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World Architecture Festival: Lean & green

Less is more was the recurring motto at this year’s World Architecture Festival, where architects and engineers met to discuss how their designs are greener, meaner and generally more efficient. Jessica Rowson reports from Barcelona.

With December’s United Nations summit in Copenhagen 2009 fast approaching, climate change is on everyone’s lips. Architects are no exception and they were keen to demonstrate how they are adapting their designs to the changing world at last week’s World Architecture Festival in Barcelona.

The festival’s sustainability showcase included a Less Does More exhibition, with engineering featuring prominently in the major case studies.

“Doing more with less is what engineers do,” says Buro Happold principal Paul Westbury. “Any idiot can deliver with an abundance of materials. The key is to keep it simple and focus on the drivers for design.”

“Any idiot can deliver with an abundance of materials. The key is to keep it simple.”

Paul Westbury, Buro Happold

The London 2012 Olympic Stadium, which Westbury is currently working on, is a key example of simplified design. The design team of consultant Buro Happold and architect Populous has taken advantage of the fact that the site is effectively an island with water on three sides.

The River Lee provides a natural security measure, or barrier, meaning that the team is not forced to have all the amenities like catering or shops inside the walled stadium but can spread them around over the entire island site.

This in turn means that the building’s design could concentrate on the sporting activities and reduce the amount of materials needed for the actual build − 80,000 seats will be provided in an area of 54,000m². This compares with Wembley Stadium, which provides 90,000 seats in an area of 175,000m².

“We pulled the guts out of the building and used the area outside the building,” says Populous senior principal Rod Sheard. “There are normally a lot of things in these buildings like cafes and each has its own regulation − each needs services and fire proofing but things like burger bars have been taken out the building. We are using five bridges as turnstiles and there are no fences.”

The externalisation of the services also makes it easier to downsize the stadium in legacy − the external services will simply be moved to another location where needed.

The outside inside

Awareness of internal and external space as well as natural ventilation was key for another showcased project − a university in Angola.

“It’s not just about what it looks like, it’s about its relationship with nature,” says consultant Battle McCarthy director Chris McCarthy.

The Agostinho Neto University building was orientated to catch prevailing winds, which together with engineered landscaping helped to push this natural air conditioning through the building.

“It’s not just about what it looks like, it’s about its relationship with nature.”

Chris McCarthy, Battle McCarthy

However, also critical to the project was the boundary between internal and external space and how that external space was used. People can cope with heat better outside and so by blurring the boundaries between outside and in, together with natural ventilation, the need for air conditioning was eliminated.

“If you bring the outside in, tolerance of heat is increased,” says McCarthy. “If you look out the window and all you see is desert, you will want to be in a sealed box, with air conditioning. If you have an active outdoor space [by planting vegetation and creating park spaces for example], you are less likely to need air conditioning.”

Despite the collaborative approach taken on many of these projects, Foster & Partners senior partner Gerard Evenden, who is working on the carbon neutral city of Masdar in Abu Dhabi, argues that not every solution is necessarily technological. “It’s very easy to slip into engineered thinking that active systems are best,” he says.

“However, if you are creating a carbon-neutral environment, you have to be thinking about people and how they live. Technology can follow but those are the issues we have to tackle. You have to make things easy for people.” The ideas behind the first carbon neutral city in the world range from the simple to cutting edge technology.

Simple solutions

The simple solutions on this project include orienting the city so that the streets are shaded during the day to improve the experience for inhabitants.

“We’re starting to get real data of what is happening in the streets,” says Evenden. “Felt temperatures are significantly lower. Within next year we should be getting post-occupancy data.”

Meanwhile on the cutting edge side, Masdar will have one of the world’s biggest personal rapid transport systems in the next few years.

“It’s very easy to slip into engineered thinking that active systems are best.”

Gerard Evenden, Foster & Partners

Personal Rapid Transit is a type of on demand driverless vehicle transport system and is virtually zero carbon. Also, by elevating the city onto a deck and running transport on the lower level, Foster & Partners has ensured that there is room for the transport system to grow and adapt.

Masdar is currently on site and the first building is due to be finished by the end of the year. Should it be as successful as is hoped, it will be held up as a city plan to aspire to.

Adaption of existing cities to an over-expanding population is another great challenge to be faced, according to leading architects from China, India and Mexico. For the first time last year over half the population lived in cities.

“In Mumbai, there is 0.1% open space, when ideally there should be between 10% and 20%,” says Sanjay Puri Architect founder Sanjay Puri. “We need to develop areas with low rise buildings and create high rise buildings with large open spaces and wide roads.”

Connecting with nature

Established sustainability practices such as natural ventilation, high density living, water recycling and reduced materials use are all well and good, but we need go back to connecting directly with nature, according to Rachel Armstrong, from research body the Avatar Group.

It presented a new type of material being researched at the moment at WAF. It is the protocell − a material that shows living properties. A protocell can be made from as few as five chemicals and can react to light, temperature, food or pH by moving around [Jess to explain more on Monday]. The response can be programmed and even though it is still in the initial stage of development, it is thought that the protocell’s potential could be huge.

“Rather than predicting what will happen in 2050 and designing for that, these systems are adaptive to the environment.”

Rachel Armstrong, the Avatar Group

“Rather than predicting what will happen in 2050 and designing for that, these systems are adaptive to the environment,” says Armstrong. “For areas that become flooded, we could programme them [protocells] to grow [to form a barrier] in the presence of water. They connect directly to nature.”

But the seminars are only one half of the festival. Over three days more than 270 shortlisted architects and engineers presented their projects in front of a panel of three judges and a public audience.

The World Architecture Festival showcases some of the best new projects from over the world and these twenty minute long presentations with question and answer sessions gave an illuminating insight into how some of these projects were built − from timber restaurants in the snowy wastelands of Sweden to conceptual inflatable theatres.

World Architecture Festival

World Architecture Festival

  • Paul Westbury, Rod Sheard, Jerome Frost and Jeremy Melvin

    World Architecture Festival: Lean & green

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