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Monday, February 12, 2007
The demand and design of zero-carbon development
I attended the launch last week of an interesting MORI report, commissioned by Sponge, which demonstrated the overwhelming shift in public opinion towards the environment. 64% of homeowners want sustainable features to be compulsory for all new homes, and, more significantly, a majority are willing to actually pay more on the price of a new home and more in service charges for what the report labelled "sustainability services" - green power, car clubs, better communal recycling facilities, apparently. Most people aren't willing to pay that much more on the price of a house - the most popular band being between £2-£5,000 - but nearly 40% would be willing to pay up to an extra £25 per month.

Interestingly, it seems that the economic impact of rising energy prices is having an impact on the public's desire for what the report labelled a 'sustainable' home (a slight misnomer, I think, as the methodology got rather dubious when it came to issues such as public transport accessibility, access to shops and services, and so on). Although 44% still don't know how much they spend on utilities each month, 3/4 claim to have installed energy- or water-saving features to their homes, and 73% said that energy efficiency would be an important factor in choosing their next home. And in the latest Trends for Living survey, nearly half of us think we will have installed solar panels or wind turbines on our houses within ten years. Though there are definitely some fibbers in there as over half of those surveyed claimed that most of their lightbulbs were already energy-saving. Not to mention the head-in-the--sand stuff; a (famously inefficient) American-style fridge/freezer is the most desired object for a UK kitchen...

At the Sponge launch, some Crest Nicholson executives turned up to give the 'housebuilders response' and, as usual said that they were already doing all the right things. It is certainly true that there are market leaders out there who are forging a market advantage, but it is depressing to see how they aren't taking the opportunity to innovate on design at the same time. This is despite the survey demonstrating that homeowners had positive associations with sustainable design, seeing it as attractive, hi-tech and fashionable. One of the most revealing, and depressing, parts of the Crest response was to hear how they had consciously decided to start talking about "communities, not estates...family homes, not executive homes...apartments, not flats." I couldn't quite believe that they could stand up and say that without cringing at the blatant shallowness. The rhetoric doesn't suddenly change what the product is, which is still developments without identity, style, longevity or any sense of integration with the wider communtiy.

Meanwhile a rift has appeared over the zero-carbon timetable, between the volume housebuilders like Crest, who see the potential to grab market share, and small housebuilders. Julia Evans, CE of the National Federation of Builders, as commented She writes: “As they stand, the proposals will seriously damage housebuilding viability and output and will only hasten the exodus of small and medium-sized housebuilders from the industry, and further concentrate the land they dispose of in the hands of the volume housebuilders.”

Well, perhaps the challenge should be to the small housebuilders to innovate not only on energy but also design, and provide a real alternative for the consumer where they can; taking advantage of the fact that well-designed, super-sustainable homes will demonstrably be able to command a premium price. Sadly, I don't think most small housebuilders have enough nous to do this, but some already are doing so, in their own way - Living Villages, Andrew Marston at Jubilee Wharf, among others. There is always a way for small companies to beat the big boys - and plenty of case studies as to how, in other sectors, bravery and commitment will take you a long way.

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