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There are nearly a million homes lying abandoned in the UK
waiting for someone to breathe life back into them.
So whether it's a tired semi or a rambling mansion,
we are on a mission to rescue Britain's empty homes.
Taking on an empty property isn't for everybody,
but if you want to make your money go that bit further
and create something that matches your individual needs, then it could be for you.
Today I'll be helping an environmentally-conscious couple
explore a possible eco-friendly renovation of a disused house.
I think you still can put solar panels on that roof.
'I'll be introducing them to homeowners who are reaping the rewards of their own eco rebuilds.'
When the meter reader came he backed out of the cupboard and he said, "You don't use much."
And we'll also be joining an empty property officer as she investigates
the plight of some of the nation's abandoned houses.
I can't see if there's an accumulation of mail.
Normally that's a telltale sign.
Many house-hunters are wary of taking on an empty property.
Cautious about taking on crumbling features and tatty decor,
often such buildings can sit on the market for months, even years.
But if you've got the vision to spot the potential in such a place, you could bag yourself a gem.
Gas technician David Hall and his wife, architectural student Heather, and their two daughters
plan to downsize to a smaller house somewhere near their present home in Ingatstone, Essex.
The whole outlook on it is to downsize, pay off some
of the mortgage and keep some money back to do the house how we want it.
David and Heather are keen to be green, and what better way to start than by recycling an empty house?
They are hoping this would allow their £400,000 budget to stretch
so they can afford to install as many eco features as they can to lead a greener life.
More than just renovating a house, we're more after a lifestyle, really.
'The main reason really is being able to put in renewable energy so we can live sustainably.'
We're looking for something smaller so we can afford to put those features in.
'But it's not going to be easy being green, as they've never done an eco renovation before.
'I want to help them explore some options before they take the plunge.'
Heather, David, I rather like your story, because
you're saying you're not bothered about what kind of a property
you get provided it's empty and you can realise your ambitions to have a greener life. Is that right?
Yeah. I think it's more important for us to get
sustainable features into the house so we can live in a different way.
What features would you be looking to put into this new property?
We'd probably go underfloor heating, solar panels, rainwater harvesting.
Triple glazing, anything that we can afford we'll be putting in.
It's a good idea, none of us would argue about it, but it's often easier said than done.
It isn't easy at all, because it's quite an expensive thing to do to an existing home.
You know, you have to, there's a lot of things that you have to add
that you don't necessarily get payback for.
But you are also downsizing...
-..to be able to afford this long term investment.
How is that going to feel, going into something smaller?
We've lived in smaller houses before.
-Yes, but it's one thing going up, it's another thing going back the other way.
-Yeah, I know.
Well, it's all going to be part of the lifestyle change. It's all going to all hopefully fall into place.
You've come to the right place. Hopefully we can equip you with
some useful ideas and inspire you to take it forward.
I mean, it is a big undertaking, but if anybody can do it, I'm pretty sure you two can.
Later I'll be introducing David and Heather to some green renovators
who have taken advantage of empty houses to create their eco dreams.
But first I want to set them a challenge.
Heather and David have very clear ideas about what they
are looking for, but will they be put off by the reality of a tired and rundown property?
I'm sending them to view a property
in the hope that they'll not only appraise it in terms of
an eco makeover, but also be able to spot how they could extend it to get the most for their money.
On the market for £310,000 this 1970s three-bed detached house
certainly fits their criteria.
There's ample scope here for a side extension that would
increase the size of the bedrooms and give them more space downstairs.
But will David and Heather see this and how it could be adapted to suit their green needs?
-It's quite boxy, isn't it?
-Yeah, it is very box-like.
I'd want to take this wall out.
-Want to open it right up.
-This is all quite nice. This could all be opened up.
-Yeah. The condition is perfect.
-We can do whatever we want.
-Whatever we wanted to.
It's a good sign. Heather is flexing her architectural muscles.
Feels quite small to me.
-Very long and narrow, aren't they?
I guess this must be one of the smaller bedrooms.
Smaller bedrooms, yeah.
-Yeah, small again, isn't it?
-For me, the rooms feel too small to warrant doing all the changes that we are doing.
-That we want to do.
