“It all looked lovely,” recalls 35-year-old Dave. “But we had to child proof the house! We had to move everything up!”
This fantastically airy and fully-furnished four-bedroom, three-storey ‘zero carbon concept home’ couldn’t have been a bigger contrast from the dark and dreary 1950s bungalow the couple and their two pre-schoolers had been renting in Burwell for the past three years.
“It was an old person’s bungalow that hadn’t been decorated,” says Lorna. “It still had the original kitchen. None of the windows really sealed so it was chilly in winter and it was really expensive to heat. There was no heating in the bathroom. It was all very dark as well. You walked into this big dark hallway with doors all around it. It was all dark laminate wood on the doors.”
Lorna and Dave had been paying out £700 a month in rent and were desperately trying to save enough money for a deposit to buy their own home. But with two under fives and another baby on the way, it was hard to save much more than a £100 a month on Dave’s salary as a swimming development manager and Lorna’s part-time earnings from working in her parents’ pub and as a swimming teacher.
Then Lorna spotted an advert in the local paper looking for a family to “Live rent-free for a year”. She practically jumped at the opportunity.
“I started dreaming about all this money I could save, so I decided to enter,” says 31-year-old Lorna. “You had to collect five vouchers and write 150 words about why you could be Cambridge’s family of the future. I don’t think I wrote anything profound. I just wrote about who we were. That we liked being outdoors and growing our own veg. Normal stuff really.”
A few weeks later, Lorna – who describes herself as “eco-conscious” rather than an “eco-warrior” – got a phone call and had a telephone interview with a PR company working for the housing developer Hill. It was when the powers-that-be at Hill invited Lorna and Dave to a face-to-face interview that suddenly everything began to feel a bit more real! Lorna had mentioned the competition to her husband in passing when she first saw the ad, but he hadn’t really taken it too seriously. She had gone ahead and entered without telling anyone. And now the couple and their two kids (Harry, aged four, and Ebony, aged one at the time) were being invited to Hill’s offices near Cambridge station as one of four shortlisted families. When Lorna started to research property prices in Trumpington and saw that four-bedroom properties were going for about £900,000, she started to feel a bit out of her depth.
“We turned up at Hill’s office but we had no idea who we were going to meet – we were worried that they would be really posh and we were just normal,” she recalls, after scrubbing up her children and bringing out their Sunday best clothes. “We sat and had a chat with them and they were really nice. But Harry and Ebony started to get bored after about 20 minutes and started to tear around.”
Dave adds: “I remember walking out and saying to Lorna, ‘Well, if they want a real family then you can’t get much more real. We haven’t hidden anything.’”
The next day, the Rayners got a phone call to say they had won. They couldn’t quite believe their luck. Just ten weeks later, they had the keys to the new house where they were going to be living rent- and bill-free for the next 12 months.
“It was really surreal,” says Lorna. “After we’d found out we won, we drove up at the weekend and had a look around the area. It was very much a building site. The boards were still up. But when we actually picked up the keys in January and walked into the house, I was speechless. It was amazing!”
The idea of the house is so normal people can live in an eco way without too much effort...
The Rayners’ good fortune was thanks to a competition run by Hill in conjunction with the Cambridge News as part of a study to see how everyday families adapt to cutting-edge sustainable technologies. Built to one of the highest levels of sustainability in the UK (Level 5 out of a possible 6), the concept house was built along the German Passivhaus (passive house) principle. The house is designed to be airtight so that no heat can escape naturally, so it needs far less heating than older houses. It boasts a heat recovery ventilation system that pumps warm air out and brings clean cool air into the building, thick wall insulation, solar panels on the roof generating electricity, a rainwater harvesting system to flush the toilets, a green roof, triple-glazed windows and even a charging point for electric cars on the front driveway. It’s twinned with a matching wooden-clad house next door, using sustainably-sourced building materials. This neighbouring house is owned by Cambridge City Council and is currently home to a family with five school-aged children, whose energy use is also being monitored.
The two box-shaped, three-storey houses with their brightly painted green and blue doors tower above the low rise council-owned bungalows and flats that are tucked away behind Anstey Way’s row of shops, where there used to be a space for drying laundry that had fallen into disrepair. But there is a point behind the unusual experiment.
