One-on-one interview: Tony Dowse, Environ Communities

Posted 20 January 2014

Marc Da Silva continues his series of interviews with senior figures in the UK property industry by turning the spotlight on Tony Dowse, executive co-chairman of eco-home specialists Environ Communities.

What regions do you cover? Environ has previously developed 11 residential schemes, predominantly in Kent. One of the most successful schemes is Lacuna at Kings Hill, a development of 180 homes that were built to a ‘Super E' efficiency specification for sustainable living. The homes won a host of national awards at the time.

Schemes currently in planning or development will again be in Kent at Kings Hill and other locations, in Dartmouth in South Devon, Bideford in North Devon, a retirement scheme near Bath, and a château development in the Tarn region of France.

What are housing market conditions currently like in those areas? The South East remains top for recovery but hotspots in prime locations in the South West are performing well. Savills Residential Focus shows good forecasts for the South West in the next five year period.

What types of properties is your firm developing? We design and build homes that are sustainable, will enhance the lives of people living in them and complement the surroundings. Everything we do is led by a strong guiding philosophy of sustainability, quality, localism and ‘New Urbanism'. We design properties and developments to be as energy efficient as possible and were the first developers in the UK to introduce the revolutionary and highly energy-efficient ‘Super E Housing' from Canada.

We also ensure that all designs reflect the local vernacular (rather than a cheap ‘pastiche') - using materials and design elements that are true to the local landscape and traditions. In this way, Environ properties complement their local environment, rather than fighting against it. Attention to detail, landscaped gardens and sense of place and community are paramount.

Our commitment to the ‘environment' extends to the local cultural environment too. This couldn't be more important than in a development such as La Durantie in France, where properties are being built in the French equivalent of an ‘area of outstanding natural beauty', in a region steeped in thousands of years of strong local culture.

Based on the architectural philosophy of Professor Christopher Alexander, the ‘New Urbanism' movement to which Environ enthusiastically subscribes promotes the design of living spaces that enhance the lives of those living within them. We design our properties to be as individual as possible, maximising light and space and a connection with the outdoors.

Homes come equipped with landscaped gardens ideal for sustainable living and we try to achieve a real "sense of place" within our lifestyle living schemes. For example, the properties at La Durantie development will all have beautifully landscaped gardens - enticing you out to live, eat, entertain and relax surrounded by nature.

How much does a new home by Environ typically cost to buy? Two-bedroom homes at The Manor at Kings Hill in Kent start from £327,000, but typically our homes sell for approximately £500,000 to £700,000. Our homes include many extras that other developers charge for such as flooring, landscaped gardens, mirrors and even hooks on the back of bathroom doors.

Why should more buyers consider buying a new-build home as opposed to older property? New homes have numerous advantages - they are more energy efficient so cheaper to run, they are designed for how we live today - less formal dining rooms and more family living spaces that can be flexible in their use. From a maintenance point of view they are also easier to look after.

Technology has given us options that did not exist ten or even five years ago. For example, triple glazed windows that are aluminium clad and powder coated on the exterior and low-maintenance weather boarding and render make new homes easier to maintain. Homes can have more flexible living spaces with the use of structural insulated panels (SIPs) in the loft space which enables us to provide a usable loft room without roof trusses, and pocket doors to divide or open up living spaces for the changing requirements of a family.

Is it worth buying property during the off-plan stage of construction? Typically homes bought at the off-plan stage will see an uplift in value, especially now in current market conditions, before the scheme is completed so it can be a good investment. There is also the opportunity to customize some of the fixtures and fittings.

What is Environ's USP? Our USP is that we build ‘lifetime homes' with a traditional and timeless beauty. Ours are sustainable, quality homes that connect with the local environment in some way. We also only build homes that we would happy living in ourselves.

Environ is not a typical modern homes builder. We want people to visit our luxury homes and be wowed by the lifestyle living on offer. We want to build lifetime, family homes for families to enjoy forever. We want people to tell us, after they move into their luxury homes, that they love the unique homes we have built for them.

Which of the developments Environ is currently developing do you think stands the best chance of winning a What House? Award? I am particularly proud of the new eco homes at Keepers Court on Kings Hill that are in construction now as they have ‘fully fitted gardens' which are quite unique. It is a turn-key concept as it is extremely low maintenance and multi-functional - all you need is a pair of secateurs and new owners are even given an instruction manual. All the garden needs is some pruning at certain times of the year, feeding and watering, a sweep of the tiles and a rake of the realistic artificial grass. Anyone can do it.

Designed to be multi-functional - the garden can be a kids play area with built-in benches with storage underneath for toys and games and equally it works as a sophisticated entertainment and outdoor dining space for parents with tiled BBQ area and optional soft lighting for evening time.

Innovative features include specially designed fences with sections cut out in the shape of flowers, sprayed in a colour of choice, teardrop-shaped water butts to collect rainwater for recycling, and the optional use of realistic artificial grass in high footfall areas

Our new development ‘The Sails' in Dartmouth, which is a stunning landmark building overlooking the harbour, is also a scheme that we think is worthy of an award. The eye-catching scheme with its exterior walls designed in the shape of sails is already a talking point in the area.



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