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November 19 2011

A grand design for British housing

The Channel 4 presenter turned enlightened property developer just wants to make people happy, he says

A former editor of mine was fond of saying, as he watched his eminent colleagues accept toxic invitations to advise on projects such as the Millennium Dome, that "journalists can't do things". We might spend our lives telling others how to save the euro, or select an England team, or design a skyscraper, but when it comes to organising people to achieve a shared aim, we tend to lack patience or the ability to work towards a deadline months rather than days away. Writers tend to be individualists, looking for new discoveries, not methodical team players.

The same could be true, with knobs on, for TV presenters. So it is striking that Kevin McCloud, presenter of Grand Designs, should now be trying his hand as an enlightened property developer. For years, he has cast his eye over the hopes, follies and struggles of people trying to build beautiful homes for themselves. Now he is daring to show how it should, or could, be done. "I would get on a train to go from one location to another," he says, "and pass another 5,000 houses in Ilfracombe or Norwich or Aberdeen and they would all look the same. I thought, 'Is this the best we can do?' "

Five years ago, he set up a company called Hab (Happiness Architecture Beauty) in order to "build houses that make people happy". The recession has slowed its progress, but its first creation, a 42-home development in Swindon called the Triangle, is now complete. Next month, Channel 4 is screening Kevin's Grand Design, a two-part documentary about the project, which was achieved in partnership with the housing association, GreenSquare Group. When it is suggested that the attention these programmes will attract will be a double-edged sword, he says: "It will be a one-edged sword with the blade laid across my throat."

He is addressing the great British housing problem. For decades, it has been plain that new houses are unimaginative, overpriced, undersized and resistant to the kind of technical improvement that is standard in industries such as car making. Changes in planning law, to improve design or make housing more accessible, are forever tried and forever failing. The rather daunting task he has set himself is to deflect the glacial flow of change, to make "a very significant difference from conventional development".

With his trademark energetic enthusiasm, he reels off technical details about attenuation tanks and swales. He wants to create a truly sustainable development. So the Triangle's open spaces are designed to soak up rainwater, so that the risk of flooding is lowered, the pressure on Swindon's drainage is reduced and the planting remains lush in hot weather. It has what Hab's design director, Isabel Allen, calls a "muddy, soggy landscape" which has the added benefit that it is fun for children to play in it.

The external walls of the houses are made out of hempcrete, a material that is not only highly insulating but, being made out of a plant – hemp – takes more carbon out of the atmosphere than it puts in. The houses also have chimney-like objects on their roofs, which are actually ventilators, that help the houses to cool naturally.

"Anyone can build an eco-home," he says, "but it doesn't solve anything. There is nothing to stop them turning up the thermostat. What's more interesting is the way people live and behave." So the Triangle has allotments and polytunnels where people can grow their own food, and a car club and a scooter club that make their use of transport less wasteful. He sees such things as more important than the design features of individual houses.

Most of all, McCloud wants to create a community. The houses of the Triangle are arranged in traditional terraces, enclosing a kind of village green. Here, children can play on slopes and interestingly arranged logs and splash in water. Conventional swings and slides are avoided, however, on the grounds that these would mark the place as only for children and alienate the adults and teenagers who, it is hoped, will also enjoy the green.

Part of the point of the allotments and polytunnels is to bring people together and such things as barbecues and Halloween parties are encouraged. Irrigation is achieved with old-fashioned water pumps – more fun than standpipes – around which residents might gather. Each house is fitted with a "shimmy" – a touch-screen computer that McCloud calls a cross between "an iPad and a parish magazine". This enables residents to exchange information, help and advice and tells them about upcoming events.

Of the 42 homes, 21 are what is called "social rented", which is for people on the local authority's list of people in need of new homes. Eleven are "intermediate rented", which is at 80% of the market rent. Ten are "rent to buy", which means people rent them at below-market rates, with a view to saving for a deposit and ultimately buying their homes. There is therefore a mixture of people: teachers, retirees, single mothers formerly in council hostels, families who were in accommodation for the homeless.

The Triangle is so designed that no distinction is made between the house types. This, says McCloud, is "unlike schemes, including one that won the Stirling prize" – he means the Accordia development in Cambridge – "where the houses for sale are lovely and the social stuff is behind a wall".

It is striking, with all this ingenuity in the design, how very plain-looking the houses are. Any Grand Designs fan expecting another of the exotic creations featured in the programme will be disappointed. They are pitched-roofed, in straight rows, partly inspired by the railway workers' cottages that Brunel built in Swindon. Their elevations are in shades of cream and grey that echo the existing terraces and semi-detacheds of this part of town.

