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Friends of the earth?

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Transport myths, wine-growers' predictions and Marxist termite mounds: Designing for Sustainability had them all

I had arrived at 8.30am in the RIBA's Jarvis Hall, as I had done on innumerable occasions, to have a preconference coffee and digestive. I was unfashionably early.

I checked in and, again, as on innumerable occasions in the past, they apologised for not having my badge ready and wrote me another one. As I sipped my coffee and read through the delegate pack - about medical ethics - it dawned on me that I was in the wrong venue. In a change to usual practice, the conference I was registered for, Designing for Sustainability, would be starting in 30 minutes in Piccadilly. My motorised dash across London would undoubtedly be considered unsustainable, but I arrived in time, wheezing dangerously high levels of CO 2 and with my armpits a clear 5.8°C above 1990 levels.

Chairman Paul Finch, recently elevated to editor of the Architectural Review, roused everyone with his charge that generic specification - or product substitution, as he called it - was effectively saying: 'I don't care what we use.'

He insisted that a useful point to get out of the day was to try to clarify responsibilities, and for architects to realise they were in a position to take a lead on matters of sustainability. 'A meaty court case where someone is prosecuted for the damaging effect of their choice of materials would do a world of good, ' he said.

Chris Twinn, leader in Arup's building-engineering sustainability group, outlined the legislative and financial framework driving sustainability. He said: 'The whole basis of the planning system is now premised on sustainable development.' Caricaturing those who do not agree with the simplistic claims of the dangers of global warming as diehards versus the devotees who have seen the light, Twinn charted a middle 'balanced' course of mainstream application to look at reaching a reduction in 'resource consumption' to around 20 per cent of current standards. To avoid 'dangerous interference with climatic systems without sacrificing economic development requires 50-70 per cent reduction in global greenhouse gases, ' he said.

Romping through the somewhat intimidating guidance documentation, he alighted on The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, which will become law in January 2006. This will require designers to implement a common methodology for calculating their buildings' energy performance, which is to be monitored by independent experts, and for energy-performance certificates to be displayed in public buildings.

For all buildings with a cooling capacity of over 12kW (a figure so small as to encompass almost all buildings) an inspection shall assess the 'air-conditioning efficiency and the size compared with the cooling requirements of the building. Appropriate advice shall be provided to the users on possible improvement or replacement of the air-conditioning system or on alternative solutions.' Twinn also drew on social-policy requirements to illustrate his point.

In suggesting we all use too many 'resources' (although this was not defined), he noted we could have perfectly 'wholesome' showers with half the water capacity of a power shower.

An unquestioned point raised in Twinn's presentation was that if, as he stated, the UK will have the climatic conditions of Marseilles by 2080 (a 'statistic' generated from British wine producers, not the most independent source of meteorological data), is the headlong rush to higher insulation standards going to result in stiflingly hot houses in the future?

Claudine Blamey gave a rather stilted presentation about how, for property-investment company British Land, the 'primary goal is to increase shareholder value, and one of the key ways of doing this is through implementing sustainable processes - sustainability is the foundation stone of our company's future'.

Words like 'transparency', 'responsibility' and 'early consultation' peppered her speech, although there were other phrases, like 'we're doing the right thing and coincidentally avoiding having our name splashed across the papers for using timber from unsustainable sources'.

However, her presentation of a bog-standard commercial development as the paragon of renewable energy virtue, complete with some leftover space described as a 'sustainable piazza', left me unconvinced.

It worried me that some of the discussants might be trying to sidestep criticism by clinging to an all-purpose defence of sustainability.

Andrew Wright of Andrew Wright Associates got things back on track with some exciting schemes and a discussion of the architecture without much use of the 's' word.

These schemes were presented in their own terms, like a confident final-year crit. He talked of 'buildings finding their own expression' and asked whether the architecture 'added to life and enjoyment': admittedly slightly studenty and hedonistic, but refreshingly so. He spoke about reducing energy bills, rather than the more moralistic concept of reducing energy.

