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Why a smaller carbon footprint should add up to a bigger fee

Buildings can be green and beautiful, says Christine Murray

You can say a lot in three to eight minutes. At the Green Rethink last week, that’s how much time we gave 33 speakers to tell us about the future of sustainable design.

The premise of this intense day of compact talks at the first ever AJ Footprint Live conference was to radically reconsider sustainability from all angles - as an economic and social concept, as well as from an ecological perspective. Sharing their visions for the future of green design, the ideas ranged from Ken Yeang’s assertion that towers should be urban planned vertically, as we plan cities horizontally - full of variety of use, to Pascal Mittermaier, director of sustainability, EMEA for Lend Lease, who said we needed to move away from sustainability as a way to build more efficiently and save money, towards reinvesting these savings in driving innovation.

Weaving the strands of the debate together, the most compelling vision I took away was that emerging technology and manufacturing techniques are finally capable of making sustainability the servant of architecture. In other words, buildings can be green and beautiful. Bill Dunster proved the zero-carbon house is now able to look like any other house. And it is now possible, showed Sabine Leribaux, partner of Architectes Associés, to design a Passivhaus office in Belgium (pictured) to the highest specification without compromising its design.


But the most critical challenge that design professionals are well placed to untangle, according to Terry Farrell, is the planning of our cities. Farrell spoke about power grids and transport networks and how the same kind of joined-up design thinking should be applied to city-making. Architectural thinking, he said, currently employed to tackle single buildings, needs to zoom out to address the greater machinations of cities.

‘We have arguments about where the airports go,’ said Farrell. ‘It’s not about the runways or the terminal buildings; it’s about where we place things in London and the South East. Simon Sturgis has done some work looking at the embodied carbon at Heathrow if you knock it down, and the energy from people travelling across London to a new airport in the estuary. This is the scale at which we need to look at our cities. The impact of where you place an airport is greater than any amount of passive or solar devices you may include on the building. It’s about looking at the whole picture. It’s about looking at the city as it is now.’

Patrick Bellew, principal of Atelier Ten, also spoke about the importance of systems - how they diverted city garden waste to produce energy to power the conservatories at Marina Bay Sands - or a concept design for Tesco that saw heat from a chilled distribution centre diverted to grow hydroponic vegetables and mushrooms, changing energy into high-value produce.

Indeed, as Enric Ruiz-Geli, principal of Cloud 9, showed in his case study, the Green Rethink means architects can again be visionaries, spurring on innovation through their questioning of the status quo, and this needn’t cost a client more than a standard building - it can be done at market cost. ‘What we want is less steel, less carbon, less cost, more fee,’ added Ruiz-Geli. ‘You laugh,’ he said to the audience. ‘But that is the knowledge economy. That is what it should mean.’ Higher fees for green rethinkers? Now that’s progress.

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