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There's a long way to go to get sustainable design integrated in architects' training

Hattie Hartman
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The loci of student activity which suggest promising ways forward, writes Hattie Hartman

In this, our annual student issue, Sheffield School of Architecture head Fionn Stevenson and professor of sustainable urbanism Irena Bauman forcefully argue that schools of architecture are largely in disavowal of climate change. Indeed, there is a long way to go; yet there are loci of activity which suggest promising ways forward.

The University of Brighton’s Waste House, the brainchild of BBM Sustainable Design’s Duncan Baker-Brown, is one of the more provocative initiatives. On land donated by the university, more than 250 students have participated in building a house almost entirely from salvaged materials. The many learning outcomes range from understanding vapour barriers to getting to grips with the challenges of airtightness. Students spent many hours sealing window joints with used bicycle inner tubes. Those students will begin their professional lives well-equipped for site supervision.

The Scottish Environmental Design Association (SEDA) recently awarded its second annual Krystyna Johnson Award to Edinburgh University student Cameron Bray for a sustainable housing scheme adjacent to the Commonwealth Games Athletes Village, which included provision for residents to grow their own food.

The KJ Award recognises a second-year student project which embodies sustainability and good design. SEDA co-ordinates the judging, in which a second-year tutor from each of the five Scottish schools and a guest school (Sheffield this year) jointly review the projects and nominate one winner/school. This award has two important outcomes: it provides a pretext for tutors to review all second-year output with a sustainable design lens and it promotes exchange between schools on this topic. Winners are invited to present at SEDA’s annual conference, where an overall winner is selected.

An exhibition and talk will follow at the Lighthouse in Glasgow in November. SEDA chairman Chris Stewart of Collective Architecture explains the rationale behind the award to a second-year student: ‘Students have a grounding in architectural skills and they are still open-minded.’  This highlights the importance of integrating sustainable design teaching in undergraduate courses. The University of Sheffield has recently revised its technology curriculum to integrate green thinking in design projects and introduced a new module on building physics. Sustainability knowledge abounds in postgraduate courses but there is too often a disconnect between postgraduate expertise, faculty research and undergraduate teaching.

While what’s going on in our architecture schools will shape the next generation, this year’s Stirling Prize shortlist is a barometer of British architecture now. And it is encouraging. Of the six projects shortlisted, three are embedded with sustainable thinking (the LSE, Manchester School of Art, and the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool), another two pay it more than lip service (Birmingham Library and The Shard), and only one disappoints (the Olympic Aquatics Centre).

My pick: the LSE, because it drives sustainable design principles home and ingeniously crafts beautiful spaces on a very challenging site. It is proof that outstanding green design can be memorable, good design, too. My runner-up is the Everyman Theatre, where a sustainable brief informed location and massing and many material choices, all elegantly resolved on a tight urban site. But I wouldn’t mind the Shard winning, either.

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