While his slide into 'intelligent design' and the old Marxist termite mound cliché left me cold, it was all a rather engaging cross between Bruce Goff and Bill Bailey.

Paul Hyett, as always, is great fun.

Provocative and challenging, complimentary and endearing, he asserted that, by using more and more technology, 'instead of alleviating human suffering we are intensifying it'. His brand of populist 'science' was backed up by tabloid photographs of floods, forest fires and tornadoes, which were apparently marshalled to the defence of his claim that we are knowingly leaving this planet 'in a worse condition than when we inherited it'.

Hyett's critique of the parlous state of healthcare buildings was informative. More efficient construction was imperative, he suggested, given that healthcare facilities are the least sustainable building types and that there are 87 schemes in development.

He ended on a melodramatic quote from Lord Ezra: 'Time is running out.' How true. We broke for lunch.

Receiving the moral baton, Laurie Chetwood, chairman of Chetwood Associates, said his work was all about 'helping the cause'. The rallying vision included a scheme with just 19 car spaces for 248 units in Brighton, which we were all meant to applaud because 'as you see, it's a pretty sustainable agenda'.

'Triple bottom lines' were interspersed with 'psychosocial DNA' graphics; 'success-driven strategic enterprise' was mixed with 'deliverability'indices; and 'multi-dimensional frameworks' flowed into 'eco-templates'. The schemes were perfectly pleasant, but he was second only to Alan Thomas from the BBA for an indulgence in Google-search graphics downloads. It was not research and I began to wonder how many people actually talk like this.

The most engaging presentation was by Claire Bennie, a research manager at the Peabody Trust. She presented a critique - or an audited report-back - on Bill Dunster's BedZed development. This was a refreshingly honest appraisal of a rarely criticised project.

The problems were many, she said. The much-vaunted density - an automatic sustainability point-scorer - has a detrimental effect on residents' privacy. By designing for solar orientation, the gable ends had been presented to the street instead of a more humane frontage.

The green roof spec was reasonable, but not installed very well, leading to 'difficult to locate' problems. Residents were actually annoyed about the lack of car parking. This last issue is very interesting and challenges a great transport myth, whereby the idea that it is good to deny people access to personal mobility is simply asserted by the great and the good who don't actually live there. Residents wanted car parking spaces primarily for family and friends, a demographic often ignored by social sustainability pundits.

Bennie continued: there were 'lots of teething problems with the woodchip CHP', not least the practicalities and cost in removing a 'great big pile of ash to landfill every month'; acoustic problems between flats are exacerbated because of the ventilation stacks; the feature cowls creak when they turn into the wind; the green roof run-off is 'contaminated' and Thames Water will not allow its use (plus it gets too much run-off and have to throw lots of it away).

Still not finished, she went on: the reclaimed timber incorporated lots of wastage because it wasn't sized to suit the job, and some residents complained about its quality. Reused steel was oversized because of limited availability, but it was deemed worth it to minimise the embodied energy - and then it had to be shipped 'halfway round the country to be painted'.

Her final admission about the photovoltaic cells, that 'we're not getting much electricity, to be honest' and that 'it costs about 17 per cent more for 'greenness'', was a fascinating rollercoaster ride through the realities of a sustainable project.

She said where post-occupancy manuals ask such things as 'did more birds come to visit our green roof?' it should be 'time to stop the greenwash'. For all the radicalism, Bennie was keen to reclaim sustainability from the bullshit - suggesting, for instance, that amending people's travel patterns is the biggest factor to be addressed. 'It is, ' she said, 'only a limited amount of social engineering that we can do.' This suggests she is not averse to curtailing liberties for 'the cause'.

Even so, her presentation was entertaining and challenging. That she has simply challenged people to finetune their sustainability audit criteria may not be as radical as it seemed at the time, but, all the same, it is a firstclass argument.

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