It’s time to turn talk about sustainable development and pockets of success into widespread, long-term delivery, says Nahid Majid
This summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games shone a spotlight not just on the UK’s sporting talent but also on our skills in design and environmental efficiency. I’m proud to say that the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment played a key role in our Olympic success by helping improve the design quality of the buildings in the park through our design reviews.
The Olympic park is, of course, a unique project and we will have to wait to see how successful the legacy is, not just for London, but the whole of the UK. The Olympic village has raised the bar for low carbon housing, but in general, housing continues to be a major contributor to climate change in terms of energy consumption and carbon emissions.
There has been a lot of activity around ensuring greater energy efficiency, and a growing commitment within the built environment industry and across government. But we now need to turn this into delivery, and really enable long-term sustainable development in the housing stock we adapt and build.
The eco-town idea, for example, was a step in the right direction, but there is more work to do. Cabe reviewed three eco-town proposals, where we strongly encouraged more innovative and aspirational solutions for each proposal, but unfortunately the programme lost momentum. I believe there is a real need for a new approach to sustainable urban planning in the UK.
It’s also worth reminding ourselves that only a small percentage of existing building stock will be replaced over coming decades. We therefore have to think more creatively about how best to refurbish old buildings. In an era of shrinking natural resources, the demolition of entire council estates and blocks of flats seems unreasonable when you take into account the loss of embodied energy.
Instead, shouldn’t we look at alternative ways these estates and buildings could be re-used? This is an interesting challenge for architects and designers: surely it’s not impossible to repeat the success of projects such as Saxton in Leeds, where two 1960s blocks that were earmarked for demolition were stripped back to their frames and then refurbished to create desirable, modern apartments.
The built environment can make it easier for people to have low carbon - and healthier - lifestyles. We can make stairs more obvious and inviting to reduce people’s reliance on lifts and provide pleasant public spaces and bicycle racks to encourage walking and cycling. More could be done to achieve this and to bring about behaviour change, and much needed change in our perceptions of green transport, recycling, composting and even self-sufficiency. We need to be embedding targets for climate change, energy consumption and renewable energy in local planning documents. And we need a more holistic approach to planning that brings housing, public and private transport, waste processing, energy generation and district heating systems closer together.
Cabe works with local communities, developers and planning authorities to adapt cities for climate change. We enable them find new opportunities to implement green infrastructure and new building standards as well as to have clean, well-designed infrastructure buildings at the heart of our communities. We know this is just the start, and, as we look to the great examples across Europe, we know that low carbon, sustainable housing is both achievable and affordable.
Nahid Majid is director of the design council at the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment