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Green case studies to treat with caution

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This is a marvellous idea for a book. The practice of architecture is a delicate balancing act: uniting art and science, it calls on intuition, spirit, and technical imagination and competence. Meanwhile the planet is being steered (by whom?) on a wobbly environmental course. To say 'it' will not survive only perpetuates our self-importance; it probably will, along with innumerable life forms, although its human inhabitants may burn or poison themselves off its face. After energy, water resources will be especially contentious, with international disputes already occurring over rivers and rain catchment. The spectre of tradeable co2 credits, allowing wealthy nations to continue to hold the developing world in debt, is sinister, and could perpetuate our devastating exploitation. The issues are much wider than architecture.

The shorthand 'green' is loaded with cultural and fashionable values - how many architects would not claim both an awareness of the issues, and a practical espousal of the cause in their work? The popularity of the claim requires a rigorous selectivity on the part of any author picking case studies. There is a need for some objective benchmarks. The bre's breeam assessment went some way towards these, but the debate needs to be advanced.

David Lloyd Jones acknowledges some of these difficulties in his opening chapters. Forty-four case studies form the bulk of the book. They are generally given four pages each, and cover most continents and a fair climatic range. They include some fascinating examples: for instance, a simple, consummately elegant paper church and paper-log house (cardboard tubes) in Japan, quirky wooden structures in Belgium and Japan, and more obvious cases like the bre low-energy office and Cullinan's lodge at Hooke Park.

Alongside the imaginative projects selected, there are some peculiar choices, and I wonder why these sneaked in while other architects who have been working away quietly on the fringes, or even in the mainstream, have been missed. The contributions of engineers are hardly mentioned.

The Thames Water Tower at Shepherd's Bush scores virtually nil in the list of performance criteria, and arguably its most important symbolic meaning in ecological terms is missed - its standing for the storage and distribution capacity of the new London water ring-main (if only they could stop the branch mains leaking). Similarly, some banal and commercial gas-guzzler offices have been presented (total energy use around 235 kWh/m2/y in England, when the best are at 70-80), perhaps for some photogenic or stylish feature. The landscaping and repair of a redundant viaduct in Paris is an intriguing case, but its social, environmental, or transportation potential is not addressed.

The book is presented as having a strong technical component. The case studies are listed with 27 performance indicators covering energy, hvac and environmental/health features. Energy consumption figures range by several orders of magnitude ( 3000:1) without comment, except for a solitary case where perhaps an editing query ('per month?') has been left in. This, and other inconsistencies, render the comparison of the case studies hazardous. An unreliable glossary defines entropy without mentioning its essential thermodynamic character; other terms are inadequately defined or omitted. High thermal transmittance is confused with high performance. Repeated errors in the units of energy, and confusion with power are inexcusable. It is a great pity that the technical and quantitative ingredients cannot be relied on.

More qualitative attributes are dealt with - spiritual harmony with site and setting (feng shui gets a passing mention in a short introductory paragraph) - and lead to some interesting inclusions. Some of these also have a more or less nil score in the performance criteria. The deficiency is not so much in the buildings as in the criteria, but there is a problem of picking objectively assessable characteristics.

To hope to skim over the realm of 'Worldwide Energy-Efficient Comfort Strategies' for 11 climate zones in four pages is wildly optimistic, and leads to curious anomalies and over-simplifications.

It is still a potent source book and, treated with caution, a valuable technical reference. Used with imagination it could be inspirational. If the publishers produce a revised edition, I hope they will bring it closer to what it might have been.

Simon Conolly, a partner in Akiboye Conolly Architects in west Cork, has built a number of low-energy buildings

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