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Sustainable housing

TECHNICAL

The nhbc must be congratulated for the social responsibility of choosing sustainable housing as the subject for its annual conference. It drew a large, well-informed audience, writes Peter Burberry.

Over the past quarter-century the fear of exhaustion of fossil fuels, followed by the need to reduce co2 emissions, has led to more efficient heating systems and better insulation in new housing. The speakers made it clear that a far wider range of measures is needed, not just for energy conservation, if the physical environment is to be sustained. They agreed that real sustainability must also involve social and economic progress.

Architects are very familiar with measures to control greenhouse gases. These include selection of materials, improved efficiency of heating systems, better insulation and control of ventilation.

For sustainability, other aspects of building call for improvement. Efficiency in the process of construction and the reduction of waste from both construction and demolition were identified. Their solution is a joint responsibility of architect and contractor.

Mention was made of the Building Regulations and the breeam system. The Building Regulations, in particular, have been extremely effective within their current scope. To address the issues of sustainable housing raised at the conference, however, they would have to be substantially extended both in their technical content and range of application.

Some paradoxes were brought to light. New development in the countryside may be the least 'green' alternative. Substantial development of infrastructure is required, more travelling is generated and social facilities may be lacking. New roads and new urban car parking in existing towns may be required to accommodate commuters and shoppers from out-of-town sites. Both town and country may suffer.

The currently perceived solution of using brownfield sites for development may not always be green, however. Vegetation purifies the atmosphere, and access to green space is a fundamental amenity. In many cases waste ground is the only accessible green space in the locality. A country park many miles away does not solve the problem. The Georgians and Victorians left a legacy of urban parks, gardens and tree planting which we do not seem to be able to match.

The problems of water supply and management are very much in the news. They are not entirely the responsibility of water undertakings. Some part of the problem arises from the very rapid, but intermittent, run-off achieved by impervious buildings and land surfaces. This is very much in the hands of architects and engineers. We seem to have forgotten that, except in mountains, the natural form of rivers is a dry-weather bed and a surrounding flood plain. We have contained the river courses and built on the flood plains, and are then surprised by occasional flooding.

One positive conservation feature, which we may not find entirely palatable, is that river water is often re-used on its passage downstream! This runs contrary to the laudable nineteenth- century concept of unlimited supply of water to dwellings as a feature of public health. But there is an urgent need to devise equipment and systems which will conserve water, allowing its re-use, without compromising public health in all types of buildings.

Peter Burberry is professor emeritus of building engineering at umist

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