When viewing vacant houses it can be tempting to dismiss individual rooms on first sight,
but often an opportunity to change the entire layout can be just around the corner.
So this is where all the room is.
Could you make another bedroom in here without compromising, you could almost put a wall through here,
have two bedrooms and then make that one bedroom at the front which would make that a bit bigger.
Because this is disproportionate to the rest of the house.
-Yeah. The other two bedrooms are very small and very pokey and this is a nice bedroom.
Out in the garden they spot how the house could be expanded further.
I think just at the side there you could extend.
-What, come out here?
But what about any eco possibilities?
-If this is facing south...
..you could still can put solar panels on that roof
because it's, the pitch is going that way...
-Yeah, so you could put in on the sides.
-You can have quite a lot of surface area.
I'm starting to feel a bit more positive about it.
This will be David and Heather's first attempt at
an eco renovation, so now
'they've had a little time to reflect on the house, I was keen to find out their thoughts.'
It was definitely interesting. It could be quite easily adapted,
easily remodelled. It was just a matter of changing things.
-Like changing the windows.
Maybe taking a few walls out internally.
All of this costs, of course. We're talking sort of ideally £50,000 renovation spend.
Which is quite low.
Particularly when you are thinking of putting in some potentially expensive green solutions as well.
What would you do there?
Well, we would first of all utilise the roof space, put PV panels...
-That will do the energy and the electricity.
Insulate right, triple-glaze the windows.
In general, then, I mean, as an example project, shall we say,
I get the feeling that this quite inspired you.
Oh, definitely, yeah.
I think the key thing today, then, is to give you some ideas, actually,
as to how you can best incorporate some of these green solutions into any property, frankly.
We've got a couple of properties for you to look at. We can pick the brains of the owners,
see what they've done and hopefully take those lessons away with you
as well as understanding some of the pitfalls that come with it.
'No matter what kind of empty property you choose to buy, the one thing they all require
'in their renovation is imagination and hard graft.'
When Oliver Carpenter and Sue Braithwaite spotted this dilapidated
bungalow in Martley, Worcestershire back in 2002, they knew that even though it was virtually condemned
it had the potential to provide them with the home they were after.
It was a sad house in a fantastic setting, and that's what appealed to us.
We realised that we could do something with the house.
Because it had irreparable structural damage,
Oliver and Sue had no option but to demolish the original bungalow
and in its place they were keen to build an eco-friendly house out of sustainable materials
complete with solar panels and a living plant roof to help blend the building into its surroundings.
I think what we are particularly proud of is the fact that all
the fabric of the building is locally sourced, and I think that's really important to us.
All the wood cladding is from the UK and the gravel is from five miles down the road,
and those sorts of things I think bring the house into some sort of context with its environment.
Although the majority of the building is new, there was one
part of the original house they decided to retain as a feature.
When we lifted up the manhole, there was this fantastic well, so we
built up another couple of layers, got a special piece of glass, and it now is an integral part of the house.
It also played a key function in the design of the house,
because, if you like, the well is a brick tower going down,
and that's why we ended up with the brick tower going up.
The bungalow cost them £220,000, and having spent a further £350,000
on the rebuild, they have achieved not only an environmentally friendly house but also a fantastic home.
Obviously, technology has moved on and more ecological things
could be done now, but at the time it was as good a go as we could do
on our budget, and we've ended up with something that suits us.
You know, we now have a house that we love.
Houses that have been abandoned and neglected can quickly deteriorate
and, of course, they can attract crime, but help is at hand.
All across the country, teams of empty property officers are
hard at work trying to find out who owns them,
why they've been abandoned and to see what can be done about it.
Like the rest of the nation, Staffordshire has its share of abandoned buildings.
In Stoke on Trent, it's empty property officer Zainul Pirmohamed's job
to get the city's 3,500 vacant homes lived in again.
I love getting hold of the owners, getting in contact with them and saying, "OK, this is the impact you
"are having on the community, what do you want to do with the property?"
and then finding a solution that meets their needs as well as meets the community's needs.
Today Zainul is responding to a call about a property that's been reportedly empty
for two years and has become a thorn in the side of the local community.
She makes a few rudimentary checks for signs of abandonment.
I can't see if there's an accumulation of mail.
Normally that's a telltale sign.
