The EcoHomes scheme was the third attempt by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) at an industry-led initiative to stave off legislation on environmental standards in new homes.
The first assessment scheme, launched in 1990, was aimed at both offices and homes. While the office scheme, called BREEAM, has done well, the homes assessment proved too complex for developers. The second attempt, in 1995, was an award-based scheme aimed at the top 10% of homes each year - but it achieved less than 2% (ENDS Report 303, p 33 ).
EcoHomes was launched in April 2000. It rates housing projects on a four-level scale from "pass" to "excellent", judging them on seven issues: operational energy and carbon dioxide emissions, transport, air and water pollution, choice of materials, water consumption, ecological value of the land and health issues. Assessment in each area is optional, allowing developers to play to their strengths, but each area is weighted depending on its importance.
Almost 18 months after the launch, only nine developers, with a total of 342 homes, have been certified under the scheme. Most of the interest is coming from housing associations and the affordable housing sector, rather than developers working in the more speculative private ownership market.
At the launch, BRE hoped that at least the four big house builders on the advisory group which helped develop the scheme - Crest, Beazer (now Persimmon), Laing and Westbury - would seek EcoHomes assessment on some developments. But only the affordable housing branch of Laing has done so.
BRE's Cecilia Bagenholm said that it was "early days" for the scheme. It needed "time to gain momentum and become fully established." Environmental awareness in the UK was very poor, she said, so companies were starting from a low baseline. "There is a lot of interest in EcoHomes out there," she insisted.
BRE says that a further 40 developments totalling 2,000 units are undergoing assessment, with another 70 totalling 4,000 units lined up in the near future. Housing associations are reportedly concerned that delays are occurring because of a shortage of trained assessors on BRE's books.
Most gains have been made in the affordable housing sector because the Housing Corporation, which distributes Government funding to housing associations, is allocating additional funding for homes achieving the EcoHomes standard. It has a target to get 50% of developments achieving the "good" standard or above within three years. English Partnerships, the Government regeneration agency, requires a "very good" rating as a minimum for the developments it funds.
But developers appear to perceive little pressure from buyers in the private ownership market.
Laing Homes Partnerships has three affordable housing developments in East London which will receive EcoHomes assessment results shortly. Two developments in Stepney totalling 151 units are expected to get a "good" rating, while the third scheme of 27 units in Peckham is expected to get a "pass".
According to Laing's Yaseen Parkar, the scheme is designed so that developers "do not have to do too much" in order to get a "pass" or a "good" rating, although the higher ratings are more of a stretch.
Mr Parkar agreed that the Housing Corporation was providing much of the incentive behind EcoHomes. He confirmed that Laing Homes, which builds houses for the speculative market, had no certified developments, but said that it might take part in a future trial.
Persimmon's Steve Tapper said the company was "looking at environmentally friendly homes, but as to how far they get pushed is another matter." He felt that the mandatory "standard assessment procedures" (SAP) for measuring the energy efficiency of new homes had a far better profile with buyers than EcoHomes.
The National House Building Council - which regulates and sets standards for the industry - warned at the launch of EcoHomes that the industry would face new environmental regulations "unless it improves its voluntary performance". The warning appears to have fallen on deaf ears.
The Council's Neil Smith told ENDS that "there can be no doubt that there would be a better uptake of the EcoHomes assessment if it were a regulatory requirement."
Developers, especially smaller ones, would probably not welcome such a requirement. Peter Steel from Lodge Park Homes said there was "a lot of merit in the scheme". His company has constructed a 41-unit development for English Partnerships in Milton Keynes which was assessed as "good". But Mr Steel was concerned that making EcoHomes mandatory might create excessive burdens.
In a related development, a new set of environmental performance indicators for the construction industry, aimed at encouraging more sustainable working practices, was launched in July.
The indicators, supported by BRE, were drawn up by the Movement for Innovation (M4i), set up under the Government's "rethinking construction" programme. They are based on energy consumption, water use, waste, transport and biodiversity, and are designed to complement specific schemes such as BREEAM and EcoHomes.
M4i says the "indicators provide a practical and attainable basis for the industry to start replacing laudable intentions with measured achievement." Further information is available on M4i's website at www.m4i.org.uk.