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The need to ‘design in’ sustainability is a recurring theme of Open-City’s global network

The need for sustainability in building is now a given, but sometimes hard to define

How can we convey the rich diversity of design approaches that minimise environmental impact while also making our cities more ‘liveable’? Themes emerging in preparation for the upcoming conference Smarter Cities, Smarter Thinking, organised by Open House Worldwide to mark its 20th anniversary, suggest answers to this complex question.

The need to ‘design in’ sustainability is the one issue that is common to all the cities in the Open House’s increasingly global ‘family’, which currently stretches across Europe, the USA and Australia. First started in London in 1992, Open House has now been taken up by 20 cities globally, with more coming on board every month, and reaches more than 1 million people.

The aim is to provide an overview of best practice. Each city showcases exemplars that respond to local needs, but themes are emerging: how to sensitively adapt existing buildings; maximise usable green space in high-density areas; minimise water and waste; make ever-more efficient use of energy and technology; and create sensitive interventions into the natural landscape.

Chicago’s Power House High School/Charles H Shaw Technology and Learning Center is one of numerous successful retrofit exemplars. Architects Farr Associates worked with the Homan Square Foundation to transform a derelict power plant into a public charter high school. Energy-saving features such as geothermal wells and retrofitted historic windows have earned the building a LEED Platinum rating, yet the project also aims to be socially sustainable, providing up-to-date learning facilities for disadvantaged young people.

In Barcelona, a project completed earlier this year caters to the aging population of the city’s Gràcia district. EXE Arquitectura Barcelona designed 32 apartments for older people plus a primary healthcare centre. Renewable and highly efficient energy systems result in a significant reduction of CO2 emissions. Solar energy is able to meet almost 60 per cent of the building’s total energy load.

In Australia, Open House Melbourne regularly features outstanding sustainable exemplars on different scales, not least Woods Bagot and NH Architecture’s Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, with its six Green Star environmental rating. Goods Shed North, one of Melbourne’s most historic buildings, is a former freight terminal transformed by Elenberg Fraser and Bligh Voller Nield into contemporary office space with low embodied energy, recycled materials, rainwater harvesting and a greywater system.

Open House also highlights smaller projects that represent sensitive interventions into the public realm and landscape. In Slovenia, the Bohinj Bicycle Trail, designed by Atelje Ostan Pavlin, features rest stops along the way in the form of small wooden pavilions using local materials and construction methods.

In today’s increasingly digital world, these ‘live’ showcases are fast becoming an important way to promote best practice. These examples are just a few among many, but they encapsulate what the Open House concept is all about: the integration of the three key elements of people, place and practice to create cities that thrive socially, economically and environmentally – that are both smarter and more sustainable. This thinking is essential to bring clarity to the elusive definition of sustainability and inform the thinking of politicians, clients and the public.

Victoria Thornton is founding director of Open-City, which originated Open House. Open House Worldwide’s 2012 Smarter Cities, Smarter Thinking conference will take place in London on 21 and 22 June. www.openhouseworldwide.org/conference

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