The dangers of sustainability
Sustainable development is not optional - the long-term survival of our culture is at stake. To adopt a green lifestyle today is difficult, it is hard work to recycle waste, organic food is expensive, and it seems hard to justify investing in renewable energy. It is difficult to insulate old buildings, and a lot of effort to find work near where you live.There does not seem much we can do about global warming and the rise in sea levels. Apparently four million new homes are required, despite urban sprawl now covering 11 per cent of the surface area of the UK and no real increase in population. Global population is still rising exponentially and yet the UK is importing fossil fuel and around 60 per cent of our food from abroad. We take large chunks of our gross national product to maintain expensive armies and invest in weaponry. How could we reexamine our lifestyles to reduce our imports to a level that no longer requires the international deployment of such large resources?
Just as James Lovelock has introduced the concept of all life forms on the planet contributing to its continuing homeostasis, Herbert Girardet has introduced the concept of the city as an inefficient, resource-hungry metabolism feeding on its rural hinterland, at the same time as nearly choking on its own waste products of air, water and chemicals. The trouble is that the ecological footprint of London is the rest of the UK - so where does that leave the rest of the nation if our national boundaries were nearly sealed by a U-boat blockade as they were in 1940, or international taxation on carbon emissions makes it increasingly uneconomic to justify high food miles?
So does anybody study this strange beast called Britain, and work out on the back of an envelope who is going to feed it and fuel it during the next century? Does anyone work out how it will fit into the global food chain? Does anyone try to keep the dominant human species in check, and plan a balanced ecosystem that could continue to evolve indefinitely?
Lovelock has always asserted that there will always be life for millennia on the planet, but will it be human, and will Gaia always be so benevolent? With more than 40 per cent of global photosynthesis now passing through the human economy, we must recognise the success of our species as both the problem and the solution. So, how do we achieve the impossible and lower our consumption of natural resources at the same time as improving our quality of life?
Questions, questions How do we build at reasonably high densities on existing derelict sites to avoid losing agricultural land? How do we reconcile increased densities with improving amenity?
How do we reduce our carbon emissions, reduce reliance on fossil fuel, and increase renewable energy harvesting in cities?
How do we begin to rethink cities on a circular metabolism, where the waste from one process forms the input to another?
How do we forget all the cosy preconceptions and work out new design methodologies and a new aesthetic that has been derived from eco-functional criteria?
How do we manage to reduce our own species numbers to levels that can be maintained indefinitely, and begin to place an equal value on other life forms, however basic?
All these things tend to add up and become simply too much for one individual to address, making it easier to reject new ideas rather than try to make them work. So how can we take these topical issues and turn them into design criteria appropriate for the early days of the twenty-first century? It is the duty of the architectural profession to show what is possible, and how a democratic reassessment of our current urban solutions could work on a national scale over long periods of time - showing how individual needs can be reconciled with global issues.
Although small steps to minimise resource consumption are good, they are often accumulative and the benefits of a holistic overview of all the technologies and lifestyles suddenly starts to open up new possibilities. My practice, Bill Dunster Architects, has been working on one of the first carbon neutral urban communities since the eighteenth century in the London Borough of Sutton for the Peabody Trust. Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZed) is not being built to high budgets, but uses technology that is available on the open market.The development will be accessible to all sectors of society.
Appropriate technology To rely on technology not yet developed to solve existing problems is naive and irresponsible, and I would recommend that we reintroduce the debate about appropriate technology that was popular in the late 1970s.Do we need fossil fuels if our buildings are highly insulated, face south, are fitted with highly efficient glazing and can store solar energy? If we can cut the energy load required to run most buildings to a fraction of what is common practice today, renewable technologies will suddenly become viable.Architects have to practise a new kind of architecture that limits these loads through the passive design of buildings and incorporates carbon-neutral renewable energy sources wherever possible.
At BedZed a wood chip fuelled combined heat and power plant is fuelled by urban tree waste that would otherwise be landfilled.
We don't need private cars and their associated pollution if we are able to work close to where we live, with on-site childcare and a shared pool of photovoltaic-powered cars. By placing the workspace in the shade zone of the passive solar housing it is bathed in cool northlight whilst the roof surfaces then become domestic skygardens, providing nearly all the homes with integral conservatories and private green outdoor space - amenities rarely achieved at this level of the market.
We wouldn't have farmers in financial crisis, producing crops and animals that nobody wants, if food was healthy, affordable and sold directly to urban households.
At BedZed we are integrating an organic foodshop supplied by the nearest organic farms within its bio-region. In the end it is only the architectural profession that has the tools to reinvent lifestyles and make this kind of development affordable, easy and fun. BedZed empowers 85 households to lead a carbon neutral lifestyle with a low environmental impact, without paying a substantial financial premium, and hopefully increasing their overall quality of life.
Seen from space, BedZed is a small urban village in suburbia built on a disused sewage farm.However, if the UK urban fabric is replaced at 1.5 per cent annum and new developments were realised to this density and carbon neutral specification, by the end of this century we could meet our national energy requirements from renewable sources and reduce urban sprawl to around 25 per cent of its current figure.
Most professions agree that it is the architectural integration of all the competing parameters that shape our daily lives that will sustain a good quality of life for future generations. Theoretical consensus like this has not occured since the early days of the Modern movement. The architectural profession in the UK must help form this new Zeitgeist, and will increasingly rise in importance as its contribution to our communal welfare is re-evaluated.
Working with the natural forces sustaining life adds a spiritual dimension which engenders both a new aesthetic and a fresh reassignment of communal values.You just have to make a personal decision on whether to be part of the problem, or part of the solution.
Bill Dunster heads Bill Dunster Architects, specialising in low-energy, lowenvironmental-impact buildings and landscape design. For more details tel 020 8339 124 BEDZED INNER CITY URBAN BLOCK DATA *
per hectare Residential population density 309 Working population density 203 Total site population density 512 Habitable rooms 352 Public open space 840m2Private gardens and sky gardens 2560m2Homes (at 3.5 habitable rooms per home) 100* Excluding sports facilities and car parking