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Here comes the sunflower

Sunflowers mark the BRE's new guidelines for environmentally friendly design. But has sustainability become flowery?

Sunflowers are as much a part of the imagery of mythical summer days as John Major's hyperbole about leather on willow and cycling home for a mug of Horlicks. Sunflowers sum up 'niceness'. No surprise then that the BRE has picked the sunflower as a symbol of environmental championship and is using its image as a scoring system for 'EcoHomes' in the future.

In its report EcoHomes: An Environmental Rating for Homes, the BRE has produced a framework from which designers can improve their environmental credentials. It is described as 'the BREEAM equivalent for houses' and sets out a credit system whereby specific performance levels can be rated.

A rating of four sunflowers means an excellent scheme, one which 'demonstrates an exemplary environmental performance across a whole range of issues'; one sunflower is simply a 'pass' (although the document states that 'most developments should be able to achieve this'). So if we can all buy into it already, to a greater or lesser degree, what is the point of the points system in the first place?

Primarily, it is portrayed as a way of helping to reduce the environmental impact of housing. In its companion volume, entitled The Green Guide to Housing Specification , it is stated that each year in the UK, domestic energy accounts for 30 per cent energy consumption, and house construction accounts for 10 per cent of mineral extraction and 1 per cent of climate change. The intention is to reduce these figures.

Notwithstanding the questionable nature of the statistics, it is assumed that they pose a problem which needs to be rectified. Both documents therefore set out checklists for responsible specifiers. By accounting for the energy used in a given building - for a variety of elements, specifications or components, and including an appraisal of the embodied energy in the lifecycle of specified materials - then the socially responsible architect will have contributed to reducing the detrimental effect of his or her activity.

The dual assumptions are that construction has an inherent damaging tendency and that consumption is a problem. This implies that individual behaviour must be altered and the BRE guidelines set a framework for a reappraisal of how to design within these constraints.

Unfortunately, no one seems to be able to quantify the desirable level of sunflower points, other than: the more sunflowers the better. Eco - Homes 'allows for maximum flexiblity (all issues are optional)'. It would seem that the EcoHomes appraisal system is more of a process than an end in itself.

The document identifies seven categories which sum up the environmental concerns of climate change, use of resources and impact on wildlife. It also ties into the elusive notion of 'quality of life' as a factor to consider when designing a building. All of this seems reasonable and, to a certain extent, self-evident but seems to impose an unfairly negative assessment of the way that we build at the moment. It also imposes an onerous responsibility, not to say liability, on the architect.

Designers are being asked to consider the material used, to assess the energy used in its extraction or manufacture, and weigh the environmental impact of its shipment to site. Energy audits will soon become a design consideration staple, in the same way that SAP calculations should be. Presumably, in the same way that SAP calculations are conjured together, hard-pressed architects might tweak the Eco-points figures to suit the occasion, or others will settle for two sunflowers instead of three.

This is a demand-led strategy, which could possibly be bypassing the consumer. However, as NHBC's Rod MacEachrane said at the launch of EcoHomes, it is a 'win, win, win' strategy. By improving the ethical benchmark performance standard for developers it can help competitiveness; by reducing energy use and running costs it will benefit social housing providers and by a novel selling point, it can benefit houseowners.

The booklets will become invaluable guides in the energy audit regime. The BRE booklets Eco-Homes: the Environmental Rating for Homes' and The Green Guide to Housing Specification are available on tel 0120 7505 6622, crc@emap.construct.co.uk or online on www.askbre.co.uk/bookshop

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