Is sustainability going to be the next casualty of the credit crunch? With houses recording their first annual fall for 12 years, and Tony Pidgley describing the crisis as worse than the nineties, it’s hard to imagine consumers squandering their angst on solar panels.

Those housebuilders that are still actually building anything have to comply with the Building Regs and the Code for Sustainable Homes, so progress will be made there. But what about those areas where public opinion and the market were meant to be the drivers? Energy performance certificates (EPCs), which will be required for all non-residential buildings in the next six months, will provide a good test of economics vs eco-nomics.

The 1,500 members of the British Council for Offices are somewhat optimistic that future office refits will improve energy efficiency, but how realistic is that in the current climate? There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that buildings with the lowest grades – of which there will be an abundance – will fall in value. But when the value of commercial property has fallen 20% in the past year and the priority has become keeping tenants happy rather than pushing up their rent, are owners really willing to shell out millions on upgraded heating and lighting? Having to spend 10 times more than the estimated to get an EPC makes a big enough dent on its own.

If the market does fail, the government has to step in, and given the economic conditions, a few financial incentives might buy a lot of compliance. For example, the Construction Products Association’s point about reducing the 17.5% VAT rate on energy-efficient kit to the 5% rate imposed on the energy it saves would be a start. And how about rebates for refurbs that move a building a notch or two higher on the EPC scale? In a tougher climate the market imposes increasingly short-term thinking on firms. But sustainability requires long-term perspectives – and a government that can see them.

Our invisible friends

It’s easy to potter through life without paying any attention to the ordinary furniture of towns and cities: road junctions, benches, litter bins. But what if all that unseen stuff is subtly affecting what we do, and how we do it? This is the argument of Tim Stonor, an urban designer who uses a stroll around Faversham to point out the link between design, behaviour and health. For example, the badly maintained alley that means the difference between walking the kids to school and dropping them off in the car, which goes to the heart of the child obesity debate. If he’s right, the democratic corollary is that the person who designs a wrought-iron bench or pavement uplighter is doing work that is as valuable in its way as the architect that dreams up a set-piece building – a wonderfully visible example of which is on our cover this week.

Denise Chevin, editor