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Eco Architects – The Real Deal?

Gordon Brown has promised to double the number of ‘eco-towns’ to be built across the UK from five to ten, boosting house building to the tune of 240,000 homes a year.  He says he’s been encouraged to expand his eco plans so considerably thanks to the positive response from councils, developers and some housebuilders.

Each eco-town will have 5,000 to 20,000 new homes. They will be zero carbon and have good facilities and good transport links. Importantly, each will be an exemplar in at least one eco-technology.

I applaud the vision.  Only by wholeheartedly embracing sustainable techniques can we create housing which will be viable and affordable for the next 100 years.  But a recent project required me to carry out a detailed review of the eco architectural market to identify a suitable candidate to handle a major eco build project for a client.  The results surprised me and seemed to sound a wake up call to many architects – and indeed builders – practicing in the UK today.   Let me share with you the key findings.

Perhaps their marketing is at fault, but far too many of those who described themselves as eco architects gave the impression that they were doing little more than designing buildings in the same old way and ‘bolting on’ eco technology.  As we know, true eco building requires a radically new approach to architectural design with energy use designed out at the base level.  It’s not simply a case of adding on ‘eco gadgetry’.  Heating techniques such as geo-thermal heat exchange, for instance, which requires expensive pumping is energy hungry in itself.   We have to ask ourselves the question in a properly designed building is it really necessary?

It’s the lack of will or ability to review fundamentally the science of building construction that fuels the myth that eco building is expensive and out of the reach of most people.  This does a disservice not only to home-owners in the UK who take environmental issues increasingly seriously but also to the architects and builders who make a living out of serving them.

Eco-building, if done properly, is often cheaper than traditional construction.  For instance, I know of four eco homes built in Norfolk which have total outgoings, before council tax, of less than £3 per week and which also cost less to build in the first place than conventional non-eco houses of that size.  They are an example of eco housing will is also truly affordable for all concerned, including the tenants.

On another building project I came across recently, a simple stroke of the architect’s pen had meant that the builder on site was to use steel where timber could have been used. Fortunately the design was quickly amended in this case but it’s a good demonstration of how a good designer can help the environment while saving the developer money.

So, if my review was accurate, while many of our architects may claim to be eco-architects, a far smaller number are the genuine article.  Given the vital importance of the rapid adoption of greener building techniques in the UK, this is an issue that the profession should be addressing urgently.  We must understand what more we need to do to ensure our architects are equipped with the science and experience in true eco building. Otherwise where are the architects and eco-builders required to build Gordon’s eco-towns going to come from?

As an aside, I think there’s a risk that architects won’t be involved at all unless they can get their foot in the door quickly! There’s such pressure to deliver the housing that it’s likely that volume house builders will fight to do the absolute minimum to reach the pretty paltry eco-standards set by the Government.

But let’s not be too bleak.  We also have a few real trail blazers of genuine eco building techniques operating in the UK today.  They are producing stunning work, which shatters the notion that eco building is expensive or requires a sackcloth and ashes existence for those living in the end product.

For instance, I came across one major eco planned house recently, which will use water lavishly, with showerheads the size of dinner plates and water features in the garden.  How wasteful I hear you cry!

Absolutely not. The house will be entirely autonomous in its water requirements using a range of harvesting and recycling techniques to ensure that water is used and reused from beautiful garden water features, with no waste and no requirement for additional supplies.  I have no problem with resource usage – so long as it’s sustainable.

Water harvesting is, of course, not new technology. It is common-sense technology! A colleague from South Africa cannot believe that the UK is so far behind with the use of water harvesting technology, particularly given the amount of rain we have. And when I say ‘technology’, bear in mind what I’m actually talking about is a large tank and a little extra plumbing!

On larger schemes, the team at the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment are championing the creation of places which work both for those who develop them and those who live in them. On developments where they have been involved you will find volume house builders, but you will also find smaller developers, who do use architects to design their homes and who are leading the field in creating homes that are both sustainable and readily saleable.  Poundbury in Dorset and Upton in Northamptonshire are two pioneering examples.

So what do our architects and developers need to do to build the skill sets and knowledge they need to ensure they’re well placed to offer the true eco building ideas we need for the future? My advice to them is to:

  • Learn, understand and apply the basic science of construction. It can dramatically reduce the energy requirement and virtually eliminate heating needs.
  • Keep up with technology. There’s a revolution afoot in eco-technology with a whole range of new products coming on to the market. The skill for our architects lies in knowing which technologies are essential and which are just ‘eco-bolt ons’.
  • Learn from the past. With some traditional products and techniques, such as hemp, lime and various forms of building mass construction coming back into use, it’s clear that many of these techniques still work very effectively yet have been lost in the tide of technology and building regulations. Its time for rediscovery.
  • Learn from the pioneers. Find out more about the groundbreaking work that is underway thanks to various eco-research centers around the country and also organisations such as the Prince’s Foundation.

There’s no doubt that Gordon Brown’s announcement provides a huge opportunity as well as a great challenge. New buildings and, indeed, new towns, offer exciting scope for designing whole environments that are truly sustainable. At the same time as delivering vast numbers of new homes each year, we must embrace the challenge of making them zero carbon by the target 2016.

This requires a fundamental rethink about how we construct homes for the 21st century needs a new mindset both among architects and indeed all the building professions. I’ve seen some encouraging signs so far but, as 2008 gets underway, my plea is that they all move from tinkering at the edges to a real acknowledgement of the fundamentals of true eco-construction.    We simply can’t afford them not to.

The challenge is great, but the rewards to our communities and our precious environment, almost priceless – let’s embrace these opportunities and move forward to a healthier and cheaper world!

Nick Woolley is a former Chief Land Agent of Prudential Corporation.  Since founding Woolley & Company (www.woolley.co.uk), he’s become an expert on sustainable building with clients including government agencies, corporates, institutions, charities and individuals.  He’s involved in eco projects throughout the UK. 

ABCD | January 2008

January 5th, 2008
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