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2011: The year of sustainable design

Hattie Hartman, sustainability editor

2011 can be characterised by the number of initiatives gathering momentum under the umbrella of what can be termed sustainability. Below are my top 10 issues for the year.

Quality retrofit

Retrofit may be an unsexy buzzword, but a number of refurbishments completed this year demonstrate that design flair can transform a building, while also achieving an environmental makeover. 3R Award winner 5th Studio applied what it terms ‘fabric therapy’ to Churchill College’s brutalist Wolfson Flats at Cambridge University. Using timber, brick and render, the units were extended and reclad, eliminating thermal bridges and increasing floor space by 10 per cent. The design excellence of AHMM’s Angel Building (AJ 10.02.11) earned it a place on the Stirling shortlist. While another 3R Award winner, Penoyre & Prasad demonstrated that even the residents of a modest terraced house – with the introduction of a well-designed lightwell – can gain more than insulation and increased comfort during retrofit, making the disruptive process worth enduring.

London 2012 Olympic Games

Next year will be the year of London’s Olympic extravaganza, but already the ecological design of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and the oda’s challenging sustainable design targets have had a knock-on effect on other projects. The Velodrome’s integrated design has been deservedly much lauded. Concrete mixes with high levels of recycled aggregate and cement substitution, trialed at the Aquatics Centre, were later employed by Zaha Hadid Architects at the Evelyn Grace Academy. Likewise LDA Design’s revamp of Southwark’s Burgess Park, currently on site, builds on the design principles of the Olympic Park.

Greening the RIBA

Headed by Sheppard Robson partner Alan Shingler, the RIBA’s Sustainable Futures Group recently released the Green Overlay to the Plan of Work (AJ 24.11.11) to be followed early next year by Tooling Up, a guide to how practices should organise their workflow to produce more sustainable buildings, by Lynne Sullivan of Sustainable by Design.

A review of the sustainability criteria for the 2012 RIBA Awards is another welcome initiative. Revised criteria that would ensure that sustainability is central to the judging process are currently under discussion. Other RIBA Futures workstreams include retrofit, led by ECD’s Mark Elton, and ‘smart communities’, which examines energy opportunity mapping in the broader context of sustainable placemaking and transport infrastructure with a view to developing local authority guidance.

Landscape

It may be wishful thinking to connect the dots between the ecological design of the Olympic Park and the reconsideration of British horticulture suggested by Piet Oudolf’s garden at the Serpentine Pavilion (AJ 28.07.11), but other projects this year also hint that landscape design is gaining a seat at the top table. Studio Engleback’s creative work at Glenn Howells’ Triangle in Swindon (AJ 10.11.11) is one. The Landscape Institute launch of a Local Green Infrastructure guide for local councils is another.

Towards Passivhaus

In 2011, the UK Passivhaus movement solidified its presence with more completed projects, the growth of the Passivhaus Trust and a major conference at the Barbican in London. More training courses have led to more qualified designers, as well as numerous architects who use Passivhaus as a design tool and benchmark, regardless of whether a project will be certified.

Water

Water – either too much or too little – is increasingly on the radar, both in terms of how to manage it and how to treat it. Currently out for consultation, the Thames Tunnel, a proposed mega-sewer under the river, has many critics, who claim a smaller tunnel combining engineering with other water mitigation strategies could be equally effective. Old Ford Water Recycling Plant, a joint Thames Water/ODA project located just south of the Olympic Stadium, opened last month and is the UK’s largest black water recycling plant. Its recycling of water from the Northern Outfall Sewer is predicted to reduce water demand in the Olympic Park and venues by 40 per cent.

Alliance for Sustainable Building Products

Launched last month, this fledgling organisation aspires to provide a transparent platform for alternative building products, using Natureplus, a European green product labelling system. One to watch.

Building performance monitoring

Despite excellent monitoring work enabled by Technology Strategy Board funding and continued work by Aedas and others on the anonymous RIBA/ CIBSE Carbon Buzz platform, no progress had been made on the thorny question of who will fund this work so it becomes firmly embedded in industry practice.

Infrastructure buildings

Though numerous waste-to-energy plants are under construction across the ukto meet the shortfall in landfill capacity, the pipeline of new plants has dried up, according to Thomas Bender, of Design Council cabe. This is primarily due to cuts in PFI funding, exacerbated by an uncertain planning climate. Backing for Thomas Heatherwick’s ambitious Teesside biomass plant, approved for planning in 2010, was withdrawn this summer.

‘Greenest Government Ever’ is far from Green

The reduced ambition of recent government announcements, from the National Planning Policy Framework to the Autumn Statement, from the non-implementation of Display Energy Certificates on all non-domestic buildings to the adjustment of feed-in tariffs, has started to undermine industry confidence. The immediate implication is that the innovation and up-skilling that has taken place over the past four years is being eroded. Multidisciplinary thinktank the edge eloquently summarised these concerns in an open letter to the press in December.

The fact that my first seven highlights are positive, and far outnumber my last three negative predictions should not be a cause for optimism. Exemplary sustainable projects, even for leading green practices, remain the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of clients have to be persuaded of the value – and the value for money – of sustainability. Clients like the Olympic Delivery Authority, Siemens, Derwentand the Woodland Trust are leading the way, as are the universities.

Two projects worth noting are currently on site. Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ Worcester Library, which is targeting breeam Outstanding, will complete next month. Parametric modelling was used to optimise the building’s structural and environmental requirements, replacing 250 tonnes of steel in the roof with laminated timber and saving two months on the programme, an approach familiar from the Velodrome. Targeting LEED Platinum, the highly insulated and airtight envelope of Sheppard Robson’s Siemens Middle East Headquartersat Masdar City in Abu Dhabi is enclosed in a lightweight aluminium screen which provides different degrees of shading on each elevation to suit the orientation.

The work of 00: Architecture offers a radically different take on sustainable design. ‘The sustainability discussion in this country needs to be rebooted. It’s not only about carbon,’ 00:’s Indy Johar told me recently. We were at The Winch, a youth club in Swiss Cottage, north London, where the practice is helping nurture a ‘cradle-to-career’ approach to youth services provision. Johar’s work is as much concerned with social enterprise as it is with physical space. Likewise, at the practice’s recently completedWestminster Hub at 80 Haymarket, the cheerful 1,100m2 space provides state-of-the-art workspace and meeting rooms, a 100-person café/lounge, a lecture theatre and a workshop. Hub users can access a £3million social investment fund.

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