Ever since Yvette Cooper, the then Housing Minister, let the phrase ‘zero carbon homes’ out of the bag at the tail end of 2006, we have been waiting to find out what exactly she meant. It’s taken till now to find out. Provisionally.

It’s worth going back a little to get a flavour of that time, in what already seems like a very different political landscape. John Prescott ruled the roost, and he and his gang were full of ideas to modernise the British housing scene. The Barker Review had just been delivered, detailing the methods by which we could build a new Jerusalem to deal with the fabled housing shortage. We were going to build 250,000 new homes every year. We never got anywhere close. And, in the spirit of the times, all this frantic building was going to be thoroughly green.

This is where the zero carbon home came in. It was the linchpin of a document called the Code for Sustainable Homes, which defined six different standards of housebuilding: from Level 1, which was what we were building in 2006, up to Level 6, which was to be zero carbon — and the ultimate in green building, ticking every conceivable box. A Level 6 home would produce more energy than it consumed. The idea was that this Code would provide a road map for future changes to the Building Regulations, and that by 2016 we would all be building to Level 6. And so we were encouraged to start building prototypes.

Trouble is, no one could really work out a sensible, cost-effective way of doing this. The Zero Carbon Hub was formed to make sense of it all. Lots of industry notables sat down to chew the cud. And what was decided? It can’t really be done after all.

What they have come up with instead is a revised goal for where the Building Regulations might get to in 2016. New homes will have to meet stringent energy-efficiency standards (but not as stringent as they could be); they will also have to incorporate some form of renewable technology; and they will have to make some contribution to carbon reduction measures elsewhere — a sort of compulsory carbon offset. This last point has nothing to do with the Building Regulations: it’s pure politics. The Coalition is broadly supportive of the revised zero carbon standard, but is not afraid to junk the bits it doesn’t like.

What will perhaps survive is a new way of measuring energy efficiency in homes, known as Fabric Energy Efficiency Standards, or FEES. It’s a relatively simple concept, similar to miles-per-gallon figures for cars, and a big improvement on what we’ve been using. It tells you how much energy a house should consume if built to the designed standards. It’s an idea that’s borrowed from the German PassivHaus standard, but whereas this standard calls for a maximum energy demand of just 15kWh/m2/annum, our standard will be much less demanding, settling at around 45kWh/m2/annum. This is still a smallish number, but not even close to ‘zero’. The feeling is that you can’t realistically demand a more exacting energy performance standard without insisting on mechanical ventilation, and whilst that’s a sensible option for low-energy homes, it’s perhaps a step too far to expect everyone to install and maintain a ventilation system.

It’s hard not to conclude that the Code for Sustainable Homes was a triumph of spin over substance. If the plan had worked as envisaged, we would all be building at Code Level 4 by now and there should be tens of thousands of higher Code new homes. Instead, we have just 334 homes of Code Level 4 or above (as of April 2010). And what of the fabled Code Level 6, the zero carbon home? We’ve managed to build no more than a dozen prototypes, one of which was a three bedroom house costing more than £1 million to construct.

Some road map. It seems the Code for Sustainable Homes, with its check boxes, points totals and its attendant consultants, is more likely to be seen as a textbook of how not to go about modernising housebuilding. And the zero carbon home remains what it always was: a pipe dream. Furthermore, putting a power station on your roof does not make you ‘zero carbon’.

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