Revisiting Spacehus: Blyth’s ‘Zero Bills’ Eco Homes

For this revisit we took a short journey from Spaceworks towards the coast to Blyth - the busy Northumberland port town, once famous for coal mining and shipbuilding, that in more recent years, has established itself as a hub for renewable energies, with its harbour and offshore wind farms, and ORE Catapult and the National Renewable Energy Centre – national centres of excellence for researching and developing offshore wind, wave, tidal and low carbon energies and technology.

We're in Blyth to revisit a small-scale residential development built in 2015 which also embraced renewable energy; a scheme which SPACE was commissioned to design on behalf of a local housing provider. SPACE explored a solution that would respond to the then growing incidence of fuel poverty, which, as we now know, continued to escalate into today’s energy crisis, leaving the average homeowner, with hugely inflated costs of heating and powering their homes.

On a compact plot, within a densely populated residential area of the town, lies the terrace of four ‘Spacehus’ eco homes. Whilst the gardens are now more established and the busy driveways hint that each house is fully occupied, the bright render on their exterior looks as fresh as the day it was finished.  

SPACE’s design for the houses embraced the zero-carbon theory that they’d be so energy efficient, the modest cost of the resident’s heating and lighting requirements would be offset by the energy generated by the photovoltaic panels installed on each roof. Designed and constructed using a Scandinavian approach to housebuilding, modular components would be precision-manufactured off-site, and assembled in-situ on the brownfield plot, resulting in super-insulated, airtight living spaces. Because the homes would experience minimal heat loss, there’d be less demand for active space heating. All of this would enable the housing provider to adopt the bold concept of ‘zero bills’, whereby they’d rent out the properties to tenants for a flat monthly rental charge which covered their utilities usage too – a model they still follow today.

We meet Katrina - a local woman who, when starting a new chapter in her life, found herself relocating into one of these eco houses, which she and her children now very happily call “home”. Much like her home, Katrina is warm and welcoming. As she invites us in, she explains that she’s been living here for just over two years, and she loves it.

On entering the house, we immediately see the living area is light, bright and spacious - in fact all of the rooms are. Indeed, the triple-glazed windows in each room are generously sized, allowing the internal spaces to be flooded with light. At the heart of the open plan living area, connecting both floors, is the beautiful cherry timber staircase, which Katrina tells us is her favourite feature of the house.

We talk about how the properties were designed to minimise energy use. Katrina agrees that even during winter months, the times she uses the active heating system – comprising underfloor heating downstairs, and low surface temperature radiators upstairs, which can all be controlled separately, is usually limited to early morning and evening time. Once April’s arrived, she never feels the need to use the heating again until around October, and year-round, her bedroom radiator is always turned off. Another highlight of her home is the heating system’s remote controllability. From her smartphone, Katrina can switch her heating on or off – a welcome function, meaning that if there’s an unexpected cold snap while she’s out, she can still look forward to returning home to a toasty house.

The triple-glazing and insulation not only help maintain a comfortable internal temperature for the home, but they also impact on the acoustics. The houses are on a fairly busy residential street, with local buses regularly passing. Yet inside, the house remains tranquil.

Helping to achieve the “freshness” that Katrina describes, in such an airtight space, is the built-in ventilation system. The discreet ceiling mounted vents are so small and quiet, they’re barely noticeable, save for the fresh filtered air they continually provide.

As the third occupant of this house since its construction, Katrina understands that prior to her moving in, it was tested with some wear and tear. She knows that one or two elements have been replaced, including a window and radiator. It seems that these new additions were installed quickly and smoothly, paying testament to the original design team’s attention to future maintenance planning.

Aside from getting used to the outward-opening exterior doors – which seems to trouble posties and Amazon deliver drivers more than it does Katrina, and the odd pigeon seeking solace from the seaside winds, under the solar panels, almost a decade on since they were designed, there still only seems to be positives to talk about with these eco-homes in Blyth.