Glenn Howells, the architect of the Triangle, says that "the conversation we had was, 'Do we have the nerve to do something very, very normal?' With Kevin, everyone was expecting it to be more eye-catching, more televisual. People go there and say, 'Blimey, it looks normal.' That's the point." The idea of the terrace, he says, "started a long time ago and it will go on for another 500 or 600 years. It is such a good form". The only problem is that "there is a perception in the housing market that it won't sell, so developers have to make things convoluted, even though those to-die-for streets of Islington, where Boris Johnson lives, are all repetitive".

The aim, says Howells, is to "prove you can do excellent ordinary housing that sells and that people want to live in". It is about little things achieved within the standard budget for housing association developments – apart from a little additional support for some of the more adventurous environmental features. Bedroom doors are placed away from corners, so it is possible to place wardrobes behind them, and windows are larger than in most new housing. Ceilings are higher than standard on the ground floor (which means, to stay within budget, they are lower upstairs). The porches include space for bike racks, so that they don't have to be lugged through houses from the back garden, which makes it more likely they will be used.

On the outside, architectural expression is sought in such things as oversize rainwater pipes, which, together with change of hue from one house to the next, and vertically proportioned windows, help to define individual houses. In front of each house are gabion walls, gabion being the form of construction used in road embankments, where loose stones are placed in wire cages. Here, they screen parking spaces, so that cars do not dominate the appearance of the space.

McCloud says that "the design of spoons and the design of cities is one process" and it is the totality of the Triangle's inventions that matters. He is particularly keen on the importance of landscape design. Usually, says the Triangle's landscape architect, Luke Engleback, his role is to "decorate masterplans by others". Here, Engleback was involved from the outset in shaping the concept and form of the development.

McCloud keeps saying that "it's about the residents – it's their happiness that will determine the success of scheme". It will take years to find out if it really works but, meanwhile, I am introduced to 64-year-old Maggie Lowton, who was forced out of her home of 38 years by negative equity. "Since I started my affair with Kevin," she says, she has bought into his dream. "We love the house and feel privileged and proud. It's lighter, airier and easier to clean. It feels too nice and too new." The architectural aesthetics are of secondary importance. "People say, 'What are those stones for?'" she says of the gabions.

She says you can see a community forming, even if there are some points of friction – "you do hear snippets, like someone parking in someone else's space". As a Christian, she is wrestling with the problem of other people's faiths, including paganism. "Perhaps we can have a multi-faith Christmas tree," she says, "but I don't know how to do that… maybe we can have a pagan log." She wants "it to work for everyone. I want Kevin's dream to come true. What a waste if it didn't".

For McCloud, the dream seems to originate in a love of the organic. "I grew up in the countryside – Bedfordshire. I was interested in birds and bees and flowers and mushrooms." He says there is "a spiritual dimension" to living with nature that he wants to give to the residents of Hab's developments. The village where he lived was also the kind of place where "kids played in the street on their bikes, and if a car came round the corner, it had to slow down".

Realising this dream requires a great deal of technical grind, of dealing with planners, highways authorities, water suppliers. It requires responding patiently to officials such as the one who, Engleback says, objected to fruit trees on the grounds that "someone might slip on a berry". McCloud's celebrity means that "doors are opened a little more quickly", but also that "it is very important for local authorities not to be seen to be granting us the smallest favour. We can't cheat or push or cut corners".

The Triangle has required an exceptional amount of effort by Hab, GreenSquare, their architects, engineers and other consultants, all to achieve a simple array of row houses which – albeit without such high environmental performance – would once knocked have been knocked up almost without thinking by builders. Larger developments are now on the way in Oxford and Stroud, but McCloud is not expecting these to be much easier. The hope is that others will follow the example.

He acknowledges that the Triangle is not as advanced as some of the continental schemes in Tubingen, Stockholm and elsewhere which were his inspirations. They "emerged from a culture of planning and construction that is far more evolved, and far more sophisticated, than in Britain," he says. "But," he adds, "I feel we have hit on the grail. We have made a very significant difference from conventional development… we're 90% there, and to do it in Swindon in a difficult economic climate – I'm happy."

He thinks he is doing better than the Prince of Wales's Poundbury. "One positive thing about Poundbury was the way perceived ownership of the public realm meant the residents adopted it," he says. But "one of the failings is the way the external appearance is at the expense of internal architecture". In order to achieve the look of old cottages, "you get low ceilings and tiny windows".

The Triangle is in a tradition of model villages beloved of aristocrats, princes, of Brad Pitt in New Orleans and the Bordeaux sugar-cube manufacturer who commissioned workers' housing from Le Corbusier. Such places can be over-scripted, too much about fulfilling their makers' picture-book fantasies about contented communities. There is a whiff of this with Hab's gooey talk about "making people happy", although they are conscious of the need not to over-control. "If they decide they don't want to grow food and just want to park cars, we'd be a bit upset," says Isabel Allen, but in the end it will be up to the residents.