Because the glass is obscure, obviously we can't look through there.
I'm just going to have a look through.
Ah, curtains are closed, so we can't tell if it's furnished any longer by looking through there,
but generally it's not a bad property and it wouldn't take a lot to bring it back into use,
so it's important that the owner sits down with us and talks to us
and tells us actually what their plans are, why it's empty.
Frustrated, Zainul needs to make further enquiries with the neighbours,
but just as she's leaving another neighbouring house catches her eye.
Hasn't been reported to us, but I would think it's an empty property as well.
With no response at the house, she takes photos for reference,
and where she thought she had one property to investigate she now has two.
-Hi, I'm Zainul Pirmohamed from Stoke-on-Trent City Council.
I'm here to investigate a complaint about an empty property just along from you.
-Do you know how long it's been empty?
-It's been empty for about 18 months.
Do you see anybody visiting the property?
No, not since they moved out.
Have there been any problems at the property?
We've had the police to the property, the property has been boarded up,
-both the door and the windows and that was like that for absolutely months and months.
You mention the garden, and that looks quite as if it's been maintained by somebody.
It's been maintained by the neighbours.
-So they are the ones keeping the lawn tidy.
-Yeah, they were keeping the garden tidy.
Right. OK. I'm only here for one property, but I've noticed the one next door looks quite bad.
Yes, the one next door has been empty for at least three years now.
Well, they've bought it and have been in the process of building.
-But it's a long time.
It just brings your property down, you know.
To be honest, if I came along to look at a property
and I saw those I'd think, you know, what sort of street is this?
It does look a mess, and although I've had a complaint
about the other one, I will get hold of the owners.
-I will write to the owners of the other one as well. I want to know what the plans are.
-Thank you very much.
-You are welcome.
I'll be back within the next three months to give you a quick update and let you know.
-That would be brilliant.
-Thank you. Thanks for your time. Take care.
I'll do some searches, write to both owners, invite them in for meetings, find out why they are keeping them
empty, what the plans are, what the obstacles are, and then come up with some solutions.
What is clear is it's a lovely community here,
there's lots of people who have got pride in their homes,
and clearly, if the properties were put up for sale,
if they were put for let, I can imagine they would be in demand.
While Zainul is still trying to trace the owners of the first house,
she's since discovered the other house wasn't empty and building work has now restarted.
If you're thinking of renovating a tired old home, going down the green route
can have more benefits than just being kind to the planet.
There are grants available for many eco-friendly projects and some schemes, like solar heating,
can allow you to sell back any excess energy you generate to the National Grid.
Heather and David Hall are looking for a lifestyle change.
In search of the good life,
they want to find an empty property to turn into an eco-friendly home.
-The condition is perfect...
-..because we can do whatever we want really.
-Whatever we want to.
Although they're very passionate about all things renewable,
they've never tackled a possible renovation project like this before.
So I'm introducing them to a couple of home renovators who have the eco know-how
in the hope their advice will be invaluable.
Covered in scaffolding, building very much in progress.
-What do you think of that?
-It's hard to say, isn't it, really?
-It looks like an average semi.
-Well, that's exactly what it is.
-I think very much the sort of thing you're prepared to take on.
But, of course, this one has the added bonus that within the conversion, at the heart of it,
are some fantastic green credentials which I think are very much the sort of thing that you'd...
-That we're looking for.
-..want to do.
When Felicity and Carl Wallendes were looking to buy a property
in Headington, Oxford, back in 2009,
this vacant 1930s semi fitted the bill perfectly.
Although they'd never done a large renovation before,
the opportunities the house presented were too good to ignore.
It was clear that it did need quite a lot doing anyway.
It needed complete re-wiring for a start, and re-plumbing,
and so we thought, as we've got to do quite a lot of work anyway,
why not do this eco-renovation at the same time?
Carl and Felicity were determined to include as many eco aspects into their redesign as possible.
For us it's important to do what we feel is right
and that's why we looked for an architect who'd be able to advise us
because we've got the opportunity to find out as much as we can about possible eco renovation
and do it now, while the house is a building site.
'What we'll end up with, we hope, is pretty much a zero-carbon house.'
These are the two responsible, this is Carl, this is Felicity.
