Built to consume

Sustainable Architecture and High Technology
February 13, 1998

Catherine Slessor's awareness of sustainability is eloquently summarised by her description of the new Kansai Airport in Japan. We are told that the airport has been built because existing capacity elsewhere was full, that three mountains were demolished to provide the material for the artificial island on which it is built and that it can operate 24 hours a day. It is remarkable that one project and one description can illustrate so clearly the very essence of non-sustainability. The author is oblivious to the debate about environmental damage from aviation, greenhouse gases and the need to reduce them, damage to the upper atmosphere and the evidence from around the world about health damage from air pollutants in the vicinity of airports.

In this respect Slessor is in good company. Richard Rogers professes a keen sense of awareness of community, city liveability and civilised spaces - and at the same time he has been very silent on the noise and air pollution that will be imposed on the residents of Hillingdon and Hounslow as a result of his Terminal 5 project at Heathrow. It is clear that architects have discovered a new language and a new set of principles, but equally clear that the airports and land-greedy traffic-generators presented with such enthusiasm in this book are identical in concept to the tower blocks and the 1960s shopping malls that we are now demolishing. The similarity lies in the disconnected thinking about the totality of impacts a building or a development has on all those who will see it, use it, accept its noise and pollution and generally put up with the consequences of the architect's dream world.

The first project described in this book provides a completely disconnected set of images and descriptions. The Western Morning News headquarters in Plymouth designed by Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners is a bold and visually impressive building. But like almost every other project in this book, it has absolutely nothing to do with sustainability or ecological design. Its materials are energy intensive (glass and steel) and the impact of this over the lifetime of the building and later (when it will be disposed of) is large in terms of global warming, acidification, biodiversity, smog and human health impacts. The building has been parachuted into a classic edge-of-town location. Almost all of the staff travel by car, and physical contact between what goes on in this building and what goes on off site will be by car and lorry. This traffic will add its own tide of pollution, accidents, health damage and demand for concrete and tarmac across Devon and Cornwall. The traffic to this building and its car parks has to struggle with the traffic to Plymouth Airport and Derriford Hospital and is often clogged up at the Derriford roundabout. The location is an environmental disaster and a big problem for planners and residents, who now have to try to live with and unscramble the mess left by the architect.

It need not be like this: sustainability is all about alternatives and creativity. The Western Morning News building could have been on another site. It could have been housed in one of the many attractive redevelopment sites in the built-up area of Plymouth that would be more accessible to workers (less travel) and less demanding of greenfield locations. The building could have been designed so that 95 per cent of all travel to and from it was by foot, bike and public transport. This is possible, but as it involves joined-up thinking rather than the disjointed thinking that passes for eco-architecture, it is not done.

Slessor's book is a celebration of clever architects doing clever things. The photographs are excellent, though not one of them shows a well-filled car park, traffic jam at 8.30am or dirty aircraft stacked up over the large residential area that has no choice but to put up with nuisance. It is a celebration of unsustainable, uncaring, selfish architecture that is all the more unforgivable for the attempt to capitalise on the language and importance of sustainability and environmental design principles.

The failure is technical as well as conceptual. Sustainability is all about defining and respecting ecological or environmental limits. This means we have to be acutely aware of all of our impacts. If there are ways of reducing water consumption in homes and offices, we should put them into practice. If we can reduce waste by using less, recycling and replacing wasteful, one-way disposal systems with closed-loop systems, we should do so. If we can fly less and use tele-conferencing more, we should do so. There is no discussion of these issues in this book. It is as if the buildings do not consume anything, do not produce waste and do not generate traffic. They are unintelligent buildings because they do not communicate with their social, environmental and community contexts.

There is very little discussion of internal air quality in these buildings. Eco-design is very clear on the use of non-toxic, non-hazardous, low embodied-energy products in buildings. This is also missing. We get a small taster in the description of the Nottingham Inland Revenue headquarters, but does this building reduce its energy consumption to 10 per cent of what a "standard" building would deliver? Just as we can get car traffic down to 10 per cent of a standard "car junkie" design, so we can get energy and water use down.

Clearly, being able to do something is not the same as actually doing it. Do architects persuade clients to go for low-energy, ecologically responsible buildings? Are there major cultural or educational problems that prevent architects thinking about the whole picture? How should an architect approach a design brief for Heathrow Terminal 5? Is the Nuremberg defence acceptable? Architects are either part of the problem or part of the solution; and on an energy, life-cycle, community and environmental audit of the projects in this book, they are definitely part of the problem.

John Whitelegg is at the School of the Built Environment, Liverpool John Moores University.

Sustainable Architecture and High Technology

Author - Catherine Slessor
ISBN - 0 500 34157 5
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £29.95
Pages - 192

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