Sustainability. What a word. Is there any developer these days who does not tag “sustainable” on to the description of “executive homes” in Surrey or a condominium development in Florida? And has any of them done a great deal more than thicken up the insulation, put a solar panel on the roof and, in a shrewd marketing move, give away a bicycle with every home?

With the announcement next week of the sites of 10 eco-towns across the UK, the word sustainability will be invoked with renewed profligacy.

But what does it really mean? What is a Suds? What is thermal bridging? And where do lizards come into it? Or wild flowers?

Check Google for the phrase “sustainable development” and 26 definitions pop up, littered with buzz words such as “preservation”, “eco-system”, “biological system”, “resource base” and “social equity”.

Though it is given only a passing reference in Google’s 26 search results, many accept the Brundtland Report from the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development as the definitive statement: “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable – to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

All these words make Wayne Hemingway groan. The radical property developer and creator of the fashion house Red or Dead argues: “It’s more about loving the place you live in. If you don’t, no one will do anything to stop it being pulled down in 25 years’ time and what’s sustainable about that? If it’s a lovely place and people put down roots, they will do the work themselves and care enough to put in their own solar panels.”

By 2020 the number of new homes in the UK is supposed to reach a total of 3m – and all carbon neutral. To achieve those goals the British government has established a Code for Sustainable Homes with standards for energy and water efficiency that are more rigorous than the US with its federal guidelines, which are followed – or ignored – at state or community level.

The UK scheme works on a points system, with six being awarded for the most conscientious builders. Top marks are achieved for features such as sustainable drainage systems (Suds), involving the use of soakaways and porous paving; better insulation (thermal bridging); even the provision of a drying space for clothes to allow homeowners to live without a tumble dryer.

Hemingway is dismissive of codes, points and targets, brushing them aside as a “given” but not the solution to the establishment of sustainable communities.

“The easiest thing to do is have a check list and tick all the boxes,” he says. “You can measure carbon but you can’t measure happiness.”

The first buyers have recently moved into The Bridge, a 264-acre brownfield site near the Queen Elizabeth ll Bridge at Dartford in Kent, which he has helped design with the developer George Wimpey. Prices for the 1,134 properties range from £175,000 for a one-bedroom apartment to £235,000 for a two-bedroom unit. The emphasis is on the “homezone” concept created in the Netherlands and used by Hemingway himself in his project in The Staiths, Gateshead, northern England, with its green spaces, banishment of cars and ease of transport to key communication points. The new homes in Kent, for example, will have a television screen in the kitchen showing when the next bus is due.

“We are always challenging Wimpey about how things should be done,” says Hemingway. “Arguing for more green spaces and less black tarmac or wanting to use differently shaped blocks for the roads or nice bricks for houses that can cost an extra £200-£400 per 1,000 and add as much as £600-£800 a house. Given that builders want to cut back on their building costs, it means major battles over design and quality.”

It has meant serious discussions about the site’s large lizard population, which has been moved into a protected area, and fish such as tench and bream, which have been nurtured in the development’s two lakes.

“All this adds up to a definition of sustainability,” says Hemingway. “But it is a struggle to achieve it. On the one hand we have people wanting sustainability with all the bells and whistles and [on the other] a government that wants homes built at affordable prices. It could cost 25 per cent more to meet all the demands of the codes and regulations, which means people won’t be able to afford to buy.

“If an estate is knocked down after 25 years because the design was not good enough for people to want to live there then it ceases to be sustainable. The trouble is that not enough planners have studied place-making in this country. When I travel I find myself constantly uplifted by new estates with their green spaces and efficient transport.

“How is it they can do it better overseas? There must be about 20 schemes in Amsterdam that work and the Scandinavian countries have many good examples.”

Chris Ryder, managing director of the developer Isis, who last year gave evidence to the UK government’s House of Commons All-Party Urban Development Group, agrees: “We are only at the embryonic stage of understanding what sustainable city living needs. The concept of people living in city centres is a good thing from the sustainability point of view but it has limited appeal today because not enough has been done to attract families and the old as well as the young, single market. To encourage people to live in a place for a long, long time they need the shops, schools, crèches and communal areas.

“The trouble is much of inner city development has been fuelled by the buy-to-let phenomenon of the past 10 or 20 years and much of the new building by the leading developers has been unsustainable rubbish – one or two-bedroom rabbit hutches with no life, no character. You can’t build a place with cheap render and brick and expect it to be a listed building in 50 years’ time. That’s not about sustainability, it’s about meeting short-term demands. The danger is we will end up with city centres filled with blocks of flats where there are no lights on because families do not consider them as places fit to live.”

Ryder, whose company has a major project in Birmingham, central England, cites developments in Malmö, Sweden, as examples. Residential blocks are no higher than five or six storeys, with courtyards where children can play, barbecue areas and even allotments.

