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Clare Melhuish reviews XCO2's blueprint for sustainable development

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XCO2 conisbee is an energy consultant which does not waste time debating whether global warming really exists - the evidence for it is indisputable - but simply gets on with the job of reducing CO2 emissions from buildings in a matter-of-fact and reasonably optimistic way.

In his account of its work last week, Richard Cochrane, standing in for Robert Webb, avoided the sort of histrionic outburst that makes an audience feel more helpless than ever when confronted by the realities of environmental crisis. But at the same time he provided the most tangible demonstration of why architects and designers might feel depressed by, and not interested in, the whole issue of 'environmentally sustainable design.'

As one perceptive listener commented, the structural insulated panels presented by Cochrane looked like a very low-cost product - a cardboard house, no less, its fate soon to be sealed, in all likelihood, by a cheap-looking brick skin. Cochrane then revealed that not only did the pictured product look awful, but that the contractors had done a terrible job of putting it together. It was hard to see where the aesthetic and formal potential might be lurking in such a scenario, and it was not an inspiring invitation to the designer - even though, as XCO2 insists, insulation is central to the revolution in energy efficiency strategy and technology.

This was perhaps the lowest point of the presentation, but even XCO2's own work wasn't that inspiring, in terms of architectural quality. Its RENUE building, an education centre, has been designed as a demonstration of form determined by energy strategy, resulting in an arch-shaped building with an area of low pressure on the roof, and curved solar panels used as external cladding.

The form maximises air flow within, and generates sufficient ventilation behind the solar panels to keep them cool, and thus working at maximum efficiency - since solar panels, 'like anything else', work less well when they get hot.

Another project, for housing, turns the rooftops into places for 'capturing energy', by enclosing them with glass conservatories, and ducting the hot air down into the building below.

A third project involves installing ventilation chimneys, lined with mirror glass, to channel both fresh air and daylight into an enclosed space. But the architectural highlight of the talk was a new 'solar canopy' over an electric racing-kart arena in Mile End Park, which will not only be one of the largest solar 'arrays' in the UK, but also constitute a new 'local landmark', its profile generated by south-facing 'blades'. From the drawings it was hard to see whether this structure would really constitute an intervention of any formal distinction - but the graphic presentation throughout was of a fairly banal quality, largely computer-generated by programs such as Lightscape. It's worlds away from the output of the 'starchitects' which sustains the media, and therein lies the problem.

Richard Cochrane, of XCO2 conisbee, was speaking at the University of Westminster on the New Industrial Revolution

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