Saffron Lane eco-homes

The first residents have moved into 68 Passivhaus affordable housing properties, with rent set at about 80 per cent of the market rate, and heating costs from as little as $21 a year.

There are four one-bedroom flats and 23 two-bedroom, 20 three-bedroom and three four-bedroom houses.

This is the brainchild of Neil Hodgkin, head of development for the resource centre Saffron Lane Neighbourhood Council (SLNC). The area is one of the most deprived in Leicester, in England’s East Midlands.

Ten years ago he had an idea for an urban community farm to grow vegetables for SLNC’s day care service users. From this, Saffron Acres was born: allotments and a community garden that provide education and volunteering opportunities.

Now, fruit grown on Saffron Acres is turned into jams and chutneys to be sold as part of a project providing skills training for local unemployed people and adults with learning difficulties.

Determined to rejuvenate the area, Hodgkin identified housing as a key issue. SLNC embarked on a lengthy process of consultation with hundreds of local residents about the area’s housing needs. It acquired 22 acres of former derelict allotment land as an asset transfer from Leicester City Council for £1.

SLNC oversaw the project. They leased the land to a developer, emh group, and engaged the architects, rg+p, and builders, Westleigh Partnerships. The housing area is 13.3 acres. The cost: £9 million (AU$14.6m). It opened on 19 June 2017.

Construction took 70 weeks with 40 men on site every day, four of whom have been solely dedicated to achieving Passivhaus credentials.

Next to the houses is a permaculture farm, intended to provide education on food growing, cooking and healthy eating, an allotment, beehives, a flower meadow, rejuvenation of field ponds, reinstating of hedgerows and fruit tree planting. Residents are encouraged to work and grow their own fruit, vegetables and supplies on the farm. Existing community gardens are next door.

The project has already won the RICS East Midlands Awards and Project of the Year – Building Projects at the East Midlands Celebrating Construction Awards, and a Best New Affordable Housing Scheme award at the Housing Excellence Awards.

“This project shows that communities can plan, deliver and manage their own housing and address specific wider social needs,” Hodgkin says. “Retaining money within the community to also directly deliver services within the community to help solve local social issues can offer longer-term solutions towards sustainable regeneration of neighbourhoods.”

The income generated by the development pays for a full-time onsite debt and welfare support officer who plays a key role in advising and liaising with the community. Buoyed by the success of the development, Hodgkin and SLNC are planning a further £1.6m (AU$2.6m) project to build 20 more housing units on the same site. The income from these will help to pay for a further two SLNC staff so they can do more work in the community.

Resident Claire and children

Resident Claire says that the fact that the resource centre is so firmly integrated with the development is a real benefit.

“The centre has lots of services we can use; we’ve been invited there for morning coffee and my next plan is to see more of what’s in the area and become part of the community. I can start working. I feel like I’ve really landed on my feet. Being here has changed our lives and opened up everything.”

David Thorpe is the author of Energy Management in Building and Sustainable Home Refurbishment.

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