The Peabody Trust's BedZED carbon-neutral scheme has been hailed as a triumph of sustainable community design (take a bow, Bill Dunster). But what is it like actually living there? Thomas Lane met two of the residents – and took their niggles to the innovator himself …
Think "green" home, and visions of hippies shivering in damp mud-coloured rooms spring to mind. Most people assume only diehard eco-warrior types would be prepared to make the necessary sacrifices such as living without heating to preserve the planet. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to find a Ferrari fanatic living in a carbon-neutral development in Sutton, south London. If someone so devoted to conspicuous consumption is prepared to buy a home there, living there can't be too bad – even if the Ferraris are just models sitting on the office shelf.

The development is called BedZED, and doesn't look at all austere. Situated by the busy London Road, the five rows of brick-built, three-storey terraced properties look very appealing with their brightly coloured wind cowls, full-height conservatories fronting each home and interesting mix of gently curved roofs and angular detailing. Built on the site of a former sewage works, the homes are packed tightly together to maximise the use of space, with a PPG3-busting density of 123 properties a hectare.

High densities are only one aspect of a development conceived as a sustainable community. BedZED is a mixed-use scheme combining 82 houses, flats and maisonettes with 2500 m2 of office and commercial space, including a health centre, nursery and community centre. The hope is that people will live together as a community with as many facilities as possible on their doorstep to cut out wasteful commuting. Bill Dunster Architects designed the scheme for housing association the Peabody Trust; 34 homes were sold outright, 23 are shared ownership and 25 are for affordable rent.

Minimising resource use in both building the homes and living in them was key to the concept. Each room at the front of the home has a door opening out onto the full-height conservatory. This isn't just about flooding the homes with light, but is also a vital part of the development's environmental strategy. The homes have conventional cavity wall construction with the inner leaf built from dense concrete blocks, and exposed concrete ceilings. Solar gain collected by the conservatories warms up the concrete structure in the day, with the heat released at night. Furthermore, 300 mm of insulation in the wall cavity keep heat loss down to almost zero.

A combined heat and power (CHP) plant burning waste tree trimmings generates electricity, and heats the properties' large hot water tanks. A small radiator warmed by the hot water in the tank provides the only necessary heating, as the homes are so well insulated. And keeping in with the green theme, photovoltaic panels provide free electricity to electric car charging points; each home has a single car parking space set away from the properties.

The residents' view …
Kendall Marsland Murray saw BedZED on a television programme in March last year. "It was the style that intrigued me. I liked the ethos behind it," she says. Husband Paul Murray was not keen on Kendall's idea to go visit the development, as the couple hadn't any plans to move from their two-bed Victorian conversion flat in Bromley. "Wild horses wouldn't drag me there. I was about as green as a V12 Ferrari before I came here," laughs Paul on remembering his response. His reaction changed when he saw the house. "I walked in and was completely blown away by it, even though it wasn't finished. It was magnificent." Kendall chimes in: "I love the floor-to-ceiling windows. I love natural light; it was a combination of the two, the architecture and the environmental aspects."

It was love at first sight and the couple acted on their instincts. "When we saw there were only two homes left we figured we had to act quickly," says Kendall. The couple paid £240,000 for the three-storey, four-bedroom house, the largest housetype at BedZED, and moved in July last year. Kendall has fully embraced the green lifestyle by switching jobs and working as an administrator for BioRegional, an organisation based at BedZED promoting sustainable development. Paul works in the IT industry.

The couple are very positive about the BedZED lifestyle. "It takes Kendall half an hour to take the rubbish out as she is chatting to neighbours," says Paul. "There is a really warm, community feel." Given the high density of the homes, there was always a danger that that community feeling could become oppressive, but it hasn't happened here. The homes' heavy concrete construction and triple-glazed windows ensure they are very quiet, which helps everyone live in harmony.