Maggie Lowton sounds a note of caution by citing other communities in Swindon that started well but went downhill. No amount of forethought and attention to detail can guarantee the success of the Triangle. But at the very least it is an imaginative and well-designed project, which achieves about as much as can be done with its budget. It focuses on what matters most and gives itself the best chance of success. Which is far more rare than it should be in British house building and a much better application of celebrity philanthropy than most. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 11 2011

Eco-home developer BioRegional Quintain to shut

Property developer behind environmentally sustainable schemes will halt work after Middlehaven first phase

The UK's highest-profile sustainable developer, BioRegional Quintain, is to be wound up after its parent company, the property developer Quintain, decided to focus on the London market.

BioRegional Quintain, originally set up as a joint venture by the influential environmental charity behind "One Planet Living" and Quintain in 2005, will finish the 80-home first phase of the Middlehaven scheme in Middlesbrough, and then wind itself up.

BioRegional Quintain's chief executive, Pete Halsall, told this week's Building magazine: "It is extremely sad but it is part of a wider decision of Quintain's board to focus on its core business. My understanding is that Quintain wants to be able to express sustainability in its developments in a different way."

Halsall confirmed that the venture would shut, with the loss of five jobs. It leaves the Homes and Communities Agency's (HCA) £200m, 750-home Middlehaven scheme without a residential developer for its later phases, raising fears for the project's green credentials.

BioRegional Quintain will also withdraw from the London Development Agency's prestigious One Gallions project in east London, where it was selected in 2007 with Crest Nicholson and Southern Housing Group to build a model 260-home environmentally sustainable development.

At its peak before the downturn, BioRegional had a £350m development pipeline on six sites. Its most successful scheme was the award-winning One Brighton joint venture with Crest Nicholson, which completed last year and included allotment spaces for residents to grow their own food on the roof of the development.

The joint venture was dedicated to the 10 principles espoused by BioRegional Quintain's "One Planet Living" philosophy, including the need for developments to be zero carbon and zero waste, to use local food, and promote residents' "health and happiness".

Wembley developer Quintain bought BioRegional's share in the joint venture last year. Halsall, who will leave the business, said the move did not mean that the kind of development promoted by BioRegional Quintain was a thing of the past, and that he would shortly be announcing a new venture dedicated to "deep green" developments. "There is still tremendous potential. Quintain has to focus on its primary portfolio right now but this kind of development is absolutely still the future."

The firm's demise was lamented by two Stirling prize-winning architects, both of whom have worked with the developer. Peckham Library architect Will Alsop, who was the master planner on Middlehaven, said: "It is very sad news. This was a company very committed to doing things in a more responsible way."

Peter Clegg, of Feilden Clegg Bradley Architects, which designed One Brighton, called the development a "great shame".

"It was a joint venture between some of the most conscientious sustainability thinkers of the past 10 years and one of the more significant developers, which had significant resources," he said.

David Curtis, HCA executive director, said: "While this is disappointing news, we remain firmly committed to Middlehaven. We are in discussions with BioRegional's parent company, Quintain Estates, to find the best way forward for their work at Middlehaven." © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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February 03 2011

Sustainable design: bin it?

Sustainability – all matronly browns and little green arrows – has drained the sexiness from design. If designers want to do some genuine good, it's time to re-engineer their thinking

Whenever I think of sustainable design, I think of the opening sentence of Victor Papanek's book Design for the Real World. It goes: "There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them." Papanek, a designer himself, went on to call designers "dangerous", the producers of "garbage". And that was in 1972.

These days, designers have a rather different role as societal problem-solvers, leading the way to a cleaner, better future. But I suspect Papanek is still right. Notwithstanding this new conscientious breed, there is no getting over the fact that the majority of product designers earn their living supplying growth-dependent economies with novelties for our ever-more-insatiable appetites. Increasingly, many of those objects are being presented as sustainable. Perhaps packaged in brown cardboard with little green arrows on it.

"Sustainability". I have never much liked the word. "Sustainable" is not an adjective you would use to describe something you love. To sustain something is to keep it alive, pure and simple – more of a duty than a passion. Once, we aspired to reach the moon; now, we just hope to hold on to what we've got. Sustainability suggests the flatlining of human ambition. So I did a double-take when I saw a new book called Sustainism Is the New Modernism. If sustainability is boring, "sustainism" is just grammatically freaky (adding "ism" to a verb?). As you'll already have worked out, it yields the word "sustainity" (as in, from here to sustainity). Oh, and "sustainist".

This may sound like parody, but it's not. The creators of these terms, Michiel Schwarz and Joost Elffers, have presented what they describe as a manifesto for the 21st century. The book is a collection of aphorisms and slogans. Some of them – the catchier ones – were coined by others, such as Buckminster Fuller's "do more with less". Many of them are the authors' own, such as "not high-tech versus low-tech, but appropriateness and sustainable solutions". The book is lavishly illustrated, with new logos designed to signify organic, local or recyclable goods. It is sustainability rebranded.

The authors' instincts are absolutely right: sustainable design needs a shot in the arm. But I don't believe a book full of platitudes and colourful symbols is the necessary serum. Their elegant trefoil logo for recycling may be better than the existing one, but no one ever failed to recycle something because they didn't like the logo. There is no argument to win here. I don't think there are many people out there who don't want to live sustainably. It's not a matter of persuading them but of offering them the right choices.

I trawled through a few books on sustainable design, such as The Eco-Design Handbook and 1000 New Eco Designs and Where to Find Them. The majority of work in this area is not particularly impressive. Most conforms to a material palette we think of as sustainable – lots of wood, cardboard and paper – or makes a show of using recycled materials. In that respect, there is a kind of sustainable design aesthetic, and it comes in shades of brown. Plastic rarely features, no doubt due to an instinctive feeling that it's inherently bad for the environment, even though plastic is sometimes the most environmentally friendly material for the job. It uses less energy to manufacture than glass or metal, and it's lighter to transport. The trick is to keep it out of landfills.

The problem is that consumers, and often designers, too, are bewildered by what really constitutes a sustainable product. You can't judge it by looking it at; you have to know the object's past and future – whether it's made of renewable or recyclable materials, how much energy went into its production, how it's going to be disposed of. It's not objects that are unsustainable, it's the systems that produce them. And designers have to steer their clients towards sustainable systems – that is, if they have the luxury of a client who isn't just after the cheapest, fastest solution.

The closest we have come to a sustainability orthodoxy is the "cradle to cradle" solution pioneered by Michael Braungart and William McDonough. According to their mantra, products need to be made fully recyclable so that, once they are discarded, each part can be turned back into itself again. The problem with that logic is that it promises infinite consumption with impunity. Businesses must love it. The drawback of putting so much emphasis on recycling, however, is that it makes us feel virtuous about throwing things away. Disposability – along with its henchman, planned obsolescence – is the real enemy.

The answer, it seems to me, is to buy fewer things that we value more: to design products that endure and that we can repair more cheaply than replace. And the real way to win the public over to sustainable design is not with a war of words but by tapping into their desires. We want things with sex appeal, not ones that look as though they are made of Weetabix.

To return to our "sustainist" authors, it's telling that they frequently square up to the futurist manifesto of 1909, setting themselves in opposition. They are right, of course. The futurists' machine-lust and speed greed are absurdly unhelpful in our age – too aggressive, too self-destructive. But Marinetti's screed had a libidinous energy that was never matched in any of the successive manifestos of the 20th century. At one point in his delirious fantasy on mechanisation, he and his futurist chums see some cars. "We went up to the three snorting machines to caress their breasts," he writes. Perhaps the sustainists could use a shot of whatever Marinetti was drinking. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 18 2011

Raising the barn

The Brit Insurance Designs of the Year 2011 award nominations: see the projects at the cutting edge of design

August 16 2010

Junkitecture and the Jellyfish theatre

It is Britain's first fully functioning recycled theatre – made of old nails, pallets and discarded doors. As the Jellyfish opens, Jonathan Glancey examines the rise of 'junkitecture'

'One man's trash is another's man treasure," says Martin Kaltwasser, screwdriver and saw in hand. The German architect and conceptual artist is rushing to complete the Jellyfish theatre, which stands in a south London playground, 10 minutes' walk from the Globe theatre on the banks of the Thames. To say that this building is junk would be disparaging. And yet junk, of a sort, it is.

The Jellyfish theatre, which opens next week, is being built from the detritus of markets, timberyards and building sites; from redundant school furniture, hand-me-down front doors, recycled nails and pretty much anything that local residents and businesses have contributed – prompted by a public appeal by the Red Room film and theatre company. As work progresses, ever more planks of wood and stuff that would otherwise be "landfill" have been piled up in this playground in Southwark.

Dreamed up two years ago by Red Room's artistic director, Topher Campbell, and its producer, Bryan Savery, the Jellyfish theatre looks, most of all, like a shrine to the humble timber pallet. Until a few weeks ago, these hundreds of pallets were being used to stack fruit and vegetables in Covent Garden market. Cheap, strong and hugely adaptable, they also happen to have a distinctly architectural look, especially when flipped on their sides and turned into walls. Some will be left as they are, others clad with sheets of plywood to keep the rain out and to usher in the darkness needed inside an auditorium.

