Architect Bill Dunster has championed sustainable design at work and home. Now, he's about to combine the two with a low-energy scheme modelled on his own house.
Bill Dunster is looking flushed. He has just removed the blinds from his conservatory to let in more sun, and stacked them in a neat pile in his garden. "It's to get as much passive solar gain as possible in the house to delay the moment we switch on our heating system," he explains. The enormous south-facing conservatory stretches from the basement office, where the 39-year-old architect runs his practice, to the family bedrooms in the roof.

Dunster designed the house near Kingston upon Thames six years ago as a prototype for sustainable living. He is proud of his conservatory-cum-solar heater, the recycled water pipes supporting the ramp leading to his front door and the rainwater storage tank buried in his garden that will supply water to flush toilets – as soon as he has had time to finish installing the pipework.

Dunster has replicated many of these energy-saving ideas in his design for a high-density, sustainable development at Beddington, south-west London. The 90-unit scheme, called the Beddington Zero Energy Village, is due to start on site in early 2000 (22 January).

Dunster's commitment to sustainability goes back a long way. The Edinburgh University graduate started out working on conservation schemes in the Georgian houses of the city's New Town with the Appleton Partnership. But he was keen to move to a practice that was "rigorous" in its use of new technology – hence the move to Michael Hopkins and Partners, where Dunster spent 14 years as one of several architects working on environment-friendly architecture.

Green roots

Dunster worked on some of Hopkins' most influential green projects, including the circular Cutlery Factory for David Mellor in Derbyshire. The architect describes that building's reuse of the gasometer's circular foundation as "a classic example of the rural regeneration of a brownfield site". Much more high-profile was his role in designing the facade and the environmental strategy for the controversial new parliament building – a hot potato of a project that Dunster says "is not his place to discuss" since leaving the firm. He will comment, however, that "its environmental strategy is absolutely superb; bang up to date".

This high-budget project was followed by a more parsimonious scheme: a low-energy campus for Nottingham University. It was to be his final project with Hopkins, and the one Dunster appears to be most satisfied with – possibly because it comes the closest to being truly sustainable – at a very reasonable price. "It's unheard of getting that specification and that quality of architecture at such a low rate," he says.

He left Hopkins less than a year ago after he got funding for his pet project, a sustainable living scheme that he had been working on in his spare time. The Peabody Trust and the Sutton Bio-regional Development Group are to finance the Beddington Zero Energy Village. This project is occupying most of Dunster's time at the moment. The four members of his practice have spent much of the past year finalising the designs, ready to start on site "once the hangovers have faded after Christmas". Dubbed BedZed by Dunster, the development of 90 combined home and work units contains an armoury of low-energy features guaranteed to minimise the development's impact on the environment.

The practice's other speciality appears to be winning competitions. It has just triumphed in the design competition for a £1.5m conference building at The Earth Centre in Doncaster, beating established architects including Future Systems and Geoffrey Reed Associates along the way. "It's only a small project," he says, "but it will be a very low-energy building." Bill Dunster Architects has also been shortlisted, from a long list of 12 firms, in an Architecture Foundation competition for the Peabody/Railtrack redevelopment of the Bishopsgate goods yard in east London. Dunster's practice joins an invited group of big names including Renzo Piano and Ian Ritchie Architects. "It's good for a little practice," he says, clearly pleased to have got so far in such a prestigious competition.

Keep trying

So, what do clients get when they put their trust in Bill Dunster Architects? An architect passionate about sustainable development – that is abundantly clear. "The quest for sustainable development is not optional.

The long-term survival of our culture is at stake," he says.

"We are specialising, and are really trying to make sustainable development work." Dunster insists that where other practices will dismiss sustainable features as unworkable or too expensive, his practice will keep trying to find a way to incorporate them. "We won't give up," he says. "We'll work with the other members of the team to find a way of doing it." Dunster is convinced that the public want green work/live units like the ones in Beddington and that these can improve the quality of people's lives. It's a consideration he feels all too many in the construction industry disregard at the moment: "People like Egan talk about productivity, but no one ever talks about the quality of the end building; no one ever talks about the environmental impact of the end product." Wandering through his home, dressed casually in baggy trousers and an open-necked shirt, Dunster certainly seems happy with the end product at his own, sustainable home. He explains how the house has been designed to incorporate further energy-saving advancements – he is expecting a delivery of photovoltaic panels any day now.

Given his prodigious output of high-profile green buildings, finding any time to work on his home must be quite an achievement in itself. But the achievement that seems to give Dunster the most pleasure right now is of a different environmental nature. It emerges that his organic quince tree has produced a bumper harvest this year – for the first time ever.

Personal effects

Who’s in your family? My wife Sue and two little girls: Rose, aged five, and Sophie, aged seven. What do you do to relax? I take the dog for a walk along the river (in the direction that leads to the pub). What is your greatest achievement? Managing to almost complete my house. What are your weaknesses? Impatience and a lack of diplomacy. What car do you drive? A Citroën Berlingo Electric Van. It’s the ultimate poor man’s people carrier. I’ve put seats in the back and cut the floor pan back to increase leg room, added side windows and a sunroof. Charged with off-peak electricity, it costs about £1 for 45 miles.