Snow in May – even if it is in Manchester? Except the artificially produced flurry is not at the northern capital’s indoor ski slope but from a housing research project trying to preserve the future of the natural white stuff.

Alastair Stewart

Alastair Stewart

The snow is part of carefully controlled meteorological conditions at the University of Salford, in which two homes (pictured) have been built side by side by two of the largest UK housebuilders, Barratt Developments and Bellway. Earlier this month, well-wrapped (it was then a parky -5.1°C) investment analysts and lenders were shepherded round the highly insulated homes packed with whizz-bang and more traditional technology aimed at reaching the government’s Future Homes Standard.

We were relatively lucky. Temperatures in the 4,000-cubic-metre chamber at the heart of its Energy House 2.0 project can plunge to -20°C or soar to 40°C; while researchers can summon wind, rain, snow or solar gain at the twist of a dial. The £16m project, also involving 32 product manufacturers, is assessing how to best achieve the standard, which will require 75% to 80% lower carbon emissions from 2025.

The two homes purposely employ a pick-and-mix approach to compare and contrast their feasibility. Barratt’s eHome2 features, for instance, photovoltaic panels, double (or triple) glazing, automatically controlled blinds to limit solar gain and heated skirting boards as an alternative to bulky radiators. The extra-thick insulation layers in the timber-frame walls are offset by applying 5mm brick slips.

Next door, Bellway’s The Future Home (in this case using ‘real’ bricks, in pre-assembled panels from Forterra) employs underfloor heating and infrared panels (including, disconcertingly, in the ceilings, seemingly heating inhabitants like cheese toasties) as well as wastewater heat recovery.

The main heating in both houses is generated by air-source heat pumps; Bellway’s innovation is that its pump is tucked away in the loft rather than plumped outside.

Two newly-developed homes inside a warehouse. Artificial snow is on the ground, with a car covered in the snow in front of one of the homes.

The experiment in action at the University of Salford

There are several smart devices, such as a steam dishwasher, to limit water use. Kelda’s air-powered shower mixes high-velocity air with around half the water to form fewer but bigger droplets in a more powerful stream. I stuck my hand in: it’s pretty convincing. It can save around £250 a year. The catch is it costs about a grand.

There’s the rub. Barratt estimates monthly running costs of £85 – less than the £187 for one of its own homes built to current regulations, and a fraction of the £315 for a typical Victorian home. But the homes will cost more to construct when they start rolling out at scale in 2026. How much more is debated lengthily – and inconclusively – in Future Homes Hub’s Ready for Zero report. It looks like up to 19% more before economies of scale are factored in.

Price offset

The real $64,000 question is: can developers charge more? Lenders’ valuers have traditionally limited the prices that housebuilders can charge by comparing them with transactions in the secondhand market. Thus, any extra costs must come off their margins or the price they pay for land.

There could be a change of mindset. Lenders are already offering cheaper ‘green’ mortgages, on the basis that owners are less at risk of defaulting due to lower running costs. A representative in attendance from one of the biggest banks suggested to me they could go a step further and not only value new homes to reflect the higher capital costs, but discount the valuation of homes with poor Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) ratings, due to lower demand.

The homes feature an electrical charging point that can not only top up a car, but also use its battery to supply the house and even grid depending on daily peak cycles. Biodiversity stars in Barratt’s earlier Zed House, built outdoors on the site, features an alliterative medley of bat bricks, bee boxes and hedgehog homes. It also showcases some rather fetching blinds made entirely from recycled plastic bottles.

There was, however, another unintended example of recycling. The Zed House (for zero) was originally branded Z House. Lots of literature was printed, to Barratt’s demanding production standards. Then Russian tanks pounded their way into Ukraine, emblazoned with the letter. This, understandably, prompted a rapid rebranding. And a lot of shredding.

Alastair Stewart is an equities analyst and consultant