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Sustainability: Greening the European City

AJ sister magazine The Architectural Review staged a conference at the RIBA a fortnight ago to look at 'sustainable' solutions in the modern city. David Taylor reports

Architects must strive to create buildings that are easily adaptable to changes of use and lifestyles over time. They should think hard about their choices of materials, favouring wood when they can.And they must look to natural ventilation and low-energy devices for their buildings, always mindful of embedded energy.

All the above is pretty standard fare in the sustainable development debate and the role that architects could, should or must (depending on your viewpoint) adopt. And all resurfaced at The Architectural Review's 'Greening the European City' conference at the RIBA a fortnight ago. The difference here, though, was that the well-known speakers elaborated on these nostrums with skill and humour. The result was a thought-provoking day with the message that 'green' design still has a place for craftsmanship, individuality, and delight.

Sir Nicholas Grimshaw kicked off - his practice is one of the very few with ISO14001 international environmental registration, and it has pushed that further by developing internally a new, green checklist. Grimshaw has called it EVA - Environmentally Viable Architecture. 'We consider all schemes under 12 headings, ' he said, 'and seven of them relate to the city and its surroundings.'

First, flora and fauna. Cue a slide of a treelined street, which has just a tenth of the particulates found in those without such protection. Next, embodied energy - Grimshaw's huge Battersea Power Station and Paddington Station schemes illustrate that reusing materials is important. Third, transport. With 25 per cent of CO2 emissions coming from transport, and buildings producing 50 per cent, we need to use fuel cells and hydrogen. The latter is 'wonderfully unpolluting' but difficult to produce without fossil fuels. 'We must have non-polluting forms of transport, ' he declared.

Grimshaw is currently designing a tram system as part of the practice's Zurich airport project - the trams cost £200,000 each - but in England, transport just isn't thought about strategically. 'On the back of an envelope I added the cost of the Jubilee Line Extension, £3.5 billion, to the rest of the underground, and it would cost £85 billion, ' said Grimshaw. 'If you spread that over 30 years, it would be £2.8 billion a year. Our annual transport budget is £400 billion. It doesn't seem an impossible task.'

Grimshaw's EVA also includes cleaner (though expensive) environmental systems such as photovoltaics; waste and how we deal with it; the impact of buildings on useable public spaces - Broadgate's ice rink, for example; and the impact of what we do on existing major cultural heritage items. 'We do need some kind of system, even if it's simply public outcry, to assess the aesthetic value of major monuments.' But what typified Grimshaw's presentation, after showing his Bath Spa revamp, was the final slide. It was of a Seville street where shopkeepers had got together to organise external canopies across the opposing rooflines, to keep the hot sun from the shoppers below. In the US, they'd have built an air-conditioned mall. Here was sensible cooperation and a simple, green fix.

For Stefan Behnisch, Germany differs from England in its attitude to recycling - 'it's a national sport', he said. In the US, meanwhile, where Behnisch has built a headquarters for Genzyme with Buro Happold in Cambridge, Massachusetts, there is a benchmark system to measure the greenness of buildings. 'There's pass, silver, gold, and platinum like credit cards', he said.

Another competition-winning bank design in the US featured cubicles. 'In Germany, it's unheard of that anyone would want to sit in a cubicle - it's very, very funny.' Ecologically aware touches included double facades and the use of ground water for cooling etc, while elsewhere the architect had maximised natural light by mounting eight helioscopes on the roof to direct light down into the atrium. A special, 15m-deep contemporary chandelier added more impact, and made that light 'visible'. And other simple notions such as curtains in buildings were logical, energy-saving steps.

For Lucien Kroll, demolition is anathema. Instead, he chisels away at buildings, adding unusual pitched roofs and 'green cottages' on otherwise flat-roofed housing blocks, moulding new accretions, always with major public participation. Kroll seeks out the nonstandard and glorifies in oddities. 'It's full of mistakes, ' he said proudly of one of his projects. 'Regularity becomes the mistake.'

Christopher Ingenhoven from Germany showed a formidable line-up of work, plus competition designs, such as the garden-filled Commerzbank entry with Frei Otto and Ted Happold. Then there was the huge project to revitalise Stuttgart's railway station - to be completed by 2012 - by building a tunnel and enabling a new inner city quarter. Twenty-eight 'eyes' bring light into the station areas below and the whole is a zero-energy concept. 'It's a huge public space, a new green space, and no additional land.'

But could a city ever actually be green, asked a member of the audience? 'I think first it should be high density, not like a US city, but a European one, ' was Ingenhoven's response. 'If you compare the energy use of Houston in Texas with Hong Kong, you'll have 50 times as much energy per person.

The green city should be vital, should be green, and should be beautiful.'

Engineer Max Fordham gave a whistlestop journey through the essentials of sustainable thinking, with an emphasis on saving energy. Transport costs could be alleviated by better town planning - a worker who commutes 50km in a car each day uses 'much more energy than an air-conditioned office'.

Living needs to be closer to working, as at Bill Dunster's BedZed. A strategy for buildings would be to cut demand for energy by 10, given that the population of the world is 10 billion and one billion have the 'benefits' of industrialisation. 'The point is it's do-able, ' he said.

For Fordham, too, light is key. People with around 50 lux at the back of an office on an overcast day switch on a light, lux levels rise to 500 and then they leave that light on. 'That creates a demand for light that completely crucifies the energy use of the building'. A graph illustrating the correlation between the amount of windows and energy use was compelling - though Fordham believes there should be a return to the Victorian tradition of curtains and shutters. But to successfully adapt Britain's stock of buildings to better levels of insulation would take 10 per cent of the GNP. 'And, anyway, the planning implications would be disastrous, ' he added.

Other highlights included Philippe Samyn's environmentally conscious schemes, with a particularly eye-catching wind turbine design that does not need a crane to construct; and Alain Cousseran's landscape projects such as the Thames Barrier Park with Patel Taylor. Perhaps, though, the leitmotif of the day was provided by a slide from Mario Cucinella. It showed a Middle Eastern doctor, hand in the air in welcome, walking with a camel laden with a Global Positioning System and a solar panel on its back to drive it. The message?

The very highest level of technology can be utilised, even in the most traditional of milieus. But effective greening of the city is sometimes, simply, going 'back to basics'.

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