The term carbon footprint has become something of a cliché but if we take time to look beyond the cliché and to examine the environmental and financial costs of energy inefficiency now and in the future, we may easily see that inefficient use of our energy resource makes no sense.
Jes Mainwaring believes passionately in the efficient use of energy in buildings and as an architect he is in a position to live up to his ideals. "A building can be environmentally sound, energy efficient, highly practical and attractive to look at; and the extra building cost can be rapidly recouped in the savings on energy expenditure," he says.
Since he graduated, Jes (AAdipl RIBA) has always been attracted to the cutting edge of green architecture. One of his projects with ECD Architects was the new hall of residence at Linacre College, Oxford, which was elected Green Building of the Year.
His friend John Tranmer, owner of the AlmaVerde development, 12 years ago invited Jes to Portugal, to the Algarve, to work on a project for eco living. It was their joint chance to lead the field in energy efficient design and to put their ideals and dreams into bricks and mortar. John had already chosen a site near Burgau, close to the Costa Vicentina Natural Park. Meeting every encouragement from the local planning authorities, they began to develop at AlmaVerde a 36 hectare (89 acre) site on which there was yet no development. Starting design from scratch Jes took into account the local conditions with the aim of making homes that were ´sustainable´. The World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainability as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs".
Traditional building practice in the Algarve produces villas with common and basic problems and anyone who has lived in the Algarve for any length of time knows what they are: leaky flat roofs, mould caused by cold humidity in winter and difficulty in keeping cool over the hot summer months. Adopting at AlmaVerde northern European ideas and technology as well as learning from local methods, Jes has been able to design houses with an ´insulation envelope´which protects the house from summer heat gains and winter heat losses. External insulation, timber doors and window frames and high performance double glazing are part of the insulation package. Inner walls are made of adobe bricks which have a high thermal mass and have the advantage of being able to regulate humidity by absorbing moisture when humidity is high and releasing it again when humidity is low. Cooling in summer is provided by air blown through tubes underground - under the garden - where it essentially picks up its coolness deep below the ground and then transfers it from the garden into the house. Winter heating comes from an ultra efficient condensing gas boiler with a hot water cylinder and a continuous radiator hidden behind the formed skirting panels. Solar control glass, measured overhangs and shutters protect the south and west facing glass surfaces from the strongest sunlight.
Some developers of supposedly eco houses pay lip service to the concept and use the term as a trendy marketing ploy. But at AlmaVerde the developers are building their dream of sustainable development, which is the best in the world. John comments, "We intend to remain at the forefront of energy efficient design. Our next step will be to use solar energy to create a store of heat, which can then be used to bring warmed air into the house when it is needed, much as Coolhouse brings in cooled air. Our particular holy grail is to deliver zero-carbon villas on a commercial basis."
It is not just the design of the houses that makes the development different. The project has been fashioned to take account of the prevailing winds. Trees and shrubs have been planted to provide shelter (and privacy) so the site is an organic whole. The interiors of the houses have an airiness and spaciousness accentuated by the light coloured floors and the light woods used in the fixtures and there is a feeling of space and flow from one living space to another. In addition to the state of the art luxury homes, the development offers tennis courts and a spa and wellness centre. There are plans both to allow different ways of owning these eco homes such as through fractional ownership or as apartments and also further to develop the site as a spa and wellness destination.
AlmaVerde has become a new type of community. Many of the buyers of Jes’s houses are themselves from the construction industry - they are people who know about good design and the benefits of energy efficiency. The added advantage is that many sales have since resulted from advertisement by word of mouth. On the international front, this luxury eco-friendly development has won 18 awards for design, energy performance, innovation and sustainability. AlmaVerde is among the top five worldwide sustainable developments and it is here in the Algarve. The expertise that has put AlmaVerde on the map will shortly be available to other people through architectural consultancy as well as project management
So what are the facts behind eco homes? "... the Coolhouse system is likely to produce 810 kg of carbon dioxide per cooling season where conventional air-conditioning would generate 15,200 kg of carbon dioxide..." Nearly twenty times less! These figures for one aspect of the building specification show the immense difference that design can make towards using energy efficiently and responsibly. Jes estimates that conventional use of buildings leads to the consumption of about 50% of the energy used globally; most of which is consumed in the heating, cooling and lighting of buildings and from these figures, it is obvious that the construction industry can play a major role in energy conservation. Some countries have even introduced retro-fit energy saving schemes and provide loans to fit the energy saving devices. The loans are repaid each month according to the difference between the previous energy cost and the cost after employing energy saving measures. The British organisation BRE (Building Research Establishment) has developed an environmental assessment method (BREEAM) which sets the standard for best practice in sustainable design and has instituted the measure used to describe a building´s environmental performance and this certification is being sought more widely even outside the UK.
Jes Mainwaring is justly proud of his green architecture: those people who have bought homes at AlmaVerde are making their own contribution towards energy saving and he has made a significant contribution to the revolution in building construction worldwide as well as in the Algarve. His message is that homes can be high class, comfortable and attractive without depleting the planet´s resources. Let´s hope that other developers hear the message.