Eco-architecture is beginning to have an impact on higher education, says Oliver Lowenstein
Earlier this week at the Royal Institute of British Architects, futurist Amory Lovins presented his vision for the future of building. Lovins is the public face of a far-reaching activist environmental research movement, coalesced around the key concept of Factor Four. This proposes that by halving energy needs and doubling productivity, efficiencies overall can be increased by a factor of four. Two years ago, Lovins and his cohorts upped the ante to factor ten. Crucially, supporters of the concept believe its wide-scale application could stabilise climate change.
Buildings and materials are central to the reforming strategy. The educational world is not yet up to speed on the particulars of the integrated design approach advocated by Lovins, but there are instances where the Factor Four argument is making headway. In the past six months, two ambitious building projects have opened that underscore this viewpoint. Nottingham University's Pounds 50-million Jubilee Campus, designed by Bill Taylor at Michael Hopkins Partnership is the larger, even if the less costly. University of East London's striking and photo-arresting Docklands Campus has garnered a larger sheath of admiring press clippings. Both integrate brownfield use and aspire to urban regeneration.
The latter has been hailed by no less than Sir Peter Hall as "an outstandingly innovative concept, seeking to build the knowledge-based economy in the heart of Europe's biggest exercise in planned urban regeneration".
Each project sets precedents for integrating the sustainability agenda across a whole site, rather than within single buildings. Indeed, looking up at the Nottingham site's striking wind cowls, sitting aloft the main building's futuristic hybrid of environmental features, it is easy to imagine that the convergence of high and low-tech design solutions has come of age. Amid the steel frame, cedar cladding provides an aura of eco-design. The airy glass-ceilinged atria are decked out with 450m2 of experimental photovoltaic cells to power ventilation fans. The walls are invisibly insulated with recycled paper Warmcell, while lichen-and-moss roofing add thermal mass to the top floors of these main buildings. The site sits compactly between a gasworks to its north and bungalows, cutting a pencil line along another environmental feature - an engineered lake, which recycles rainwater and maintains various ecological equilibria.
The potential for energy savings is significant, the publicity literature claiming a 60 per cent energy reduction.
Architecturally, these sorts of projects are the confluence of two distinctive schools. First, there have been practices such as Feilden Clegg, EDP, and Cullinan's; early green practices that have grown to take on sizeable projects. Second, establishment "name" practices such as Hopkins, Rogers, and Grimshaw who have tuned their high-tech dreamings towards specifically ecological - albeit high-tech - goals. With higher education constituting about 20 per cent of the country's large-scale building projects, the potential for influencing the wider community both within and beyond the campus gates remains considerable.
Richard Feilden, of Feilden Clegg, believes that the higher education sector has been comparatively responsive. "They are purveyors of intellectual content, and there appears to be a commitment to house this content in long-term buildings that reflect this intellectual bias," he states. The Higher Education Funding Council for England believes, particularly after the generic energy nightmares of 1960s buildings, there are many benefits in integrating sustainability into the university estates' briefs as part of an overall best-practice management strategy. With the estate management strategy plans from institutions due back at Hefce in the summer, and with many in the sector publishing sustainable policies, it will be interesting to see how many new major capital projects integrating a conscious green agenda will be on the table in the near future.
Projects remain one-offs and although there is change, with a greater receptivity to sustainability included in project briefs, results are highly variable. Feilden cautions that "the level of expertise within an institution to determine whether they are getting genuinely environmentally appropriate buildings is likely to be low".
For the most part, the definitions of sustainability get stuck at low-energy buildings: the embodied energy and materials dimension is a second wave, although Cullinan's Docklands project recycled 20,000m3 of contaminated soil, rather than remove and replace the soil. Peter Warm of the Association of Environmentally Conscious Building points out that the energy issue is part-way through a 20-year cycle. He says: "We're about 15 years through. It took the first ten years to raise people's awareness. There's all sorts of research into materials across higher education, but it doesn't seem to feed through to the people who actually design the buildings that the research happens in - there is a huge void."
More confident is Chris McCarthy, of Battle McCarthy, landscape architects for Jubilee Campus. He believes that information on embodied energy and materials is trailing energy by five years, but that "the data is coming through".
Key issues for McCarthy include greater flexibility of elements of buildings so that they can be used and re-used. He asks why, for instance, there are different staircase widths and different sheets of window glass rather than one reusable size. He calls this "modularisation, not standardisation": "We're interested in the carcass of the building so that 30 per cent of the skeleton can be recycled". Such an approach, McCarthy argues, tends towards less muscle, more brain, the multiplicity of effects feeding through to provide a pragmatic, holistic approach to building design and construction.
Oliver Lowenstein is editor of Fourth Door Review, website: www.netset3.com/fourthdoor Email: fourthdoorpavilion.co.uk