I recently visited a zero carbon homes development and it got me thinking again about how straightforward it would be to make all new buildings more sustainable.

This development of ten homes was built Scottish and Southern Electric (SSE) to Level 6 of the UK Code for Sustainable Homes, with the goal of understanding what zero carbon living means to the energy industry, residents and the country as a whole. Sustainability considerations started with site and property orientation and went right through to the choice of building materials, energy generation and the types of appliances installed in the properties. And even down to simple things, such as not having a letterbox opening in the front door to prevent draughts and heat loss. There is an onsite energy centre, connected to a district heating scheme, which uses biomass boilers, air and ground source heat pumps and solar thermal energy to test the efficiency, cost and practicality of each technology. Each house has solar photo-voltaic roof tiles (rather than the solar panels we are used to seeing). The houses have tenants who work with SSE to provide feedback on their experiences of low carbon living. More information on the project can be found at on the SSE website.

Some of these technologies are fairly new and some are leading edge. But many are relatively simple and would be easy to mandate into all new homes and offices, such as triple glazing, very high degrees of insulation and draught proofing, voltage optimisers, grey water recycling and even solar thermal and PV. And on larger developments there are opportunities for local district heating and micro-generation schemes. There’s huge scope for residents to make substantial savings in energy bills as well as minimising energy consumption and carbon emissions. But developers are unlikely to do this on their own and without incentives, and these things can be expensive and difficult to retrofit, even for those committed to more sustainable ways of living.

Putting sustainable design and construction at the heart of building design would go a long way to reducing our energy demands and carbon emissions. And creating the demand would soon drive prices down for new builds and retrofitting – just look at the costs of solar panels in the UK which have fallen by about 40% in two years since government incentive schemes increased demand. The Code for Sustainable Homes has been around since 2006 and some local authorities are now starting to build sustainability into their planning guidance. Is it time for more regulation or more incentives? I’d love to see the former to make things happen, but I suspect industry and home owners are more likely to react positively to clear stable incentive schemes.

Phil Clarke leads Capgemini UK’s Environmental Performance Improvement Programme