Now then, the exciting thing about this is that you've really set about
making this a very environmentally friendly build, haven't you?
Can we explore a bit further and see what it is you're putting in,
cos I think this is going to be interesting for you.
-This is your new extension, isn't it, through here?
-Then you've got this thing.
-Yeah, this is...
-This is very exciting.
This is an air-source heat pump, the part that will sit outside.
-That's large, isn't it?
-So that's the bit that draws heat from the outside air...
..and uses that, and that will supply
all our space heating and hot water.
On average we'll get four kilowatts of heat for every kilowatt of electricity it uses.
-Because it's essentially working like a fridge in reverse.
Taking the ambient air temperature, turning that around and giving you, what, 50, 60 degrees?
-Yeah, for the hot water.
-A bit lower for the under-floor heating.
What made you choose air-source over other types of renewable energy?
Well, it was our architect who put us onto the idea.
He recommended it.
Solar, it's fine in the summer, but you don't get much in the winter,
whereas this will work down to something like minus ten degrees.
And, as for insulating the rest of the house, I can see all that stuff
-stacked up behind you there, Carl.
-That's an important part of it.
We couldn't really have this without decent insulation.
The first thing I would say for anybody who wants to do
any sort of eco renovation is insulate as well as you can.
-Do that before you start tinkering with expensive sources of generation.
'While Carl and Felicity have minimised their carbon footprint, they've made sure
'they've maximised the potential in this previously empty house.'
It's hard to tell underneath the scaffolding, but what's going to happen up here?
At the top is the loft extension, so we've a loft room with en-suite.
Was there one there originally? I can see the neighbours have done it.
No, this house didn't have one,
so we thought it's great to have the extra space, so while we're doing all this let's put one in.
The planners couldn't say no if they've allowed it either side.
-There's no problem with that.
-No, no problem with planning for that.
I'm hoping that the pair of you are feeling quite inspired by this,
because this is a very manageable build in a very manageable building.
Exactly the sort of thing I'd hope you would think of taking on. How do you feel now, Heather?
There are elements of what you're doing that we would try to replicate.
It's all about choices, isn't it, and weighing out what's best for you
and what gives you the most efficiency and what you can afford.
-But...I mean, it's just amazing.
I think you should all go up and have a good explore upstairs,
-have a closer look at these extensions and so forth, and I'll catch up with you all later.
'I do think this has been well worth showing to Dave and Heather.'
It's answered, I hope, one or two questions and inspired them as to the fact that you can
comfortably retrofit some of the very latest technology to an existing building,
and when this one is finished it's going to be a very efficient and very beautiful family home.
Later I'll be taking them to see an award-winning project
where green intentions are at the very heart of the design.
First, back in Stoke-on-Trent,
empty property officer Zainul Pirmohamed is following up a recent letter to an absent homeowner
whose garden had become a magnet for local fly tipping.
I wrote to the owner and the owner did go to visit the property
following receipt of my letter, and...
were quite alarmed to see the state of the property externally.
Following that, they tidied the property up, or that's what they have told me.
I'm hoping when I get there that the property's been tidied up and is now neat.
It looks like the front's been tidied up, so somebody has definitely
been out to this property since we've written to the owner,
so the owners seem to have done what they've informed us they have.
Zainul checks to see if anyone is living there.
Well, the property has got a lot of belongings in
but it looks like it's storage, it's being used as a storage area.
There's belongings but not set out as if it's somebody's home.
Satisfied with the front of the building, she checks the back to see if it's just as tidy.
The trick is finding the right property.
It's this one.
Well, if there were any weeds and trees, they've all gone.
There's nothing there now, it's just a clean yard.
It's all been cleaned up,
as they said they would do.
It's a job well done, but Zainul won't close the book on this house
until she can ensure it becomes someone's home once more.
It's important that they work with us to bring it back into use.
There is a housing shortage, and in this case the owner's said
that perhaps my letter, my conversation with him,
is the kick-start they needed to start something with the property.
And I've given them a few weeks to really make that decision before we sit round the table.
Heather and David Hall want to downsize and fulfil their passion
of finding a vacant house where they can create their eco-chic dream.
They've seen a '70s pad with potential.
I think you still can put solar panels on that roof.
And met some renovators in the midst of their build who've armed them with some invaluable advice.
