Is government policy on zero carbon homes leading to box-ticking rather than true sustainability? Josephine Smit finds some housing developments with wider ambitions

The estate agent was scratching her head. She’d come to Hockerton in Nottinghamshire to compile an energy performance certificate for one of the settlement’s five late-90s eco-homes, but… “She said there was no tick box on her form for earth sheltered construction, or for a wind turbine, or other features of these homes,” explains Hockerton resident Simon Tilley. The energy performance was therefore based on the year construction began, 1995, and the house given a D rating.

Its new owners, who moved in in February, have had the last laugh as lender the Ecology Building Society assessed the house, recognised it as zero carbon and compliant with level 6 of the Code for Sustainable Homes, and gave them a discount. Still, this story, and others like it, raises questions about the worth of EPCs.

The government says it is committed to sustainable development, specifically to ensuring that new homes are built to a zero carbon standard by 2016. But, as EPCs show, it is difficult to come up with the policies to deliver on good intentions. It struggles to find a consensus as environmental experts argue for stringent measures and housebuilders counter-lobby for less onerous approaches. The government’s proposed definition of zero carbon, on which consultation closed in March, is the most recent battleground for the lobbyists.

There is concern that the real meaning of sustainable development is being forgotten. Terry Keech, sustainability partner at consultant Calfordseaden, says: “The housebuilding industry is getting very caught up in ticking boxes rather than thinking about how to make development truly sustainable.” He cites local authorities’ demands for developments to meet higher levels of the Code for Sustainable Homes: “Local authorities aren’t necessarily asking for a certain level because they want to be more sustainable. They are doing it so that they can go one better than their neighbouring authority. It is code poker.”

Alan Cherry, chairman of housebuilder Countryside Properties, says government policy has driven a simplistic definition of sustainable development: “The [policy] emphasis is very much on building, and hugely on new homes. I’m not backing away from that, but that’s an easy target. There is a need for a more holistic approach. There are many aspects to environmental sustainability, and there is not enough focus on social and economic sustainability.”

Others argue that’s a step too far for housebuilders. Hockerton Housing Project’s Tilley says the Code for Sustainable Homes is a move in the right direction, but adds: “After that you move on to thinking about how people can live in a sustainable way… things like local food growing. You have to involve people, and that’s beyond what most housebuilders can contemplate.”

Some housebuilders are applying broader definitions of sustainable development. Joint venture developer BioRegional Quintain builds to the One Planet Living standard that BioRegional developed with WWF. This takes into account factors such as local and sustainable food, cultural heritage and health and happiness. This approach was rare even before the recession. Pete Halsall, managing director of BioRegional Quintain, says: “We’re seeing developers withdraw from sustainability on the grounds of their own economic sustainability. Our view is that, while the credit crunch is serious, we can’t afford to do that.”

Sales of organic food may be dropping, but Halsall believes homes will continue to sell at the One Brighton scheme his firm is developing with Crest Nicholson in the coastal city: “There’s no price premium at One Brighton, as there is with organic food. That business model was always going to be vulnerable to a downturn. In these homes people will be able to grow their own food and live without a car. That is attractive in a belt-tightening market.”

The slow market might also allow pause for thought over the meaning of sustainable development. Calfordseaden’s Keech says: “It is all becoming dogmatic. Maybe it [the recession] will give us a chance to think about what we’re trying to achieve in sustainable development. We need to ask some fundamental questions.”

The future: Hanham Hall, Bristol

Barratt’s proposals for the Hanham Hall site won a competition to design a scheme that trialled emerging standards. In partnership with the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), the national housing and regeneration body for England, Barratt and HTA Architects has now submitted the scheme for planning approval.

The HCA competition required homes to be designed to level 6 of the Code for Sustainable Homes – a testing target, say housebuilders, which effectively makes Hanham Hall a 195-home prototype for future delivery of sustainable development.

To help hit the zero carbon target, the scheme is expected to have a central biomass plant which will meet more than 90% of heating demand. A back-up gas boiler will provide additional heat in the two coldest winter months.

Residents will share gardens and amenities as well as a heating system. HTA managing director Ben Derbyshire says: “For neighbourhoods to be sustainable people need to adopt more collaborative forms of behaviour.”

The past: Hockerton Housing Project, Nottinghamshire

When a terrace of five earth-sheltered homes was built in Hockerton in 1998 it was seen as a hippy experiment, with its “hobbit” houses, grow-your-own lifestyle, reed bed waste disposal and wind turbine. Now it could be a model for the future: the zero carbon project meets level 6 of the government’s Code for Sustainable Homes.

Designed by architects Brenda and Robert Vale, the homes, and the learning resource centre completed six years later, relied on passive design to eliminate the need for space heating, drew water heating from five air source heat pumps, and got their power from a 7.65kWp photovoltaic array and two wind turbines, a 6kW and a 5kW.

Hockerton’s passive design principles and eco-friendly example hold good a decade after the homes’ construction.
Hockerton’s passive design principles and eco-friendly example hold good a decade after the homes’ construction.

The principles hold good, says resident Simon Tilley. “Some details we would do differently. Four out of five of the heat pumps have stopped working at some point every year, so we wouldn’t use those again. And we might have opted for a bigger wind turbine.”

While the PV panels’ outputs match expectations, last year producing more than 5110kWh, the wind turbines do not. The 6kW Proven turbine had an output of about 4400 kWh, while the 5kW Iskra achieved about 5200kWh.

The homes consume more than the very low 8-10kWh/day planned. Reasons range from an increase in home-working to the fact that the five families who moved in with small children now have a brood of Facebook-browsing teenagers.

The present: One Brighton, Brighton

One Brighton represents best practice in sustainable housing development in England today. The scheme is designed to BRE’s Ecohomes Excellent level, although its eco-credentials derive not from government standards but from the broader One Planet Living principles of socially, environmentally and economically sustainable development devised by BioRegional and WWF.

While pioneering schemes like Hockerton trialled sustainable development on a small scale, today eco-principles are being embraced in mainstream, large-scale high-density housebuilding. At One Brighton, Crest Nicholson and BioRegional Quintain are constructing 172 apartments, 1000m2 of commercial space and 900m2 of community space.

The scheme (pictured) will incorporate such features as recycled building materials, an on-site composter for domestic organic waste, rooftop allotments and green technology. Space and water heating will be courtesy of an on-site biomass boiler, burning locally sourced woodchip. Roof-mounted photovoltaic panels will provide electricity.

Wind turbines were on the wish list when the scheme was being planned in 2004, but subsequent concerns about their effects around tall buildings prompted the developer to rule them out and replace them with more photovoltaics.

The development will have its own energy service company (ESCO), called One Brighton Energy Services, for which the contracts and pricing policy are being put into place. The developer initially wanted to partner a commercial energy player, but BioRegional Quintain managing director Pete Halsall says he wasn’t happy with the deals on offer: “We would have been locked into a pricing policy that would have disadvantaged our customers, and our brand.”

So BioRegional Quintain will run the ESCO at this and at all its future schemes.