The need to be sustainable is now as universally accepted as the need to wear a seat belt. But as Ryanair’s campaign advertising “1 million flights for 1p” illustrates, it’s one thing to accept the desirability of sustainable living, another to make the sacrifices to actually do it.

The government has no intention of committing political suicide by curbing the population’s access to Latvian stag parties, but it is more than willing to prove its green credentials in the housing sector, where the need to focus on zero-carbon development has become a doctrinal truth. But although building sustainable homes is seen as a vote winner, just how will it fare once Whitehall decides what that phrase actually means, and communicates the information to the public? The side-effects of living in zero-carbon sustainable homes may include windows that don’t open, noisy mechanical ventilators running all night, less powerful showers, smaller baths and trying to get to sleep in an overheated bedroom in the summer.

The question of matching zero-carbon living to ordinary human life was raised this week by Imtiaz Farookhi, the head of the NHBC (see page 23). Farookhi is one of a growing number of experts who are calling for a reality check before we implement zero-carbon policies. That doesn’t mean we should abandon the policy but we have to be sure that we’re not sleepwalking into building homes that are neither desirable nor sustainable. A zero-carbon home in the middle of nowhere might require a whole family to drive to the shops twice a day. And what about the over-reliance on technology? Note that the wind turbine on the Stuart Milne Eco Home at the BRE has had to be replaced.

The Scottish government, by contrast, has decided to aim for the English equivalent of level four of the Code for Sustainable Homes and reduce carbon emissions from the existing stock – a problem that English

politicians have tried to address with energy performance certificates, and so far have spectacularly failed. The beauty of the Scottish approach is that level four of the code can be reached without the need for technology, which sidesteps all the concerns about who is going to pay for the maintenance of solar panels and what have you. Instead, good quality construction and clever use of passive solar gain can be used to cut the need for heating, as in the German PassivHaus system. And at level four, the energy needed to power appliances doesn’t have to be generated by renewable sources within the development itself, which makes this level of the code infinitely more doable. Council officials on the Isle of White have just reached the same conclusion and scaled back their plans for a flagship zero-carbon development (page 23). So, although nobody is rejecting the government’s sustainable aspirations, a change of minister could be an ideal time to pause for thought.

Denise Chevin, editor