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Don't banish the word 'sustainability'

Keep the ‘s’ word. If we fail to champion sustainability explicitly, it will be ignored, writes Hattie Hartman

I regularly hear it said that the word ‘sustainability’ should be banished. Last week I heard it twice in the same day while at the University of Bradford for the Association of Environment Conscious Builders’ (AECB) annual conference. The university terms its programme of embedding sustainable development across the campus as ‘ecoversity’, not sustainability. Recognised last year by CIBSE as Client of the Year and Carbon Champion, the university has cut its carbon emissions by a remarkable 35 per cent since 2005 by setting ambitious targets across its estate. ‘We’ve got three of the greenest buildings in the world right here,’ the university’s director of estates, Russell Smith, told me during a campus tour.

The results are impressive, but the buildings disappointing. Attractive landscaping is a poor camouflage for unimaginative site planning and a surfeit of green cladding and sunscreens does a disservice to sustainable design. In The Green, the BREEAM Outstanding student accommodation where we stayed, every dimension has been calculated to a minimum. Open shower surrounds mean the whole room gets wet.

In a questionable badge-chasing exercise, the recently completed STEM building has gone for both BREEAM Outstanding and Passivhaus certifications. The appropriateness of Passivhaus on this site is dubious, because the southern elevation of the building faces a multistorey building which limits solar gain. The most promising of the three BREEAM Outstanding buildings is the Sustainable Enterprise Centre, which features five-storey hemcrete walls.

In a recent rebranding, the AECB dropped the word ‘sustainability’ from its logo, replacing it with the apt tagline ‘building knowledge’. This organisation, with more than 600 architect members, promotes collaborative knowledge-sharing.

I take issue with both the AECB and the University of Bradford on two counts: abandoning the ‘s’ word; and the importance of good design. If not explicitly championed (and here the university is exemplary), sustainability is too easily overlooked or value-engineered out. It needs to be a driver, on a par with the bottom line, but it should not be promoted in a design vacuum. Our BREEAM Outstanding buildings should be outstanding designs, too.

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