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'Sell sustainability' call from Wales

RSAW's spring school looked at how to make sustainability more effective and 'sexy'. RIBA president-elect Paul Hyett reports

There is a quality of persistence that is laudable about the Welsh. Take the way that the Royal Society of Architects in Wales (RSAW) deals doggedly with 'sustainability'. With considerable courage, it adopted the subject as the theme of its spring conference in Portmeirion.

Humanism is a quality that is bedded deeply in Welsh culture. But the Welsh also know all too well the consequences of unsustainable activity: for 200 years, coal mining raped their beautiful landscape, leaving a legacy of physical, social and economic desolation in its wake. This experience demonstrates the strong imperative for sustainable development.

Welsh minister Sue Essex opened the conference by reminding delegates that the National Assembly for Wales is unique among European legislative bodies in being required under its statute to 'develop and implement sustainable policies in all aspects of its work'. President Bush could learn a lot from the Welsh: fair and decent government is about utilitarianism and husbandry, not greed and exploitation.

But the Welsh are doing more than just talking.

This year's theme, 'Sustainability in Practice', was a wonderful play on words: the 'ability' part of the word was highlighted in the conference documentation, underlining the importance of technical competence in this area. It is not enough to talk - success is measured in the doing, which raises three issues: education for practice; CPD in practice; and the economic context of practice.

The opening sessions comprised presentations of sustainability in their own work by Francis Roberts, a RIBA award winner for his scheme in Cumbria last year, and Dominic Wilkinson of Shed KM. Newly-elected RIBA councillor George Ferguson kicked off the pre-lunch question and answer session with the question: 'How can sustainability be made sexy?' This drew a range of comments from how to make it attractive to designers, to how to persuade clients and the construction and development industry of its intrinsic economic value.

Subsequent workshop sessions began with Michael Buckley emphasising that we must relearn basic design skills to minimize energy demand in buildings, while Richard Parnaby insisted that both mixed-use development and strategic planning are required to minimize transportation demands. Pat Borer then gave a wonderful talk about his use of the small-section, short-length timber that comes from thinning young forests for specially engineered, highly-insulated, framed structures.

Change your design strategy to fit the available materials was his persuasive clarion call!

Martin Cook explored the use of design competitions to encourage new approaches to sustainability, and accountant Mike Marsden outlined the role of taxation in stimulating responsible design, again revealing the enormous diversity and expertise expected of architects in their work.

Mike Garner questioned how much we should ask of our buildings: is it sensible to heat all rooms in our houses? Should we simply dress more sensibly? Or, as that great lateral thinker Cedric Price would ask, should we design our diets to generate more human 'energy' for keeping warm?

Robin Nicholson, in the final session of the day, gave an illustrated whistle-stop tour of some of his recent work with Ted Cullinan, including the enormous new 238,000m 2university development in Singapore - all with increasingly sophisticated sustainability initiatives underlining the practice's commitment to this issue.

Again Ibstock Bricks is to be applauded for its sponsorship, joined this year by Calch Ty Mawr Lime, the Building Research Establishment, and Landrell Fabric Engineering, while Mary Wrenn and her team are to be congratulated on the organisation that makes this event so memorable.

This great conference marked, sadly, the conclusion of RSAW president Robert Firth's last year in office. He will be a tough act to follow.

And the lesson of this year? Clearly, the architectural profession must use its considerable powers of persuasion to raise client ambitions in the field of sustainability while finding ways of delivering evermore effective design solutions in the widest sense of the term sustainability.

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