When the city council in Newcastle upon Tyne, northern England, set about its major regeneration programmes it, like Birmingham, sent a small delegation of residents from run-down areas to Malmö to discover if there was an alternative to the terraces that many had grown up in.

The area they toured is known as Bo01 – so called because bo means to dwell and 01 the year it opened – which was reclaimed from polluted industrial wasteland. No two of the 600 homes are the same and they are connected by pathways and green spaces.

All materials are sorted and recycled; waste is converted into water and bio gas; a wind turbine supplies the electricity and solar panels supply a fifth of the heating for the houses, with the rest coming from the town’s district heating system.

It would appear to be a paradigm of eco-friendly behaviour but is it really a paradise of sustainability? Many of Malmö’s poorer and foreign communities are resentful of what they see as a white middle-class enclave with property prices averaging more than £250,000, twice the city’s average.

So without integration the notion of sustainability fails, which is one of the challenges that faces the developers of The Packington Estate, a 1960s development surrounded by the middle-class terraces of London’s Islington, which is to be demolished and the entire site rebuilt. It is a joint venture between Islington Council and Real, an arm of the Rydon Group, set up to specialise in regenerating impoverished areas and one key to success is seen as collaboration. Many of the estate’s families have been there since it was opened but have now been joined by Bangladeshis, Turks and Somalis.

Mark Mitchener of Real says: “To help them integrate with each other and to make sure we get it right, we encouraged the community to be part of the decision-making process by sending out DVDs, arranging a postal vote and holding open days explaining what we intended to do. We set up a residents’ board to discuss the plans with the result that much of the original masterplan is quite different now. People wanted a community centre, workshops and a youth centre and we made sure children were involved in the design.”

The new estate also needs to integrate with its more wealthy neighbours. The old design looked inward, with its buildings presenting an implacable “wall” to the outside world. The new version will have the additional ingredient of 301 private homes alongside the 538 affordable – all with the same management team – and is designed to be more open, with roads and paths that link directly to the surrounding community. By building houses and terraces on the perimeter with the higher blocks in the centre, it will blend better with the surrounding Victorian terraces.

Some of the roofs will be covered in sedum, not just for efficient use of rainfall but to harbour birds and butterflies, and it has been decided to dim the street lights in one corner of the estate to make the bat community feel at home.

But one feature missing from the project, however, will be rooms with an earth floor. “Why not have one,” asks iconoclastic designer Johnny Grey, author of The Complete Home Design Book. “It would be somewhere to play and get dirty. If the eco-codes are the only motivation towards sustainability then the buildings become dull and joyless – there’s no emotional connection for the users. It should be about a series of functions or moods. Why do rooms have to be labelled: this is a bedroom, this is a kitchen? Let’s have a room with no name.

“We spend 80 per cent of our lives indoors and the relationship we have with our home is one of the most important we have,” says Grey, who runs a kitchen design business from his home in Hampshire. “One of the things we like about an old home or a village is the bits and pieces, that sense of serendipity, but too much regulation can wreck that. I think we should allow more people to build their own homes. Let’s insist that 5 per cent of a new site goes to self-builders so that they can express their individuality.”

It’s an ambitious idea and one that Bob Tomlinson of Living Villages tried when he submitted plans for The Wintles, 40 homes in the small town of Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire. “The planning system blew a fuse,” he says. “Not only was it impossible to handle multiple applicants for the one site but the designs the people wanted were just the usual dull bungalows.”

Tomlinson had been influenced by Seaside, a community built on scrubland in Florida in the 1980s, where residents were allowed to design their own homes as long as they stayed within a code that included such details as the pitch of the roof and the shape of the windows. The community was the work of New Urbanism, a growing movement of US architects, planners and developers who emphasise the importance of the pedestrian, public spaces and architecture that “celebrates local history”. Most of Seaside’s homes are built of wood and range in price from $1.1m for a townhouse to $3.9m for a six-bedroom residence. So “perfect” is it that it was the setting for the film The Truman Show.

Tomlinson says of his development: “At least we have got over the problem of building brick boxes, which is what the plans were before we arrived on the scene.”

The result of his concept is a striking collection of houses, each one different, with curved walls, roofs of different materials and lots of wooden cladding, beams and mellow brick. There is hardly a straight line in the place and no curbs or harsh edges. Public and private space is blurred by using meandering gravel paths and flagstones. There is no street lighting because it is a rural area but, says Tomlinson: “It took about two years to negotiate having the road declassified so that it didn’t have to be lit.”

These are not just energy-efficient boxes but they come at a price – with people buying off-plan from £300,000-£600,000 – and they are 10 per cent smaller than Tomlinson expected because observing the codes adds at least 10 per cent to the cost.

Codes followed? Check. Collaboration? Check. Lizards? Check. And flowers? Tomlinson says: “One day I threw a handful of seeds on an empty plot on the site and they keep coming up. It’s fantastic.” Check.

But the question remains: does this all add up to sustainability?

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

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