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Green hopes gone with the wind

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President Bush's recent denouncement of the Kyoto agreement puts pressure on architects to design with the planet in mind. David Littlefield reports

On the eve of George W Bush's shock announcement that the US economy was more important than the threat of climate change, environmental campaigner Sir Crispin Tickell told UK architects that the world needed 'some useful catastrophe to jerk us out of our inertia: big, but not too big'.

After painting a grim picture of the depletion and pollution of the Earth's resources last week, Tickell urged his audience to rethink cherished beliefs - even if it meant a change in attitude towards nuclear power.

'It's fair to say that, in architecture and planning, we need a whole new look at how we're going to organise our cities and our housing, ' he told the Associate Parliamentary Group on Architecture and Planning, meeting at the House of Commons.

'There's always the thought that if we don't take care of these issues, then Mother Nature might take care of us.'

Sir Crispin's statistics make grim reading. They include that: the demand for fresh water has doubled in the past 20 years; carbon emissions have increased by a factor of 17 over the past century; the human population is now four times the size it was in 1900; and sea levels are predicted to rise half a metre by the middle of the next century.

None of these figures appear to have made any impact on the new US president, however, who has abandoned the 1997 Kyoto protocol which sought to reduce the carbon emissions of industrialised countries by at least 5 per cent on 1990 levels.

'Some countries are still increasing their emissions. The Americans are increasing theirs without a care in the world, ' said Sir Crispin, a former ambassador to the UN and a contributor to Lord Rogers' book, Cities for a Small Planet.

'We have created what future generations will see as a very strange society, hooked like a fish on fossil fuels. . . if we don't do anything now, we'll be in deep trouble. I don't rule out building new nuclear power stations, but then you would have to have a change in public attitudes.'

Sir Crispin also flagged up the benefits of other power-generation technologies, including wind and photo-voltaics. But wind, he believes, will always remain a minority player, although this has not stopped outgoing RIBA president Marco Goldschmied from launching his own demonstration project in the shape of two wind turbines on the roof of the institute's headquarters in Portland Place. A planning application was lodged with Westminster council a fortnight ago, but the RIBA is anticipating complaints from local residents, so house architect Allies and Morrison is set to carry out an impact study looking at the noise and shadow generated by the 13m high masts.

This project is part of a wider overhaul of the building's environmental performance, and work has started on replacing the 64-year-old boilers with modern ones, a move that is expected to reduce the RIBA's CO 2emissions by 26 per cent. The 2.5m diameter turbines, however, are more of a gesture and, at just 2,500W each, will make very little difference to the building. Baz Dickson, RIBA director of resource and development, calls the project a 'practical demonstration' of the electricity which can be harvested from alternative resources.

But the RIBA's vice-president for sustainability, Peter Smith, adds a note of caution. He believes that no more than 5 per cent of the UK's energy needs will ever be generated by wind, mainly because it is so unpredictable over land (and especially over cities).

'The only answer is siting turbines offshore because the wind is constant and fairly reliable, ' he said. If not offshore, then Smith would prefer them to be set within the fabric of a building, along the lines of the structures being developed by Altechnica, an alternative energy firm led by Open University lecturer Dr Derek Taylor. He has developed what he calls the 'Aeolian roof ', a structure which sandwiches small turbines between curved surfaces which accelerate the wind so much that the turbines can be much smaller. This reduces cost, visibility and noise. 'What we're looking for is something close to the noise of an extractor fan, ' he said.

Wind tunnel tests have already produced positive results, and Dr Taylor is now looking for a manufacturer to help develop a full-scale version of the structure.

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