Architects doubt benefits of 'greenwash ecotecture'

Adapting existing buildings should be best practice for sector, critics state. Hannah Fearn reports

December 17, 2009

Universities have been accused of "greenwashing" by an architect who cast doubt on their claims to be "passionate" about sustainability.

The criticism was coupled with a warning that efforts to improve the environmental credentials of campuses are often unsustainable and misguided.

Speaking after a recent conference in London, architects accused universities of pulling down good buildings to erect new ones in a bid to appear green.

They also claimed that institutions were failing to manage their campuses efficiently.

Rod McAllister, partner at Sheppard Robson, told the Higher Education Buildings conference last month that he was sceptical about universities' professed environmental zeal.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, he said: "I don't buy it. A lot of it is just greenwash. There's a lot of tearing down buildings and putting up highly efficient new ones, when it is much better to adapt existing structures.

"I think the future of sustainability, for architects and for universities, is about adaptation and reuse."

Citing the successful transformation of London's Bankside Power Station into the Tate Modern, he said improving existing buildings should be "best practice" for the academy.

He also bemoaned the rise of "ecotecture" on campus - buildings that wear their green credentials on their sleeves with solar panels and other obvious eco-features.

"Instead of elegant buildings, we're getting ones with lots of things sticking out," he said.

Lawrence Brett, head of higher education at construction consultants Davis Langdon, also claimed that universities were failing to manage their estates efficiently.

"Money is going to get tighter. We have got to look for alternative sources of funding and realise that there is an awful lot of value in existing estates," he said.

Universities should be "working the estate harder and smarter", he added.

"Is the estate being used full time? Not really. There is a resistance among academics to giving up space."

Commitment to sustainability

Diana Hampson, treasurer of the Association of University Directors of Estates and director of estates at the University of Manchester, rejected the comments as ill-informed.

"Universities have spent an awful lot of time thinking about sustainability issues," she said.

She said that directors of estates and other colleagues "agonise over which option we should go for. These decisions are not taken lightly."

She added that a number of institutions, including the universities of Birmingham and Sheffield, were already working on innovative refurbishment programmes for their 1960s-constructed buildings.

Discussions about how to use space more efficiently were also under way, she said.

But Iain Patton, executive director of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges, agreed with the architects' criticisms and said the academy was failing to apply its insights to its own estates.

"The challenge for us in higher education is to refurbish our existing stock, to take it and make it fit for purpose.

"We have the cutting-edge research and academic thought going into how we regenerate buildings, but that research is always outward-facing and we're not getting the benefits," he said.

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