Kaltwasser and his wife and business partner Folke Köbberling are, in fact, building Britain's first fully functioning theatre made entirely from recycled and reclaimed materials. There are no fixed plans, few drawings; Kaltwasser orchestrates his fellow builders as Mike Leigh does his actors. The building has a strong, if very basic steel frame to keep its structure in check, and yet beyond this basic architectural necessity, all else is improvised: a pallet positioned here, a sheet of plywood there, some MDF on top.

This 120-seat theatre, which fully complies with local building, fire and safety regulations, will enjoy no more than a fleeting life, however. Campbell is busy rehearsing a pair of eco-themed plays that will run from 26 August to 9 October: Oikos (pronounced "ee-kos", the Greek root for economy and ecology) by Simon Wu, and Protozoa by Kay Adshead. After that, the Jellyfish will be dismantled, and its recycled components recycled yet again.

Both plays deal with people rebuilding their lives after political and environmental catastrophe. "They're our response to climate catastrophe," says Campbell, "a condition that might yet come about – partly through our collective greed, our insatiable desire to consume, to waste energy, materials, nature. I imagine how I'd cope if the sky fell in: I'd want to know I could find people who'd be able to create shelters to keep us safe, and allow us space to think about what we were all going to do."

He describes the collaboration as "total theatre": the playwrights have been fully involved with the idea, and reality, of the building, while Kaltwasser and Köbberling have, in turn, read their scripts. The building itself – the idea behind it, the way it's being built, the way it'll feel when completed – is very much a part of the plays. "This is true community theatre: we've been able to involve many different people, from local schoolchildren to office workers across the street."

"It's not just materials we got for free," adds Savery, "but the time and skill of unemployed architects, along with carpenters and people who've walked off the street during their lunch hours." By the end of last week, 81 volunteers had put in 4,200 hours between them over the nine weeks since work began. Eight hundred pallets and 750 square metres of plywood and other sheet material were donated.

"Projects like the 2012 London Olympics have promised public engagement," says Savery, "yet the entire Olympics site is walled and strictly out of bounds. We're a completely open stage, trying to prove that local people can create their own public projects. We found our own site by walking around, found Martin and Folke by asking around, asked Southwark if it was possible. And off we went. You can do it, too, without developers, quangos, huge professional teams – and with anyone taking part."

Well, not quite anyone. A hand-painted notice insists that no drugs or alcohol be brought on site. This is not some trippy 1960s-style architectural happening, but a serious, if good-natured, public building project.

Just nipping out to mow the roof

Building from found materials is, of course, nothing new. Humans (and animals) have always done this. The 1960s saw, however, a heady boom in self-build, initiated by all those alternative lifestyle movements. Self-build tended to fall into two schools: shelters shaped from found materials and other bric-a-brac; and buildings created by local communities with their own hands, to formal architectural designs.

The latter have included the self-build housing programmes initiated by architects like Walter Segal, the Swiss-born British architect who developed a system of prefabricated timber houses built by local people to his simple, elegant designs. In the 1970s, four such schemes were built in Lewisham, London, on sites unsuitable for conventional council houses. Segal's homes – clean, modern, environmentally sound and sometimes crowned with flowering turf roofs – are much sought-after today.

The alternative to Segal's style of self-build was the kind of free-spirited hippy homes that sprung up in self-consciously alternative communities, notably in California. Such shelters might be built from anything going. Their spirit lives on today in the guise of "benders". Hidden away in the English countryside, these simple shelters, made of coppiced hazel and willow covered in army-surplus canvas and other easily sourced natural materials, are part of a fine tradition of independent and ecologically savvy homemaking. Then there are the recent reports of the campsites on London's perimeters, filled with increasing numbers of commuters who can't afford the capital's house prices.

"It's definitely political," says Campbell of the Jellyfish project. "Martin and Folke see it as an architecture of resistance, against the ways people are so often just passive users of the buildings they're given by politicians, developers and their architects." He points to the Shard, designed by Renzo Piano, a mighty developer's tower rising close by, behind high guarded walls.

Kaltwasser (born in Munster in 1965) and Köbberling (from Kassell and four years younger) have been working together in Berlin, and more recently in Los Angeles, for the past 12 years. Kaltwasser received a conventional architectural education yet found himself a fish out of water in architects' offices. In 1989, he built his first house, from found materials, in central Berlin. He expected locals to hate it. They didn't. In fact, Kaltwasser found himself popular, and even cooked for by neighbours.

Better than a boring mall

Since then, he and Köbberling have built several remarkable buildings in the same vein. Two years ago, the Wysing Arts Centre, near Cambridge, commissioned Amphis, a large patchwork house assembled in just six weeks by 40 volunteers. Used, appropriately, for informal meetings and spontaneous events, it was made of materials thrown out by the University of Cambridge. The pair also cooked up a wholly unlikely urban interloper, the Werdplatz-palais, a social centre and soup kitchen built in 2008 in Zurich, cheek-by-jowl with the stock exchange.

When the three-month permit the authorities granted it expired, the structure was dismantled and recycled into a play space for local immigrant children, who also helped build it. At the end of 2008, that, too, was dismantled. "These buildings were short-lived," says Kaltwasser, "but it was great, in such a highly regulated city, to let people with so little economic and political power build for themselves and for their needs, rather than giving them more boring public places and shopping malls. Many people were sad when the buildings had to go."

So how did they come up with the name Jellyfish? "People find jellyfish a little disturbing," he says. "And yet they're fragile creatures. They need the clean waters we're making dirty. And they appear to come and go, just like that." And just like Kobberling and Kaltwasser's buildings, too.

• For more information on the Jellyfish theatre and its performances visit © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 18 2010

Spin city

It is the world's first skyscraper with built-in wind turbines. But is London's Strata a green gimmick – or the future? Jonathan Glancey takes to the skies

I am standing on the wind-buffeted tip of the Strata tower, looking out through the blades of what appear to be an enormous propeller, at the London skyline and the green basin beyond. St Paul's cathedral, across the river, seems close enough to touch. It's the kind of view, and the kind of heroically stylised building, you would expect to see in some 1930s sci-fi movie: the perfect place for a hero and a villain to have a rooftop showdown.

At 147 metres, the newly opened Strata is London's tallest residential building. The nine-metre blades I'm standing beneath are housed in one of three wind turbines that crown this new tower soaring above Elephant and Castle, an area of the city not known for flashy penthouses. But Elephant and Castle is undergoing a massive, if slow, transition from a rundown miasma of noisy road intersections, underpasses and vast housing estates into what the Borough of Southwark hopes will be a £1.5bn model of inner-city regeneration.

The plan was first made public six years ago and work is unlikely to be completed before 2020. It's a colossal challenge, as well as an opportunity, and the £113.5m Strata, the first of three skyscrapers planned for here, is a symbol of the dynamism and energy the project demands. And that energy must, of course, be seen to be green. It's early days, but if the turbines work as planned, and aren't too noisy for residents in the pricey penthouses beneath them, they should generate 8% of this 43-storey building's energy needs. This is roughly enough to run its electrical and mechanical services (including three express lifts and automated window-cleaning rigs) as well as the lighting, heating and ventilation of its public spaces, which include an underground car and cycle park.

Strata is the first building in the world to incorporate wind turbines into its structure. Yes, the new Bahrain World Trade Centre in Manama, by the firm Atkins, also boasts three giant turbines, but these are set on steel struts connecting its twin towers, not part of the actual towers themselves. While I can vouch for the strength of the south-westerlies that will turn Strata's blades, whether its turbines will set a precedent for future British towers is less clear: this rooftop was exceedingly hard to construct, almost prohibitively so, every part of it having to be hauled up.

However, what the three fans do, without a doubt, is give Strata a striking profile. Whether you find this exciting, disturbing or simply over-the-top will be down to personal taste, yet it's no surprise the tower has been dubbed the Electric Razor, not just because of its whirling blades but also because of its black and silver lines that seem to pixellate upwards; Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, has called it the Lipstick.

So what do green experts think? "You've got to take your hat off to the design team for delivering a building that captures the imagination," says Paul King, head of the UK Green Building Council. "I doubt wind power will become a common feature in high-rise inner city projects, but without this type of bold innovation, how would we ever know? Developments like this show that sustainability is increasingly becoming mainstream. That's something everyone should celebrate."

Including the 1,000 or so people who have already moved into – or bought into – Strata's 408 flats (each boasting floor-to-ceiling windows). And there is a difference between the two. Nearly every flat was bought off-plan, before construction began, 50-75% of them by investors. This is a shame: the whole idea of the tower is that it should be a guiding light for new inner-city residential development. This is meant to be a home for local people, not a machine for property market profiteering.

Indeed, 25% of the flats, on floors two to 10, are "affordable homes", for those on incomes of less than £60,000 (in central London that kind of money won't guarantee a home of your own); meanwhile, a three-floor pavilion to the side of the tower has been given to council residents leaving the soon-to-be-demolished Aylesbury Estate, a 1960s housing complex seen by most as an enormous failure. Tony Blair made his first speech as prime minister at this estate, in a bid to show his government would care for the poorest elements in society.

