JOINED-UP GOVERNMENT ISN'T WORKING FOR SUSTAINABILITY
Sustainability is increasingly focused on the larger scale, not just the individual building, as reflected in the recent Ecobuild conference Moving up in scale is changing the priorities of Poran Desai, of BedZed-developer BioRegional. Even looking at future housing developments at the scale of BedZed, he will be putting less emphasis in future on measures for individual buildings, such as insulation and southerly orientation - one of the rigidities of the BedZed layout - instead taking a more balanced view of quality of life. And as he moves up in scale, he is increasingly focusing on this broader agenda - involving, for example, green transport and local energy generation, especially CHP (combined heat and power) and renewables.
Density has become one of the watchwords for building at a larger scale, among other things helping to make local energy generation and transport viable. John Rouse, of the Housing Corporation, expressed this as 'compact development' rather than simply density. Compactness involves thinking of the locale in an integrated way - bringing together transport modes, local services, work and leisure. Rouse is also a supporter of codes for urban planning and design to push change in this direction, though he accepted we 'need a method [of codes] that is workable for relatively low-skilled planning departments'.
At the city scale, this idea that larger urban areas can be planned as a network of locales is embodied in the current planning for expansion of Ashford, one of the ODPM's target towns for housing growth. Luke Engleback, of EcoUrbanism, saw this as a fight to be had with traditional housing developers with their preference for extensive rather than intensive development.
Another step up in scale is Dongtan Eco City in Shanghai, the 'world's first sustainable city' according to Arup, which itself has 120 staff working on the masterplanning of 630ha. The 'old world' may be consolidating, but a lot of the globe is still rapidly urbanising and industrialising. China has been portrayed as a problem country because of this, but Chris Twinn, of Arup, said: 'China knows it has to change. Otherwise, in the longer term it will get ripped off by the world as fuels get scarcer.' The initial planning focus for Dongtan is on water - for use and leisure - waste management/recycling, movement and energy supply through CHP and renewables.
ECOLOGICAL SKYSCRAPERS There's many a section been drawn through cities with buildings shown getting denser and taller toward the centre.
But how tall? Are we talking about compact medium rise, like the 'groundscrapers' of London's Broadgate, or about towers?
Ken Yeang for one has doubts about towers. 'I don't think the tall building is very ecological in resource use, ' he said. 'But it will be with us for some time? The tall building is an evil object, but something you have to live with.' So he designs tall buildings as a realist rather than a purist: 'It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.'
WHAT'S THE HURRY?
The message of government chief scientific advisor Sir David Strong that we just have to keep plugging away, prodding the market with legislation, was not urgent enough for many. Stephen Tindale, of Greenpeace, was particularly critical. He felt that government momentum is flagging on many fronts, with international carbon targets not likely to be met and those targets now not ambitious enough. Good intentions, such as pushing renewables and integrated transport, have stalled. Increasing air travel, a big carbon-growth area, is being accepted by government on a predict-and-provide basis rather than addressing the need to cut carbon head on, (Each of us UK individuals averages a 'carbon footprint' - all in emissions, ie for home, work, leisure, etc - of around 10T of CO 2 per year. One return flight to Australia emits 3.6T/person. ) Predict-and-provide is an approach, Tindale felt, that has already been seen to fail in trying to provide for future road transport. Roads promote traffic; so too do runways.
For the built environment in particular, Tindale said codes should be more stretching; local CHP and renewables should be mandatory, council tax/business rates/stamp duty should be reduced/increased to reflect energy efficiency. He doesn't believe that cost or over-regulation would be hurdles for the public.
Change has to be driven, Tindale said: 'We don't have time for good practice to filter down.' Most acknowledged that wind turbines and photovoltaics on dwellings aren't yet cost effective. For some, there is an overriding need to act now despite the cost, as well as the symbolic value of being 'seen to be green' as part of raising public awareness.
Others see these actions more as 'greenwash' - how many symbolic gestures do we need? Maybe we have to be harder-headed about where we put our money. On the Mayor of London's requirement for 10 per cent renewables for building projects in particular, which other UK cities are now emulating, Heinz Richardson, of Jestico + Whiles, said that while some politicians need to have something to show, the same money would be better spent on the building fabric, saving more carbon, albeit unseen.
If all these various people are gearing up for new futures, the dissenting Jan Maciag, chair of the Traditional Architecture Group, suggested the only gear we can practically engage is reverse.
He wants us to go back to 'simplicity and localisation' in building and living. Interestingly, this was the only contribution in two days to get a spontaneous round of applause.
PRACTICAL PROGRESS Bill Gething managed to embody hope, the need for urgency - it is 'so serious that we may have to be less balanced' - with resigned acceptance that in fact the main drivers that have made a difference to sustainability so far are 'regulation and market forces'. So a lot rides on developing more ambitious codes. Guy Battle of Battle McCarthy also saw the coming of energy labelling of buildings making a significant difference, especially to developers' briefs, and 'agents will have to respond'.
Unpromisingly, this need for codes was in the context of the UK's recent failure to produce a Code for Sustainable Buildings. The only current output of that project is the draft Code for Sustainable Housing. Of this, Bill Stow, director general of environment at DEFRA, said it pointed the way 'to a higher standard (than Building Regulations) that will become mandatory later on'. Stow suggested this would give the market more future certainty. Government projects will be commissioned to the code's standards once it's published.
But why a new domestic code at all? Why not start from EcoHomes (part of the BREEAM stable)? Stow said it was clear there will be convergence of the two in time, but that government wanted to 'put a government stamp on it'. However, Arup's Chris Twinn felt the new code was in some ways a 'dumbing down' of EcoHomes which 'has a harder edge' and is 'implementation and audit based'. And the new code 'seems to penalise dense urban developments', Twinn said, for example the inevitable urban limits to solar access are not traded off against better proximity to public transport. Twinn did point to the need for BREEAMs generally to focus more on neighbourhoods, not just individual buildings.
Other government policy pointers from DEFRA's Stow included: the need for greater rigour in ensuring our buildings are actually complying with regulations - air-tightness testing is the most recent example; the current review of sustainability for existing buildings, including consideration of regulation and fiscal incentives; a draft waste strategy, including construction; a focus on water supply, maybe with water-efficiency labelling of fittings; and the fact that the 'interdependencies' of government areas of concern 'is an issue in itself', one 'not much addressed'. To translate - joined-up government isn't working for sustainability.
UK GREEN BUILDING COUNCIL Despite the Bush/Kyoto positioning, there are changes apace in the US. The US Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard is run by the US Green Building Council (USGBC) and is being taken up particularly for public projects in some US states. Compulsion is making LEED increasingly influential. USGBC now has 6,500 member organisations and its conference this year attracted 14,000 delegates. There are now moves to start a GBC in the UK - BREEAM having lost some of its momentum - though there are questions about whether it should be in the hands of a private company - BRE. You can register your interest in a UK GBC at www. ukgbc. org One feature of LEED in the US is the accreditation of designers and other industry players as sustainability experts. The RIAS too has its Sustainable Design Accreditation system and Bill Gething was asked if RIBA would follow suit. This looks unlikely.
The RIBA has considered it, says Gething, but is concerned about sustainability being seen as specialist, not part of the mainstream.
It is because sustainability aims for the mainstream that change is so difficult - pioneering projects are not enough. Minds will have to change.