The shiny new concept house was unveiled as Hill was finalising plans for one of the UK’s largest zero carbon developments on Cambridge City Council land between the guided busway and the post-war council houses along Foster Road. The Virido housing development – Virido means “to become green” in Latin – will include 208 zero carbon houses (also built to Level 5 of the Code for Sustainable Development, just like the Rayner family’s prototype). Of those 208 homes, 104 will be private properties sold through Hill and 104 will be social housing owned and managed by Cambridge City Council – ranging from one-bedroom apartments to four-bedroom homes. Most of the other houses in the new Clay Farm development are being built to Level 4 of the Code for Sustainable Development. This level of eco-friendly features is standard in many other parts of Europe, but is still unusual among housing developments in the UK, which some industry observers say are lagging at least 20 years behind other parts of Europe like Germany and Scandinavia.
So what was the drawback for the Rayner family – whose prize value is estimated to be worth more than £50,000?
“I kept saying to them – what is the catch? There’s got to be a catch,” says Dave. “We got chatting to Hill. They just said, ‘we need someone to live in the house. Just live in it. We want you to press buttons. If things break, they break. We want to know what works’.”
I love being intside and just having those big windows, you feel like you’re outside.
After their initial trepidation about ruining the décor with children’s toys, the Rayners have settled happily into their new home. Two weeks after they moved to Trumpington, they welcomed new baby Orla Rose into their family. And so far, it seems, there don’t seem to be too many downsides to eco-friendly living.
“It’s all really done for us,” says Lorna, who particularly loves her purpose-built laundry drying room with a dehumidifier that dries clothes as quickly as if they were on a washing line.
“There’s a little dial by the door (that looks like a baby monitor),” she says. “In the fuse cupboard by the door, there are monitors to keep track of our water consumption, heating and everything.”
“In terms of what we have to do differently, there isn’t really anything,” adds Lorna, proudly demonstrating that the toilet water looks completely normal even though it uses harvested rainwater. “In fact, the idea of the house is so normal people can live in an eco way without too much effort.”
The Rayners complete surveys every month, giving feedback about what’s good and bad about the concept house. They even have a panel next to the light switch in the master bedroom at the top of the house that has buttons to press according to whether the temperature feels cold, hot or ‘lovely’. They have regular interviews with an academic called Alex from Leeds Beckett University – whose findings are then fed back directly into the design of the new Virido development. And so far there hasn’t been too much to complain about.
“I do like the heating side of things,” says Lorna. “In the bungalow, it was either too hot or too cold. Here you can saunter around at all times in a T-shirt, even when it’s snowing outside.
“It’s amazing how peaceful it is,” adds Dave, extolling the virtues of the triple-glazed windows. “If you open the window at night, you’ve got lorries and cars flying past on Trumpington Road. But if you shut the windows and curtains, you could be anywhere. You could be in the middle of a field!”
Lorna admits that she was a bit worried at first about uprooting her two oldest children from their home in Burwell. But Harry and Ebony felt at home straight away in their new house.
“As soon as they saw their bedroom, they were up on their bunkbeds and playing on the chalkboard,” says Lorna, pointing to the chalkboard that fills a whole wall of Harry and Ebony’s shared bedroom. The family’s new addition Orla Rose has her very own giraffe-inspired bedroom next to the master bedroom at the top of the house, with views out across squat bungalows and gardens of Trumpington’s post-war housing estate.
Lorna loves spending time in the open plan kitchen diner that looks out through picture windows onto the garden.
“For me, I can be doing stuff in the kitchen and the kids will be here or in the garden and I can see them,” she says. “Also I love being inside and just having those big windows, you feel like you’re outside.”
The Rayners estimate that Hill spent upwards of £25,000 on decorating the house before the family moved in.
“We have this debate about whether that included the kitchen and bathrooms, and we don’t think it did,” says Lorna,
incredulously. “The lampshades in the lounge – my friend said they’re £250 from John Lewis. I can’t imagine spending that much on anything. Specially a lampshade.”
“That’s half a holiday,” agrees Dave.
I don’t think we would ever look around a house like this and ever imagine that we could afford to buy it...
And while the Rayners might well have treated themselves to a few extravagances during a year of rent-free living, instead they are putting all the money that they would normally spend on rent and bills straight into a savings account so they have enough to put a deposit down on a house by the end of the year.
“We could go out and be flashy but we want to keep on saving,” says Dave. “We’re a bit boring like that. You can see we’ve got a 1997 caravan in the driveway and a ten-year-old car! We got the caravan a couple of years ago just for fun. Harry thinks it’s the most exciting thing in the world.”
