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Sustainable architects – a potted history

The Crystal London, a LEED platinum and BREEAM Outstanding sustainable building


“I don’t think that sustainability is a design aesthetic, any more than having electricity in your building…It is an ethic, a basic consideration that we have as architects designing buildings”  Robert Stern, Dean of Yale School of Architecture- Environment Yale magazine 2010.

Stern illustrated his comments with a picture of a “green” Dutch  garage with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, and while it might have seemed crass to extol a temporary parking garage as an icon of sustainable architecture; there is an larger  irony here as Stern also  prophesised

“In ten years we are not going to talk about sustainability anymore, because it is going to be built into the core processes of architecture”

I remember thinking similar things in the mid 1980s as a fellow traveller with Earth Resources Research Ltd and as a committed local authority community architect but then having real difficulty in a planning permission because the proposed additional external insulation would move the building line 100 mm nearer the road 15 (a project for external insulation combined with new windows and heating systems on an East London estate)

BREAM  and CSH the LEED equivalents in Britain are both central to some political ideas on sustainability but are  more observed in the breach and seen by many architects and clients as a costly hindrance and by climate change deniers as  on a par with wind farms, Yet it’s also  true that  their bureaucratic complexity means its difficult to sell them as  enabler for good building that provide  sustainable living. Passivhaus at least has the advantage of being clearer and focussed on effecting energy consumption and the cost of living in buildings although there still seems to be too many opportunities to add unreasonable administrative costs.

They undeniably add non-productive cost in planning process to building costs and for the public sector a cost they have to build in that others might avoid. For some planners they do provide a nice complex set of rules to administer so they can avoid the more difficult processes of creative thinking in creating sustainable environments.

The “3 tier” changes to the Building Regulations and the continuing get outs in Bream and the shenanigans on Zero Carbon are a dangerous continuation of the   Its more than ironic that the Government proposal for providing homes for first time buyers sees 20% cost reductions in ignoring its own

Stern’s 10 year prophecy seems to be going wrong in the typical way of western “bureaucracies”.  Yet most young architects and environmental scientists I meet do have sustainability is part of the their mindset; I fear for them unless we can change direction and that sustainability becomes part of societies mindset not a 3 tier circus nor  a bureaucratic justification exercise or  “how can we avoid it game”

Bill Brown RIBA – Managing Director – SDC ltd