To my mind, Strata's big propellers give the building the feel of an airship holding aloft the passenger cabins (or flats) below. Or perhaps it's more like an old-fashioned transatlantic liner with its complement of first-, second-and third-class passengers. I think of this as architect Ian Bogle, of London-based BFLS (formerly Hamiltons Architects), leads me through the tall, narrow lobby to the lifts that shoot silently up to the residential floors.

'You feel like you own the city'

The views are spectacular. Most front doors open directly onto gaping vistas of London, framed by giant windows. They are not for the faint-hearted. Bogle goes to open what looks like a door at the side of a window and I think he might vanish into the ether. As it happens, he's simply opening a perforated screen designed to let fresh air in. "We've tried to get as much daylight and fresh air as possible into the flats," says Bogle. "You certainly feel as if you own the entire city from up here."

Indeed you do. There are magic moments, too: way below, trains race in and out of buildings and seem to pass through the tower itself. It reminds me of the super-modern city drawn by Antonio Sant'Elia, the Italian futurist architect, shortly before the first world war. His Città Nuova was a dynamic, machine-like metropolis through which cars and even aircraft would pass, via openings in the buildings. His imaginings inspired film-makers, from William Cameron Menzie's Things to Come in 1936, to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner in 1982; they also resonated in city developments as dramatic and diverse as the Barbican, the Pompidou and the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. And they echo today in these views from the Strata tower, and in its mighty turbines.

But are they just a tokenistic green gimmick? Or will they propel us towards a new urban architecture, one that's cinematically thrilling and ecologically sound? Until its sibling towers rise and the redevelopment of Elephant and Castle is complete, it will be hard to properly judge Strata. Right now, it stands alone, a sleek silver sentinel, towering over the follies of the recent past. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 17 2010

Sustainable education institute

A new building at a centre devoted to eco awareness is more than just a checklist of green materials and practices. It is also a triumph of modernism and minimalism

It's not often that you judge a new building by its smell, but here you sniff the place like a sommelier: old barn, straw, notes of cedar and cow dung, must, something faintly citric. Nothing like the usual pong of new carpet and plastic paint.

This is because the building in question, the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education (Wise), is trying as hard as it can to use natural building materials – "Basically plants and earth," to quote one of its architects, Pat Borer. Also animals, as in addition to a timber frame, rammed earth walls and a coating of lime and hemp, it uses sheep's wool for thermal insulation.

It is designed by two architects in collaboration, Borer and David Lea. Wise is part of Cat, the Centre for Alternative Technology, which, once you've got past its irritating way with acronyms, is an impressively persistent organisation. It is a product of the first great wave of eco-awareness, in the 1970s, when no one had heard of global warming, but a lot of people were worried that oil was running out. There was also a general feeling that mankind was ravaging the Earth and that this couldn't be a good thing.

Cat was founded by the old Etonian Gerard Morgan-Grenville, with the vague-seeming aim to "show the nature of the problem and show ways of going forward". It was located in an old slate quarry halfway up a steep hill near Machynlleth, in a remote part of mid-Wales, almost where the land runs out into Cardigan Bay. Over the years, Cat built prototypes for ecological ways of living: a building made of straw bales, wind turbines, the filtering of sewage through reed beds until it becomes almost-clean water. School parties and visiting groups of Chinese and Africans now roam the site.

Most of the site has a ramshackle and ad-hoc air. There are still DIY solar heaters, made of radiators painted black to absorb heat and placed under glass, from 30 or so years ago. There is the broken blade of an ex-wind turbine. You can ascend the steep hillside to the centre by way of a lift powered by water from a high-up reservoir. "It is truly zero-emission transport," says Borer. "It runs on rain," he adds, amid light drizzle on a day when the rest of Britain is washed by a heatwave. "What could be better?"

The site is powered by solar power, a boiler burning wood chips and wind turbines. It is connected to the national grid, to which it gives a surplus of electricity. The centre stays true to its co-operative origins: all staff, whatever their status, earn between £13,000 and £16,000 a year, except for those on academic pay scales. Wales was a refuge of choice for hippies escaping the big city, but this work of 1970s dreaminess has shown staying power.

Its £4.5m new building takes it to a new level of ambition and seriousness, but misadventures during the building process almost caused it to close. Its main purpose is to provide courses for masters students, so it has an auditorium, seminar rooms, bedrooms and a bar.

