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Sustainable design is difficult both to do and to talk about

We have to get better at collaboration if we want sustainable design to catch on, says Hattie Hartman

On a panel at Bennetts Associates recently, I was asked to highlight key sustainability challenges. The consensus among the speakers (one architect, two engineers, one contractor and myself) will not surprise regular Footprint readers: the need to widen our influence to encompass behavioural change and city-making; the urgency of closing the performance gap; the lack of evidence as to whether sustainable design adds financial value; the increasing importance of whole life analysis and the importance of collaboration.

Having identified the problems, agreeing how to solve them was harder. Should we all be building to Passivhaus standard, as recommended by a UEA report issued last week? Or should we adopt the high-tech solutions used by Siemens at the Crystal (AJ 27.09.12), or maximise the use of renewable materials, as demonstrated by White Design’s new Science Building at Hayesfield School in Bath?

Also in Bath, last week’s ‘Engineering Environmental Architecture’ gathering suggests part of the answer: cross-disciplinary collaboration. Solutions are now global. At the World Architecture Festival, Peter Buchanan’s message of a new ecological imperative for design topped the agenda.

The recent High Line for London competition is another example of global ‘borrowing’. Laudable for turning up the volume on the topic of green infrastructure, this competition also illustrates that what is appropriate in one place cannot be directly applied in another. The same applies to knowledge transfer between London and Rio for the Olympics. Sustainable design is about context. Rio’s incredible authenticity is easily threatened by globalised design. Here, too, collaboration is key.

Last week, Christine Murray reacted to the ‘dumbness of the hullabaloo’ over the Stirling Prize win in the non-architectural press. A similar phenomenon occurred when American green blog Inhabitat picked up a Daily Mail feature entitled ‘Britain’s first carbon negative street’ and reported the same information, concluding: ‘The carbon negative scheme is currently 15 per cent beyond zero carbon’. This type of reporting promotes confusion.

Sustainable design is both difficult to do and to communicate. We must do better, and collaboration is key.

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