frustrate applicants and deter small developers. Add to this the fact that South Hams District Council, our local planning authority, was continually losing staff and changing our designated planning officer, as well as changing the application and consultation process, and you get a sense of the difficulties we faced in preparing our planning application. At the same time we had the support of some local authority officers, particularly within the affordable housing team, and local councillors at parish, town, district and county level. Without these rays of hope it would have been difficult to continue.

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Digging inspection pits to test the subsoil with Jay Abrahams of Biologic Design

A particular source of frustration came from our plans to install grey water treatment systems and compost toilets. Our vision included a Wetland Ecosystem Treatment (WET) system designed by Jay Abrahams of Biologic Design5 (PM13) but we eventually worked with Chris Weedon at Water Course Systems6 to try and persuade the Environment Agency (EA) that a vertical flow reed bed system was a viable alternative to connecting to the mains sewage system. Unfortunately we failed. The Government’s National Planning Policy Framework7 dictates that, where feasible, developments must be connected to mains sewage systems. After nearly a year and several thousand pounds spent on talking to the EA our proposals were rejected. On the plus side we do have EA support for a community scale composting toilet scheme, probably the first of its kind in the UK, so residents will be able to harvest valuable urine and humanure.

There are also problems with our ideas for renewable energy. A grant from the Rural Community Energy Fund8 enabled us to commission an option appraisal and feasibility study from Fraser Durham of Argand Solutions9. Our plans include 130kW of solar PV and a district heating system powered by solar thermal panels and wood chip boilers. Using a ‘private wire system’ enables residents to share any electricity generated on site to avoid some homes having to import power from the grid while others are simultaneously exporting. However, Western Power recently announced that grid capacity will not allow the connection of more renewable systems of this size and we are still discussing a way forward.

We may also have to compromise on our aspiration to make all the homes affordable. Rising costs and limited access to government housing grants may force us to sell a few houses at market prices to subsidise the majority.

It probably won’t be a surprise to hear that our biggest problems have all concerned people! We agreed early on to use consensus decision-making. We reasoned that, while decisions might take longer to reach (much longer) we would be more united in implementing them. In reality we often found ourselves revisiting decisions, going over the same ground and failing to make progress. Frustrations lead to conflict and we might not have survived without outside facilitation and the use of techniques such as ‘five-to-fold’10 to clarify if not resolve difficulties. In the end we did have people who had made a tremendous contribution over many years leave the project after seemingly irreconcilable differences. That was a great shame and I still don’t know how it could have been avoided. Nonetheless, most people remain committed to the project after seven years of hard work and despite the fact that none of us meet the criteria of being in housing need – we already have over 100 families and individuals who do need homes and are keen to live in transition homes – so these aren’t for us!

So, as soon as we receive planning permission, Transition Homes is ready to move to the next stage. We will be raising around £4m, mobilising an army of volunteers, telling the story so others can learn from and improve on what we have achieved and ending up with a living, warts and all, example of permaculture and transition in action. Watch this space!

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Artists impression of the Transition Home design

Transition Homes and Permaculture Principles 

Here is an outline of permaculture and transition principles that we have been pinned to the wall in the Transition Town Totnes office. A constant reminder of the values and principles to keep in mind when making decisions 

* Observe and interact: Once we acquired the site we spent time on ‘protracted and thoughtful observation’ through different seasons. This included a short permaculture course where participants created designs. We were also able to use computer programmes to model year round shading, vital for calculating solar PV output and passive solar heating.

* Catch and store energy: Food production, renewable energy generation and harnessing the energy of local people are all part of our plan.

* Obtain a yield: In addition to the obvious yields in food and energy the project will provide employment and training opportunities and, we hope, a small surplus to seed further CLT developments.

* Produce no waste: In addition to compost toilets we plan to chip all timber off-cuts for use in the district heating system, compost all biodegradable materials on site and retain as much rainfall as possible through swales and retention ponds.

* Integrate rather than segregate: Developing partnerships with local organisations such as Totnes Renewable Energy Society and the Robert Owen Foundation.

* Small and slow solutions: Much too slow actually! But we think a development of 27 homes with a community hub building and around 3 acres of growing space is about the right size.

* Use and value diversity: The aim is to create a diverse community with single people and families of all ages and backgrounds including homes for people with special needs.

* Use edges and value the marginal: This will be apparent as growing areas and water systems are developed but we also plan to develop a rich learning interface between the development and people who can benefit from this rich source of training and educational opportunities.

* Earth care, People care and Fair Share: These values have been at the heart of all our decision making since the project began.

Local and sustainable materials

It makes no sense to build a low energy house with materials that have a lot of ‘embodied’ energy or where their production harms the environment. Expanded polyurethane foam insulation certainly reduces the energy needed to keep a house warm but requires much more energy to produce than sheeps wool and releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Nor is it acceptable to use low energy natural materials that have been transported large distances.

The Inventory of Carbon and Energy11 prepared by the University of Bath, provides a reference for embodied energy in building materials. For comparison, straw bales have 0.91 megajoules per kilogram while polyurethane foam insulation has 88.6 – almost one hundred times as much energy per kilogram.

So Transition Homes will be constructed using straw-bales and locally grown and milled timber, sheeps wool insulation, concrete free foundations and we hope to exclude harmful PVC materials entirely. Obviously there are compromises – we don’t make glass in Totnes yet! But by storing carbon in the form of straw and timber for at least the lifetime of these houses we think these homes will be carbon negative. And using local materials not only cuts down on transport but also boosts the local economy.

Resources

1 www.transitionhomes.org

2 www.transitiontowntotnes.org

www.communitylandtrusts.org.uk

www.cafonline.org/venturesome

www.biologicdesign.co.uk

www.watercoursesystems.co.uk

www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-planning-policy-framework--2

www.wrap.org.uk/content/rural-community-energy-fund

9 http://argandsolutions.com

10 www.leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/2014/10/04/the-five-to-fold-decision-making-model/

11 www.environmenttools.co.uk/directory/tool/name/bath-university-inventory-of-carbon-and-energy-ice-dataset/id/780

Further resources

How to make your transition town more effective

Is transition a more effective post-oil recipe than permaculture?

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