Are developers grasping the green agenda? Judith Harrison sees signs of hope, but John Callcutt doesn’t see much beyond general enthusiasm
In 1999, when the Housing Forum interviewed the team behind the Peabody Trust’s Beddington Zero Energy Development in south London to assess its suitability as a demonstration project, the design was mindblowing it was so new, with its energy-efficiency, combined heat and power plant, and its strategy to reduce car use. But, behind the innovators, housebuilding at large is changing.

In the demonstration project programme launched to drive the Egan initiative we’re seeing people taking on technology such as heat-recovery ventilation. Almost a quarter of our projects have sustainability as their main focus of innovation. We have initiatives such as Riverside Housing Association’s White Rock Court new build in Liverpool, which is a second-generation green project that applies lessons learned from its previous scheme at Millennium Mews. Innovators such as Riverside and contractor Greenfield Way, which is working for East Dorset Housing Association, are reaping rewards.

Going green is moving into the mainstream. We’re finding more interest in whole-life costing, which is used in almost half of current demonstration projects. At the moment, the impetus is coming from the social housing sector, but there is perhaps even greater potential in the private sector. Lower bills could be a huge selling point.

A small Lincolnshire housebuilder, Gusto Homes, has demonstrated that sustainable living is a marketable product. Its homes have sold well and members of the public visiting its Millennium Green site in Collingham are asking the housebuilder to build for them.

There are green shoots, says Judith Harrison, project director at the government-backed Housing Forum.

The tools are there to help the industry. Last year, the Movement for Innovation launched its environmental performance indicators and we published a report called The “E” Factor, which included details of BRE’s EcoHomes system and of Arup Environmental’s SpeAR process, which looks at economic and societal factors. At the Housing Forum we are dealing with the leaders, but customer demands might force others to follow.

As does nature, developers abhor a vacuum. Faced with the absence of a clear environmental policy, they will seek their own – with competitiveness as their priority. After years of planning control, which paid scant regard to environmental issues, developers were largely geared to the mass production of a standardised product. Any developer that attempted to break the mould was running the risk of operating at a competitive disadvantage.

Encouraged by increasing resistance to greenfield development, local planning authorities began to demand more, and in many cases to give more in planning terms. This sea-change was quickly followed by a deluge of guides, reports and policy papers that set out a radically different approach to development control and conservation, based ultimately on achieving greater sustainability.

We must go beyond a narrow definition of sustainability, says John Callcutt, chief executive of developer Crest Nicholson.

Although there is a general enthusiasm for environmental issues, nobody has pinned down what it means for housebuilders. In the absence of guidance, developers have sought a narrow interpretation that will enable them to make use of existing management and resources and meet other pressing commercial issues, such as the skills shortage.

The frustration of developers can be heard in the constant complaining about delay, contradiction and unpredictability in the planning system. Meanwhile, planning officers are frustrated by the apparent refusal of developers to abandon standardised schemes.