Clearly, the building has to practise what the centre preaches. Many in the world of sustainable design like to pick holes in another's work, to point out which of the panoply of interconnected issues a given project has failed to address – what materials, where they come from, what energy was used in their transport, what will happen to them after demolition. Cat has exhaustively logged every aspect of its building, including each journey made to and from the site, and has made the data the subject of a research project. As green building is still an inexact science, Cat wants to know what works and what doesn't.

The energy used in building is as important as that used once it is built. According to Borer, who was once on the staff of Cat before he set up his own practice, "a 'zero-energy' house can use 30 years' worth of energy to build" because it uses materials such as steel, concrete and plastic. At Wise, they have used thick walls of rammed earth and avoided PVC, an especially energy-intensive material, in pipes and electrical insulation. They use durable woods such as oak and larch, because lesser timbers need to be treated with toxic chemicals and therefore become toxic waste when they are disposed of. The building does use aluminium, a taboo material for some green builders, but sparingly. "We use it for its wonderful properties, like its strength. We wouldn't use it for things like ceiling tiles, where you could just as well use another material."

But the issue for sustainable architecture, beyond whether it actually works, is whether it is architecture. Is it, in other words, just a checklist of materials and techniques, bound together by some calculations, or does it give its own quality to the way built spaces look and feel? By this, I don't mean it has to wear its greenness on its sleeve, that it has to festoon itself with flapping windmills and turf roofs to prove its credentials.

Here, the less talkative of the two Wise architects comes into his own. David Lea, bearded and quietly spoken, looks every inch an architect who has spent the past four decades in rural seclusion. With his interest in natural materials, local to a building's site, he has sometimes been ploughing a solitary furrow. He received the equivocal honour of being praised by Prince Charles for a building he did for student farmers in Cirencester, Gloucestershire. His best-known work is a tiny house for an artist, of mud and thatch, that looked like an upturned boat.

He studied, however, under Leslie Martin, one of the architects of the Royal Festival Hall, and Lea is not some wizard of the Celtic fringe or purveyor of mud huts for hobbits. His building is poised and spare, in the manner of some of the best modernist architecture. It adapts cleverly to the site's rollercoaster terrain, creating multiple levels out of its ups and downs.

It also turns, in several directions, to face the abundant nature around it. One space is oriented towards a distant view of mountains and an access gallery runs past an impressive cliff of slate. A courtyard collects all the rain into pools. A big bay window catches views in several directions. It's simple stuff, but a lot of architects wouldn't bother with such things and it's nicely done. It creates a rapport with nature that does not have any measurable effect on CO2 emissions, but is surely a necessary part of the ethos of being green.

It could have been built of concrete and steel and almost felt the same, but only almost. The choice of materials subtly changes the feel of the place, as well as its carbon footprint. There's that smell, but also a different touch and acoustic. It's not spectacular, or fanatical, but it shows one way of doing sustainable architecture in the fullest sense: not just a pile of box-ticking, but making spaces. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 03 2010

Is this the sustainable city of the future?

According to a New York design group, this is how tomorrow's metropolis may look – just don't ask how it will work

Terreform One, a New York non-profit design group led by 38-year-old architect Mitchell Joachim, offers answers to almost everything to do with cities and sustainability. Its prolific output of ideas includes blimps creeping nose-to-tail around cities, with seats hanging off them just above the ground so that people can jump on and off at will.

The company has designed soft cars, so no one is killed in a car accident ever again, and proposed a way of training trees so that they can be grown to form houses – a theoretically zero-carbon technique. It also wants to put houses on to big trucks, and rebuild America's roads so that they are packed with "intelligent renewable infrastructure", into which the mobile houses can be plugged. This idea is less obviously zero carbon, but the company claims it will "create a truly breathing, interconnected metabolic urbanism".

Terreform One's projects are presented with the imagery long-beloved of futuristic visionaries, with steep perspectives of frictionless cities, super-shiny and super-clean. The language is fervent, breeding neologisms and repeating the word "will" in the manner of preachers foreseeing the rapture.

Terreform One, incidentally, is not to be confused with the company's earlier incarnation, Terreform, which was created by Joachim and his former mentor Michael Sorkin. Sorkin is now bitterly denounced by Joachim for failing to show a co-operative spirit and for selling out by designing a seven-star hotel in China.

Terreform One, which has a 32-strong "advisory board", has been endorsed by the likes of Wired magazine, which in 2008 named Joachim one of "the 15 people the next president should listen to", but for now it leaves many questions unanswered. Its plans seem light on details such as cost and emissions calculations. It's not clear what would happen to its blimps in a high wind, or to the views from upper-floor windows as they passed by in an unending chain, or how easily the old or disabled could hop on and off. Nor how trees could be trained to grow kitchens and sanitary appliances. Joachim says it will take a century or more to shift the way cities are built, which is all well and good – but perhaps the future should also start here. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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