"We come from a leafy suburb, and we don't feel hemmed in," says Kendall. "Opposite there is a live–work unit and people are in and out between 7am and 10pm. Because we can't hear them, it's OK." Noise from adjoining homes is not a problem either. "We had to look after next door's baby one day, it was only then we realised how much he screamed," says Paul.

Still, there have been a few teething problems with the house. The most irritating is that the CHP system has only just started heating the two hot-water tanks in the house since they moved in last July – the immersion heater has had to provide back-up in the meantime. Because of this, a fan heater has been pressed into service to warm the house up on cold evenings, as the little radiator doesn't get very warm. "We've had people coming around from [engineer] Arup, looking down holes and scratching their heads," says Paul. The problem has finally been traced to a faulty valve supplying the terrace. The other problem is the data-cabling for internet, television and radio is either missing or not connected. This is a problem afflicting the whole development. "A neighbour pulled a cable through and found a note taped on the end saying 'ha ha'," says Kendall.

Most other problems are design-related. For example, the fourth bedroom in the largest housetype is very small. "I would question if one of the bedrooms is 100% functional – it's more like a box room," says Kendall.

"We can't get a single bed and a wardrobe in; it's just 10 cm too small in one direction." She is less than happy with the kitchen, too: "There are not enough kitchen cupboards, and they are not as functional as they could be, the doors don't open 180°." The couple would have liked more storage space generally and Paul finds the pitting in the exposed concrete ceiling irritating.

Despite these problems, Paul and Kendall are keen to emphasise how much they like the house. "The homes are fabulous – the good things far, far outweigh the bad," enthuses Paul. And BedZED's claims of low-energy bills seems to be stacking up, too. Architect Bill Dunster reckons the greywater recycling and the development's green sewage treatment should halve water bills.

The metered water bill from July to May was just £108 and the electricity bill for the all-electric home was £38 for the first quarter of 2003 – very good, considering the heavy use of the immersion heater.

The architect responds …
Bill Dunster takes residents' comments very seriously as he is marketing the BedZED concept as a one-stop solution for anyone wanting to build a zero-energy development. He has packaged up a range of standard housetypes based closely on BedZED, complete with a team of consultants and the contractor to build them. Lessons learned on this development have fed into the standard housetypes. "We don't pretend it's perfect; there are things that can be improved on, but hopefully they are not disasters," he says.

He has no vested interest in defending construction faults as he was not the developer or contractor on this project, and is sympathetic to Kendall and Paul's points. He is, in fact, critical of the specialists responsible for the problem valve that prevented hot water reaching the tank in the house. "The irritating thing for us it has caused people grief," he says. "It could have been spotted and diagnosed by the people who put it in. It has turned into a saga – it's a shame as it spoiled people's experience of moving in." His attitude to the missing data cabling is similar: "This was despite cable trunking being put in for this," he says with a resigned sigh. "We are working with Peabody on this; they have done one block and are working their way round."

Dunster admits the design issues need attention, and have been in some cases. He looks at the bed jammed up against the wall in the small bedroom and observes wryly: "I think on the architect's drawing the bed goes the other way." He does concede this is an issue, though: "Making a room 100 mm bigger is not a problem.

This is something we have addressed on our standard housetypes, something we have learned from residents." Kendall has her kitchen problems sorted out on the spot as Dunster offers to find some proper 180º hinges and some spare kitchen cupboards. Having the architect's new office on site has its advantages.

According to Dunster, the reason why the specification seems thin at times – for example, the lack of built-in storage – is down to cost. "Peabody isn't in the business of doing luxury places, this isn't Berkeley Homes," he points out. "The reason there is not a lot of storage space is to reduce the price. Peabody wanted to make the homes accessible to a wide market. Perhaps this is not appropriate on the three- and four-bedroom houses."

Walking around Kendall and Paul's home, he stops, scratches his head and says, "I'm quite envious – this is much nicer than my house." As he designed his own home, this is serious praise indeed.