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2012: The year of... Sustainable design

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London 2012 was a sustainable highlight of the year, but what happens next is the big question

A surge in projects informed by green design abounded this year in the RIBA and AJ Small Projects awards, such as NEX’s Times Eureka Pavilion at Kew Gardens (1).

Open-City’s Victoria Thornton also observed sustainability throughout her organisation’s global network. Brought home by the Olympics, an increased awareness of the key role of landscape is welcome. Equally significant although still in its infancy is Soft Landings, a government directive on user engagement and building aftercare, set to be launched in 2016.

It’s not all good news though. London 2012 – with all its glory and feel-good factor – is still only a mega-event. What happens next in Stratford is the big question, as well as how the sustainable practices adopted during the Games will impact on business as usual in UK construction and in Rio. The Green Deal is fraught with confusion and uncertainty. Below are five action points for 2013:

The emotive power of landscape

2012 will go down as the year British landscape design reinvented itself. Two of the main talking points, the Olympics and green infrastructure, have put the emotive power of quality landscape design firmly in the public eye and in professional consciousness. Last December, tell-tale signs hinted that landscape was starting to earn its place at the top table: Dan Pearson as a Stirling Prize judge, Luke Engleback’s pioneering work for Kevin McCloud in Swindon, the promise of the Olympic Park (2).

2012 will go down as the year British landscape design reinvented itself

The horticultural feast masterminded by the Olympic Delivery Authority’s John Hopkins and presented to a global audience by the Olympic Park landscape team (Hargreaves Associates, LDA Design, Nigel Dunnett, James Hitchmough, Sarah Price et al) made that promise real. The excellent Landscape Institute videos on YouTube are a must-see. Similarly, at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, this year’s World Architecture Festival winner, integrated landscape design is the glue that makes the project exceptional.

(3) Y/N Studio's shortlisted entry in the Highline for London competition

(3) Y/N Studio’s shortlisted entry in the Highline for London competition

Supported by the mayor and the Garden Museum, the Landscape Institute-led High Line for London competition rode the swell of London’s summer of euphoria, attracting 170 entries. The potential of such competitions to unearth modest ideas of promise is evidenced by Forgotten Spaces 2011 and the accompanying exhibition at Somerset House, which attracted many thousands of visitors. Alex Scott-Whitby’s winning scheme (IN)Spires – a re-use proposal for City of London church spires – now has three projects under negotiation. It was encouraging that at the invitation of the mayor’s office, the exhibition of shortlisted schemes (3) for the High Line competition was extended and relocated to City Hall. HTA’s Bridge-It, a compelling proposal for new cycleways over existing transport thoroughfares, warrants an immediate London-wide feasibility study. Other schemes are immediately viable and scaleable – planted barges on the Thames, proposed by Erica Richmond and Peggy Pei-Chi Chi, or Wynne James’ green bus-shelter roofs – with modest initial investment.

Resolution 1: Engage a landscape designer at the outset of your project.

The value of a sustainability award

To improve we need exemplars. This year all 10 RIBA regions singled out a building for a sustainability award; these projects point the way forward. In another key move, the Stirling Prize jury tightened up the submission requirements for environmental metrics and reviewed the shortlisted projects for their sustainability ambition. But the RIBA still eschews the idea of an annual sustainability award, for which Adam Khan Architects’ Brockholes Visitor Centre is a clear candidate. In a recent AJ Footprint reader poll, 87 per cent of respondents voted in favor of a sustainability award.

Resolution 2: RIBA national should reinstate an annual award for best sustainable building.

What does the Green Deal mean to me?

We all know that retrofit is a messy business, even in the smoothest of projects. The Green Deal boondoggle has fostered massive confusion in the domestic retrofit market. A lack of joined-up thinking means long-term impacts have yet to be properly assessed in terms of building physics. Installation of non-breathable insulation could cause future condensation problems. Serious engagement with mortgage lenders and estate agencies is required to clarify implications on resale value.

Resolution 3: Measure your own carbon footprint and trial the challenges of domestic retrofit at home.

Time to get ready for Soft Landings

A more hopeful glimmer on the policy front is the Cabinet Office’s imminent announcement of Government Soft Landings, an extended pre-and-post commissioning user-engagement and building-aftercare process. Come 2016, this will be mandatory for the government estate, with a knock-on effect for local authorities. This is a very promising step towards addressing the building-performance gap.

With six commissions underway, a dedicated Soft Landings team at Max Fordham is both a champion and a facilitator on projects ranging from the South Bank redevelopment to leisure centres with Studio E. According to Max Fordham team leader Tamsin Tweddell, BSRIA’s Soft Landings framework is not just something you can pick up and get right the first time. ‘It is rather like the RIBA Plan of Work in that it assumes a whole set of skills and knowledge,’ she says. It also needs to be woven into a project early on, ideally at Stage B or C.

Resolution 4: Familiarise yourself with the Soft Landings framework and introduce it to clients at briefing stage.

The ‘electric’ city will shape our future

Increased discussion about smart cities – epitomised by Wilkinson Eyre and Siemens’ Crystal at the Royal Docks (4) – and debate at this month’s Electric City conference at the London School of Economics raises a host of new issues. According to director of the Design Museum, Deyan Sudjic, ‘an electric city is one that is continuously monitored by surveillance cameras and navigated by GPS systems, which make London taxi drivers’ painstakinglyacquired knowledge as nostalgically useless as the vinyl records some of us can’t bear to discard.’ That is clearly a double-edged sword.

(4) Wilkinson Eyre and Siemens' Crystal at the Royal Docks

(4) Wilkinson Eyre and Siemens’ Crystal at the Royal Docks

Even the prime minister has grasped that the electric city has dramatic implications, proposing 00:/’s building on a roundabout at Old Street as an innovation hub. As architect Tim Stonor has eloquently articulated, this £50 million proposal misses the point and contributes little to resolving the dire state of the public realm at this important London interchange.

Resolution 5: Watch this space and don’t throw out your vinyl LPs yet.

Sustainability is still disparaged by some as a meaningless badge and critiqued by others who prefer terms such as ‘scarcity’ or ‘sustaining identity’, which imply broader takes on the subject but the bottom line is it is increasingly embedded in UK design practice. London 2012 contributed to the discourse, but are the permanent venues using Soft Landings? They should.

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