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Under valued There are powerful environmental, social and economic arguments for underground construction, says Martin Hopkins. And concrete is the ideal material for the purpose.

Underground space development can provide many solutions to problems in densely populated urban areas. It can also provide protection for rural landscapes and heritage sites. If certain facilities and functions are moved underground, surface land can be used more effectively.

There is a growing shortage of space in the UK, especially in urban areas. Half of available building land has already been developed.

This is why it is important to act now. Choices made today between underground and above ground construction will ensure that space remains available tomorrow for uses that belong above ground.

The case for underground space development is convincing:

The above-ground environment may be conserved, as the space that the facility would have occupied can be reserved for a 'higher' use, ie housing, parks or recreational;

Significant benefits can also arise from multiple land use as building below ground does not preclude future surface development;

It obviates the need for construction on valuable greenbelt land;

Air pollution can be contained and cleaned;

Traffic congestion may be reduced;

Noise and vibration can be reduced by placing their sources underground;

Visually offending activities can be placed underground.

Substantial energy savings are possible. Natural insulation provided by the ground makes underground structures energy efficient. Savings arise because temperature is stable at depth. Heating therefore costs less in winter and ventilation costs less in summer.

Development of underground space is far from being synonymous with living underground. In fact, a principal advantage of such development is that it will allow more room for living on the surface.

The common perception that the development of underground space is much more expensive than surface development means schemes are often given little or no consideration. However, with the increasing focus on sustainable development, and the delicately balanced arguments associated with surface construction, there is now renewed worldwide interest in underground space development.

And when account is taken of the environmental costs of surface development the cost differential is greatly reduced.

There have been a number of recent major international conferences, most notably in Montreal.

It is clear that, in the UK, there is a need to reassess the issues associated with underground space, and to develop an agenda for its future development.

Following an initial meeting convened by the British Cement Association involving representatives of the construction industry and key clients, it has been agreed that an Underground Group should be formed to bring together those concerned with the development of this important resource. Although the use of underground space has a long history there has not, to date, been a co-ordinated effort to promote its commercial and technological development to give commercial advantage and to contribute to sustainable development in the UK.

A BCA study partly funded by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions was therefore undertaken to identify the priority tasks. The report Going underground - the scope for underground space development in the UK * will ensure that UK industry is made fully aware of the issues and is in a position to take full advantage of the benefits.

*Going underground - the scope for underground space development in the UK is available from the British Cement Association , tel: (01344) 762676.

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