Now I want them to see a finished renovation that is inspirational.
It's the complete green package, if you like, applied to the sort of property
that you will readily find on the market as an empty home.
This one. And the lady we're going to meet has done it all on her own.
-And she's nearly 80.
After the death of her husband, Averil Stedeford sold her house
and bought a 1950s semi to convert into her ideal home.
My vision was that I wanted it to be as green as it possibly could be
in every respect,
so I found an architect who knew how to make the vision into reality.
It's been a labour of love.
The project has earned her awards
and amongst Oxford locals the nickname the Green Granny.
It was very important for me because I care about the environment
and I don't want to go on demonstrations or sign lots of petitions
but I've done something
really big that very few people have done and that lots of people admire,
and come to look at, and some people decide they'd like to do the same, and those were my aims.
'One of the main parts of the refurbishment was a ground-floor extension
'that Averil wanted to be as ecologically friendly as possible.
'It's made with sustainable products including fleece to insulate it
'and cedar wood to clad it.'
One of the things I love about your concept from the outset, Averil,
is that you've not just gone for green solutions but they are all from sustainable sources.
-It sounds obvious but it doesn't always work out, does it?
No. You have to weigh it up, and I discussed the cedar with the architect for that reason
and I've spoken to a Canadian about it too, who says we've got so much it would roof the whole world!
-So don't worry about it.
-So you're not doing any damage. Right.
But it's very important to take into account
not just how much your energy change is going to be afterwards
but how much energy is embodied in the building that you've put up.
'Another big feature Averil included in her renovation
'was an underground water tank that she uses to collect rainwater.'
That's the filter, and the water rink is way down there.
-What do you use it for primarily?
-It flushes the toilets and serves the washing machine and the outside tap.
But it's one of those things that's pretty achievable
-compared to the big cost of things like ground-source heat pumps.
These are things that most of us could retrofit to our houses.
'Averil has also put solar panels on the roof of her house.
'These not only provide hot water but also heat the underfloor heating system in the extension.'
If you want to heat a big room and you've got a little radiator, it has to be very hot.
If your radiator's the whole floor, it doesn't have to be very hot at all,
so even in the winter, when the solar panels are giving me water of no more than 40,
it's plenty to heat this.
Now, after all this investment and all this time,
what difference has it made to the running of this house, its carbon footprint if you like?
-Well, the estimate is that I've reduced my carbon emissions by just about 60%.
Which is very pleasing.
And has that made a big difference to your outgoings?
It has made a significant difference to the fuel bills, yes. Yes.
It was really funny when the meter reader came.
He backed out of the cupboard and said, "You don't use much."
-I valued his opinion because he knows what's average for this neighbourhood.
-But that's interesting.
-Not only have you reduced your emissions by 60% but you've also got away with an extension.
And I think that's a really useful thing for you to take away, Heather.
You know, don't be restricted by the property that you buy,
do think big if you need to, you can expand it without making a sizable impact on the environment,
-and you're going to create something which is going to run very efficiently as well.
So if David and Heather are able to achieve half as much as Averil
in the house they finally buy, I think they'll have done really well.
So, now then, that's it.
What are the key things that you'll take away from it, Heather?
Um... Well, I loved Averil's house, I loved the extension,
and that's really reassured me actually because I was very concerned about extending unnecessarily.
Averil's house, the carbon footprint was still very low,
even though she had imported materials from Canada and Sweden and Denmark.
And how about you, David? We've seen some of the very latest technologies employed in both houses.
What are you going to take away with you?
I think it's going to make us think hard about the heating and hot water side of it.
I thought Averil's...her set up seems spot on to me, what she had.
-So it's been useful.
-Very useful. Thank you.
And in turn has that boosted your sense of confidence about taking on a major renovation in a green way?
Without a doubt.
You know, I'm even more fired up, I want to do it even more.
I can't wait!
Well, as we've seen, taking on old buildings is all about passion.
Passion for architecture, a passion for design and in Dave and Heather's case a passion for the planet.
We've given them some, I think, very interesting green options
and now they're in a position to really pick and choose
which ecological solutions are going to work best for them and the property they end up with.
And as for Heather, well, she said she can't wait to get started.
Good luck, Dave.
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