gentle green giant
Britain's biggest practice for the second year running, Building Design Partnership, has taken the unusual step of hiring a 30-yearold architectural engineering graduate to try to get sustainable thinking permeating through the entire firm.
Trevor Butler is that man. And, while he baulks slightly at the problem of definitions - what exactly is a sustainable building, a green building or a low-energy building? - it is clear that Butler's approach is a nononsense reappraisal of projects 'from first principles' - a favourite phrase.
'Anyone who says they can say what it is is a liar, ' says Butler of sustainable development. Sure, he has a vague checklist of parameters to start the ball rolling, but these should always be added to, and tailored to, individual projects, he insists. He admires the writings of Herbert Girardet and Amory Lovins, and buildings that fit Butler's world view are 'flexible, adaptable, durable and might be recyclable'. But Butler's favourite piece of shorthand is that of a rival engineering firm, if he's allowed to say so.
Buro Happold's 'touching the earth lightly'.
'I wouldn't call myself a tree-hugger, I'm just interested in the built environment and the impact we as designers have on it, ' he says when asked whether green thinking runs into his political life. 'The idea is that I'll be an in-house resource for different projects and there to spread information around.'
Butler's role will be to disseminate information to all of BDP's offices, along with reports and analyses, and perhaps to change perceptions of the outfit, underpinning each project with sustainable thinking as it is being designed.
BDP will not, though, lay down the green law to clients. It will not veto certain materials; neither will it refuse to work on 'unsustainable projects'. Instead, the practice will suggest options and concentrate on giving clients information about their chosen path, in the manner of a gentle green giant. It even persuaded one client to steer clear of taking the wind turbine path because, although it might have been a big green statement, it would have proved unviable.
The Private Finance Initiative forms a fair chunk of BDP's work. Although the concept has had a bad press, Butler thinks that it might be good for environmentally friendly buildings, since it is in the developer's interest to make services efficient. But his perfect BDP project is the masterplan of a new town or city - the practice is working in Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford, Spain and Hatfield on such schemes.
Butler brings up an unglamorous example of his approach. He has suggested accessible service trenches in the streets to solve the painful problems of the endlessly dug-up urban landscape.Another idea, while Butler was at Fulcrum Consulting - again below ground - involved looking into the problems of groundwater in London's Mile End. There is plenty of water below London's streets, perhaps useable for cooling, perhaps for drinking and, furthermore, it might also reduce the problems London Underground has as the clay on which the Tube is built becomes less stable.
Butler started his career studying architectural engineering at Leeds - dealing with architecture, structures and services.
Then came the spell at Fulcrum in M&E, but on the 'cutting edge of low energy'. Four years ago he set up the firm's construction ecology unit. 'The mission statement we came up with was 'to spearhead the understanding and implementation of ecological technology', ' says Butler, 'and to really make it work.'
At about the same time he was doing a masters at Cambridge: 'It struck me there were some people in academia doing some good stuff and some wacky stuff, and then there was the industry. And they were going along at different paces without much linkage between them, so that was an area in which I felt there was great potential.'
Then the chance came to join BDP.
Butler says it was 'quite appealing' since BDP was the big, mainstream firm he was looking to influence, with an architectural, as well as an engineering, side. There was enough space to develop his ideas and a strong desire to do so from people such as BDP engineering director Bob Spittle.
So Butler left Fulcrum last year, squeezing in a trip on the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Beijing before joining up. Part of that was spent at an orphanage in China, which Butler had helped to design five years earlier. 'I hadn't seen it. I knew it was built and working, but I had to go back and see it - it was operational, with 50 kids in there. It was great.'
While he was there he looked at three more orphanages, with a weekend in Tokyo for contrast, and this kind of admirable work is a key part of Butler's life today. BDP allows him to work four days a week as head of sustainability, with the flexible fifth day devoted to orphanage ventures: he is looking at schemes in Guatemala and Zambia, too.
So what of the sustainability 'movement'?
Butler's thesis at Cambridge was entitled Mainstream Green in an Apple White World, apple white being the slightly green hue of the world, formed by so many photovoltaic cells bolted on to buildings as 'gadgets' in a new vernacular. It is a vernacular that he dislikes, where the cliché of the green building has become one with timber cladding, wind turbines and photovoltaics, and where aesthetics have been pushed a little to one side.
'I'm convinced that we can go a lot greener than we do and we do settle back on compromises, ' says Butler. Again, it is first principles, with the building crafted around what the user requires. He cites Kathryn Findlay of Ushida Findlay, with whom Butler worked on a Japanese community hall called Kasahara: 'It taught me a lot. She's great in terms of sculptural forms but she's interested in the environment and understanding that and expressing that.'
Again, as with his Chinese orphanage, Butler lost track with the project before being presented with final pictures when Findlay returned to the UK. 'It was this amazing sculptural form, nothing like the last time I'd seen it. It really inspired me because environmentally designed buildings can get a bit clunky at times, but with this it was the design quality that came through. You could look at it and fall in love with the building without particularly knowing that it was an environmentally friendly one.'
Which is what it is all about for him.
As Butler says: 'Green is beautiful and it doesn't mean that this particular vernacular that is developing is particularly green.'