The Code for Sustainable Homes is an unworkable muddle and we won’t mourn its passing, says Julia Park
Although Levitt Bernstein Architects are keen advocates of sustainable design, we won’t be mourning the loss of the Code for Sustainable Homes (CSH) if government decides to proceed with its planned withdrawal next year. Though well-intentioned, it has complicated this vital issue to the point that many designers have simply given up and handed over the ‘credit-crunching’ to a licensed, fee-earning, third party -someone who can decipher its multiple categories, levels, weightings, assessment criteria, technical requirements and calculations and navigate their way to the ‘target score’.
Because sustainability is a broad subject, the code created a plethora of design and technical requirementsranging from site-wide infrastructure and construction assemblies to clothes drying racks. To be blunt, the result is a muddle of things that matter a lot and things that don’t. Of those that do matter, energy and waterefficiency top the list, and the consolidation of these elements into the Building Regulations is welcome. Forenergy, the emphasis on fabric performance and the recently confirmed target of zero carbon with allowable solutions by 2016 are good news, but we need more detail. Alongside the proposed extension of Part G to include the higher ‘G+’ water efficiency standard of 105 litres/day, government should make water meteringcompulsory for existing homes as well as new build.
Accessibility and security also matter but the duplication of Lifetime Homes and Secured by Design within the Code has led to multiple assessments of standards already routinely required for funding and planning. Regulation should improve outcomes here and an update of Part E to reflect the higher levels of soundproofing rewarded by CSH credits might be timely, too.
Regulation of other areas currently covered by the Code has been ruled out this side of the election. This leaves ‘materials’ to the vagaries of EU law, and natural light and ventilation, overheating, and air quality unprotected, which is a pity. Some issues sit more easily within the planning system anyway. For example, cycling provision is important, but should be part of a local transport infrastructure strategy. Ecology should be more realistic. Maximum credits for enhancement rely on ‘proof ’ from another certified expert that nine new species have been introduced to a site, following development. This epitomises the code’s tendency to focus on point-scoring rather than appropriate solutions.
Some of its easier but least popular features also need to be re-evaluated. Many homeowners replace feeble, water-saving shower heads with power showers and dispense with compost heaps. Flat dwellers choose to store bikes on balconies rather than in communal stores and resort to tumble driers instead of drying racks.
Given this overall complexity, it is not surprising that the code has been patchily applied across different tenures. The government’s most recent figures reveal that only 27 per cent of the homes awarded post-construction certificates between April 2007, when CSH was introduced, and December last year were in the private sector. Tellingly, 79 per cent of these were for Level 3 only. Losing the code now is premature, because much of industry is only just getting to grips with it.
So feelings are bound to be mixed. The code has been an important wake-up call but at the same time one of the biggest culprits among the overlapping standards blamed by government in its own review of Housing Standards, for ‘burdening industry’. Moving forward, we need simpler, more effective ways to retain the best of the code’s many valuable achievements and not lose sight of the fact that sustainable housing is the real goal.
Julia Park is head of housing research at Levitt Bernstein Architects