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World Green Building Week, and the progress of the UK’s low-carbon building agenda

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Footprint: The green building agenda is gathering pace but the task ahead is enormous, writes Hattie Hartman

This is World Green Building Week, an apt moment to reflect on the progress of the UK’s low-carbon building agenda. My week began early on Monday with the upbeat launch of Open-City’s Green Sky Thinking programme by Paul Morrell, the government’s chief construction adviser and chair of the DECC’s Green Deal Capacity & Innovation Forum. My hope is that this free knowledge-sharing initiative, which has returned for its second season after a three-year hiatus, will become an annual sequel to Open House. The week culminated with seven sustainable design events of interest running on Thursday evening.

Yet a chock-a-block diary does not a green built environment make. More pertinent perhaps, as we approach the award night, is this year’s RIBA Stirling Prize shortlist, a good litmus test of the profession. Sustainable design lies at the heart of three of the six shortlisted buildings. Hopkins Architects’ Velodrome at the Olympic Park, Bennetts Associates’ reworking of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and AHMM’s Angel Building are proof that architectural quality and low carbon design can go hand in hand. My understanding is that Pat Borer and David Lea’s Wales Institute for Sustainable Education at the Centre for Alternative Technology was a near-miss. Rammed earth construction on the Stirling Prize shortlist would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

This is partly due to the coming of age of longtime green practitioners. Bennetts Associates is on the Stirling Prize shortlist for the third time this year, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios are into their fourth decade, and Anne Thorne Architects marked their 20th anniversary this week. AHMM has invested in green design expertise over the last five years, and it clearly shows. Sustainable design is no longer at the margin of the profession, but too many practices have yet to develop real expertise in the field. This is not beyond the reach of any practice.
The growing influence of the UK Green Building Council is another important marker. Launched in 2007 with a staff of three, the organisation’s 16-strong team now coordinates a variety of work streams, task forces and events, which have made it the ‘go to’ organisation for cross-industry expertise in sustainability when it comes to government policy. Of its 360 members, 50 are architectural practices.

I have recently been party to two other design awards: the judging of the AJ’s 3R Awards (Refurb, Rethink, Retrofit) and the announcement of the European winners of the Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction Awards in Milan (supported by its UK representative, Aggregate Industries). Both these awards seek to promote replicable solutions. The overall winner of the 3R Awards will be announced in November - suffice it to say the quality is impressive. At the Holcim Awards 2011 for Europe, the ‘Next Generation’ award’s first prize went to a team from the Architectural Association’s Design Research Laboratory. They won $25,000 (£16,000) for Cast on Cast, a clever self-forming fabrication system for complex geometries, and plan to put the money towards a pending patent application.

The number of high-quality green projects in the pipeline should not disguise the enormity of the task that lies ahead. The 13th edition of The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, published last week, included for the first time maps that document the extent of climate change. Earlier this month, I chaired an AECOM panel on the integration of water management into urban design. Australian exemplars demonstrated how intelligent joined-up thinking about water could both solve problems and beautify cities.

An immediate challenge on our doorstep is the proposed 32km-long Thames Tunnel. This project, with its price tag of £3.8 billion, must be scrutinised to ensure that the full range of water management strategies - from improvements to the landscaping of the public realm to green roofs - go hand in hand with the tunnel design in order to minimise its size.

‘This should be architecture’s finest hour. The leap in our understanding of the Earth’s systems has profound implications for the built environment and presents huge opportunities to architects and engineers,’ writes Sunand Prasad in Scroope 20, the annual publication of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Architecture. The quality of the 2011 Stirling Prize shortlist lends this view credence.

However, to meet the challenge that lies ahead, we need more creative cross-disciplinary thinking to stimulate innovation in both education and practice. Events such as the launch of Open-City’s Green Sky Thinking programme and the Holcim Awards point the way.

Read the AJ’s blog on sustainability at www.ajfootprint.com. Footprint marked its third birthday this September. See 3R awards2011 shortlist at www.3rawards.com.

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