In fact, on a daily basis, the Rayners’ finances haven’t changed that much. Although in terms of savings, it has brought their dream of buying their own family home so much closer.
“Financially it’s probably brought us on ten years,” says Lorna. “It’s incredible. So many people would benefit from this kind of break. We’ve got a lot of friends who are in similar situations. They want to buy a house and they were like, ‘wow, I’d live in a cardboard box for free!’”
“You hear of people winning the lottery or winning whatever,” says Dave. “We’re obviously that couple who have actually won something. I always chat to everyone about everything and everyone’s really amazed!”
“I keep telling Harry we’re on holiday for a year,” says Dave. “It’s a lovely place to live, a lovely setting. We love walking over to the park. Although it’s surrounded by houses, there’s a lot of space for the kids to run around in. And they love going to visit the chickens [by the allotments]. It’s a real novelty.”
“One of the things we were quite excited about was being this close to Cambridge,” adds Lorna. “This is like city living for a year. I like that aspect of it. A couple of time we’ve taken the bus into town. For the kids, it’s a real experience and for us it’s really nice.”
“Dave uses the trains to get to work,” she adds. “He cycles down the guided bus route. It’s brilliant. You just go down there and you’re at the station!”
So is there anything the Rayners miss about their old village life in Burwell – which they moved to six years ago from the Essex town of Halstead where they both grew up?
“The thing I miss about Burwell is our friends,” says Lorna. “We wouldn’t have moved if it wasn’t for this [opportunity]. We weren’t looking to leave Burwell. We were quite settled there. But we knew that if we wanted to buy a house we’d have to move eventually. This has given us a really good opportunity, an adventure, and it’s made a step that we knew we’d have to make at some point.”
“We haven’t found the community here yet,” she says. “Because we haven’t been here long enough. That will come, I think in time, specially when Harry starts school.”
Dave also misses the friendliness of village life: “We kind of struck gold with Burwell,” he says. “It’s a really nice village. It’s one of those places that’s not too big. About 10,000 people live there. You can’t help but say hello to pretty much everyone walking down the street.”
“That’s one thing I’ve found strange here,” he adds. “As it’s a city and a larger area here, you don’t necessarily speak to people like that.”
I’m intrigued to come back in ten year’s time... I can see this becoming its own little town really, with everything it needs.
The Rayners would also love to see more facilities in Trumpington, especially as the population continues to grow.
“Trumpington seems to have gone from a small suburb to a whole town in itself,” says Lorna, who’d like to see more local shops. “One thing I do find here is that, if you want anything other than food, you have to go into town. And with kids being the age they are, I tend to avoid it.”
Dave and Lorna would love to live in Trumpington, if only they could afford it. They have been offered first refusal to buy the concept home after their contract runs out in January 2016. But it’s been valued at around £550,000, which is way beyond their price range.
“We haven’t really entertained the idea of staying here, although we’d love to because of the house and the location,” says Lorna. “It’s just not realistic. We want to buy our own house. We’ve looked at shared ownership [in Trumpington], but even with that you feel you’re spending a lot of money that isn’t going on your house because you’ve still got rent to pay.”
“It’s not just Trumpington, it’s the whole of Cambridge that’s gone crazy,” she says. “When you see a house for less than half a million, you think it’s cheap. It’s a sign of the times. We don’t earn masses of money. We’re quite average really. We’re looking at Newmarket and Ely as much more affordable. I don’t think we would ever look around a house like this and ever imagine that we could afford to buy it.”
“We’re starting to look at houses,” says Lorna. “We’re thinking it would be nice to have one ready when we move out of here. We can get the mortgage we want. It’s just finding the house really. There’s not really a great deal around. I think it will work itself out, because everything does.”
And what do the Rayners think about Hills’ plans to build 208 zero carbon homes, using their own year of Trumpington living as a prototype?
“It’s great that they’re building eco houses that people can actually live in (if you can afford them!” says Lorna. “Normally you only see eco houses on Grand Designs! And people build them and end up in financial ruins for the rest of their lives.”
The opposite scenario has been true for Dave and Lorna, who have used the year as an opportunity to climb onto the housing ladder. In fact, we have just heard the news that they have had an offer accepted on a house in Newmarket! But they plan to come back to Trumpington to see what the house looks like in future.
“I’m intrigued to come back in ten year’s time,” says Dave. “I think it will be completely different. Most of this [Foster Road] estate will probably still be here, but I can see the area between here and the M11 will all be houses. I can see this becoming its own little town really, with everything it needs.”