4 May 2012

Green Architecture or Sustainable Development?

At the Building Centre this afternoon for their session,

“What Does Green Architecture Mean to You”?

Hosted by Ellis Woodman, Editor of Building Design and the architectural correspondent for The Telegraph, Ellis introduced presentations from four emerging practitioners, Tom Coward of AOC, Justin Bere of Bere Architects, Dan Jones of Civic and Adam Khan of Adam Khan Architects who briefly introduced their work.

Ellis opened the session by referring to a Tweet that he had received this morning questioning how the line-up of speakers had been selected.  A good question, was this more to do with promoting emerging new practices and less to do with their approach to sustainable architecture?  His criterion was to find panelists who approach sustainability from a broad perspective, going beyond simply considering technical issues.  I would argue that it is impossible to consider sustainability without going beyond the technical, but then I have no idea what constitutes green architecture either.  Maybe all would become clear? 

Gaylingay Eco Hub

First up was Dan Jones of Civic who illustrated his approach with a case study of the Gamlingay Eco Hub, a refurbishment and extension of an existing 1960’s community centre.  The low population of the village location, along with its lack of cultural diversity, made the project ineligible for grant funding and this led to a slow funding and development process over a seven year period with the client community leading the process.  He claimed that the building was “dark green” as it features an enviable array of low energy technologies including PV’s, solar thermal water heating and a ground source heat pump.  These were included not simply because they were “the right thing to do” but because, he claimed, they made the project economically sustainable by helping to secure funding and reducing running costs.  It was not clear what measures had been undertaken to improve the thermal insulation and airtightness of the 80% of the existing building that was retained.  Similarly, it would have been good if the claimed benefits of the renewables had been backed up by some number.  He concluded by saying that for him green architecture was not simply about buildings but had more to do with working closely with the community that occupies them.

No 1 Low Carbon Drive

Tom Coward of AOC was next up and presented not a piece of architecture, but as he described them, a series of conversations that they had produced to encourage the retrofitting of existing homes.  These included their No 1 Low Carbon Drive project, a full size, two storey exhibition pavilion, first installed in Trafalgar Square, that showed a range of interventions home owners can make to improve energy efficiency, a low energy dolls house, currently on display at The building Centre and their current proposal to reconfigure part of the exhibition space at The Building Centre into a full scale walk through installation of a house, where low energy products are displayed in the relevant parts of the home.  The most interesting aspect of AOC’s projects was the clear simple methods that they have developed to engage the home owner.  He illustrated the urgent need for action by making the point that only 12% of our existing housing stock was built since 1990 and therefore the remaining 88% is in urgent need of significant retrofitting if we are to achieve our carbon emission commitments.    He concluded with some observations of how our priorities are skewed to favour property speculation over investment in improving our homes and illustrated the point with the fact that to recoup the investment in retrofitting a house would take 25 years but most owners move every 6 to 12 years.  In theory, the Green Deal should help to overcome this issue.  Interestingly, he discussed the idea of “energy descent” where lower consumption is seen as synonymous with reduced choice and ultimately a less desirable future.  This to me is the real challenge, we have to develop an architecture that is demonstrably better to inhabit while using significantly less energy and this can only be achieved by placing people’s needs and social sustainability at the heart of the design process.

Brockholes Visitor Centre
Adam Khan began by challenging the term “green Architecture”, stating that it is a tautology like humane, civilised or beautiful architecture and is unhelpful.  I would put it more strongly; it is actually meaningless.  He characterised the current architectural debate as a battle between those in denial of the need for change and a group of new green functionalists who measure everything but are unable to value what is important.  It strikes me that a healthy dose of sustainable functionalism is a good thing, helping to break the stranglehold of the current obsession of the media who extol the virtues of the iconic with no real interest in the relevance of the work.  Adam described his personal journey of discovery during the course of their Brockholes Visitor Centre project, driven by their client who was passionately committed to sustainable development, illustrating the point with reference to the learning that he had made through following the BREEAM process.  He talked of his surprise at being challenged by other team members about the inclusion of large amounts of glass at low level in the original concept and acknowledged that effective teamworking is central to the environmental performance of the finished building.  He concluded by praising FAT’s scheme for New Islington as a good example of green architecture because it only uses expensive details on the front elevation and was conceived to allow occupants to customise and adapt behind the fancy if thin front facade.  I found this argument about as convincing as the stage set architecture that it credits!

Mayville Community Centre

The final presentation was by Justin Bere of Bere Architects who championed the Passivhaus process as the best method of achieving affordable green architecture, illustrating his claim with evidence of actual delivered energy savings of completed buildings; including their Mayville Community Centre, in use.  The facts and figures were compelling and helped to differentiate his approach to those of the other speakers.  This is a crucial issue if we as a profession are to build a body of evidence to convince sceptics of the urgent need for change.  He talked compellingly about how comfortable Passivhaus buildings are, citing constant internal temperatures during both winter and summer, with regulated internal humidity helping to improve indoor air quality and even reducing house mite numbers.  Justin spoke from a position of knowledge and expertise that was both intelligent and engaging.  He identified the importance of exceeding the expectations of buildings users and powerfully illustrated the point with an anecdote about a group of elderly users who report that their new community centre is a more comfortable environment than their homes.  However, this may tell us as much about their homes as it does about the finished building

Ellis concluded the session identifying how user groups and bottom up action had shaped a number of the projects presented and posed the question if this would result in a redefinition of the role of the architect, before inviting questions from the audience.  These ranged from specific issues around green specification to more strategic questions including the role of the planning system and the conflict between existing Conservation Area policies and the need to retrofit external insulation.  I posed the question of whether a paradigm shift in thinking is required if we are to effectively address the issues of our age.  Interestingly, this was interpreted by most of the panelists as advocating a “technofix” rather than adopting the core principles of bioclimatic architectural design and a return to the basic principles that have guided the architectural development for centuries.

While it was an interesting session, I was left feeling that we have a long way to go if we are to address the urgent challenges of our age.  The fact that we are still talking about green architecture is depressing; let’s face it even the RIBA are belatedly embracing the idea that sustainable architecture is the way forward and are consulting members on embracing a definition of sustainability based on the Bruntland definition, dating back to 1987, incorporating social, economic and environmental components.  I had hoped for the emerging young guns to offer some radical new perspectives but I was ultimately left a little disappointed.

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