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BRE diversification raises questions about quality of sustainable design

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The UK has a new architectural practice. Hard as the BRE (Building Research Establishment) may deny it, this is evidently the case. It designs buildings; it employs architects (it is even seeking to employ more architects).

Even if the BRE does not become a RIBA-accredited practice, it is certainly setting itself up in competition to practices that are accredited. But while many of those practices are looking at diversifying in order to increase their income, the BRE wants to diversify into design.

With the wealth of knowledge on which it can call, it is not surprising that it wants to capitalise on it, and believes that it can offer genuinely sustainable design.

Although there are some architects and associated professionals who take these issues very seriously indeed, often the accusation by David Strong of the BRE of 'greenwashing' is justified.

The BRE's first project is for a school, and in this arena it is not the only specialist to get involved. Corus is not only thinking about providing a prefabricated solution for school sports halls, it also has its own architects working on a live project (see MetalWorks in this issue). But it is collaborating with other architectural practices to do this.

The BRE, however, plans to go it alone, possibly with other architects producing working drawings, at least until it gets up to full power. This raises the question of design quality, which should be answered once one can actually see its school in Hayes. It is a reasonable bet that architects who choose to work for a research organisation, whatever their other strengths, are not the cream of the design crop. Architecture is a generalist profession in which, typically, the creative and synthesising architect draws on many areas of expertise to inform that design.

What the BRE is offering is unlimited technical expertise, with the architectural side grafted on, almost as an afterthought. Since sustainable design must involve the creation of a building with an assured and successful future, this could be a problem. If its design skills do not match up to its technical abilities, the BRE could end up creating buildings in which all the individual elements and systems work perfectly, but that nobody wants to use because of the lack of a single unifying design vision.

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