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For the unconverted

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Sustainable Architecture and Urbanism: Concepts, Technologies, Examples By Dominique Gauzin-Muller. Birkhäuser, 2002. 256pp. £45

It is now widely accepted that buildings and cities have a negative effect on both the local and global climate. In the summer of 2002, there was ever more convincing evidence of significant global climate change. We heard, for instance, of widespread flooding across Europe - the historic centre of Prague was evacuated - and of the 10 million square mile 'Asian brown cloud' that is choking the entire sub-continent and south-east Asia.

Such events would seem to justify the vast number of books that appear on the subject of 'sustainable' design. It is now established in the syllabus for architectural education and an increasing number of practices declare their commitment to it. But there is a sense that much of the generality of practice, in Britain and elsewhere, remains locked in a cycle of commercial pragmatism, in which these global concerns have little place beyond reluctant observance of legislative requirements. So what is the point of yet another volume on sustainability?

These were my thoughts upon receiving Dominique Gauzin-Muller's new book. My first reading hardly answered the question, but further scrutiny began to convince me that this is a very useful contribution and might help to persuade the unconvinced that sustainable design is not too complicated.

The book is straightforward and unpolemical in setting out the sociopolitical and technological background to architectural environmentalism. Within the wider global context, the focus is upon European experience and practice. A central argument is that sustainable buildings must be seen as part of urban design, if they are to realise their greatest potential. A substantial part of the book is devoted to a clear exposition of principles for urban design, that is supported by examples of projects from Austria, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Finland.

The discussion embraces land use and management, pollution and noise abatement, the management of journeys, energy, water and the control of waste. There is also an outline of the social aspects of sustainability.

Against this background the discussion moves on to building design. Once more, principles precede examples and technical information is presented with precision and clarity. The exposition of principles ranges over questions of rational energy use, renewable energy, the water cycle, materials, the construction process, site management and the environmental management of buildings.

The built examples are drawn from across Europe - Finland to Greece - and range in scale from single-family houses, through school buildings to corporate headquarters.

There are projects by, among others, Joachim Eble and Gunther Behnisch in Germany, Baumschlager and Eberle in Austria, Alexandros Tombazis in Greece and Mario Culcinella in Italy. British practice is represented by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris' primary school at Notley Green in Essex and Ian Ritchie's Cultural and Visitor Centre at Terrasson in France. Large-scale details show how sustainability of material and performance may be achieved in construction that is, in most cases, architecturally elegant, and numerical data is provided where appropriate. In this respect it is a kind of 'sustainable working details'.

The architectural language of these buildings is cast broadly in the Modernist tradition, with inflections towards what Kenneth Frampton defined as 'regional cultures'. For example, a curvaceous house by Atelier de l'Entre, at Essertines-en-Chatelneuf in rural France, responds in form and materiality to both climate and topography.

In contrast, Baumschlager and Eberle's school at Mader in Austria is an essay in precise orthogonal form and detail that is fine-tuned by meticulous attention to environmental concerns.

In its systematic and undogmatic manner the book is a valuable addition to the libraries of the already converted, and will serve well as an undergraduate text. But it is strongly recommended to the hesitant and unconvinced as a demonstration that the 's' word is, in reality, just a further step in the evolution of the mainstream of architectural thought and process.

Dean Hawkes is a professor at the Welsh School of Architecture

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