Investigating the Sustainability of Tall Buildings

Antony Wood, Executive Director, Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

The vertical city is increasingly seen as the most viable solution for creating more sustainable urban centers, especially in developing countries such as China or India where population growth and urbanization is at its most pronounced. However, the full implications of concentrating more people on smaller plots of land by building vertically need to be better researched and understood.

Kingdom Tower: © Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

Image: Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill

On the one hand there are many energy benefits from building tall. Growing taller and denser versus horizontal spread offers distinct advantages for urban infrastructure systems. Efficiently-designed tall buildings utilize less materials for enclosure per unit of usable floor space, a smaller surface area for heat loss/gain, a natural energy share between floors and provide the potential for harvesting solar and wind energy at height.

On the other hand there are disadvantages with building tall that offset, and may even negate, the benefits of concentrating people together in taller buildings. Smaller floor areas may limit people’s access to natural light, views and ventilation. Growing taller requires more materials and primary structural systems, which may affect the overall sustainability equation. The general concept of ‘vertical’ being more sustainable than ‘horizontal’ may be true, especially when the larger-scale urban scenario is considered, but the myriad factors that contribute to this scenario should be better investigated.

During the CTBUH 9th World Congress in Shanghai, 19-21 September, the Council will formally release its latest technical guide, Natural Ventilation in High-Rise Office Buildings, part of a series of CTBUH publications that analyze various aspects of tall building performance. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) in tall buildings typically account for 33 percent or more of overall tall building energy consumption, according to U.S. Department of Energy data. More than half the HVAC energy use in a tall building is the result of efforts to reduce heat gain, lighting, miscellaneous power use, and systems to counter solar and thermal fluctuations. It could be argued that the increased efficiency – or elimination – of these systems is the most important single step in making tall buildings more sustainable.

This type of research is essential to the future of tall buildings and cities. Building owners, developers and consultants need to understand the ‘sustainability threshold’ for height – that height or floor count beyond which additional height would not make sense on sustainable grounds. This will never be an exact science and will differ not only from city to city, but from site to site and building to building. It is, however, a measure of extreme importance – and one which the global building industry needs to urgently strive toward.

Click here to listen to a podcast between Anthony Wood and WAN’s Editor in Chief, Michael Hammond on open space.

Your Future Home May be a Treehouse Meika Jensen

Meika Jensen, Guest Writer

In 2006, only about two percent of houses in the United States were being built with environmentally friendly features. In 2012, that number had exploded with 16% of houses adhering to new sustainable standards that climbed rapidly. As the standards of LEED and EcoBroker certificates have been applied, the market has been bolstered by an influx of students hoping to affect realistic environmental change through sustainable architectural programs in traditional universities as well as online masters degree programs, what was once a trend has become standard.

Increased federal and state regulation and the massive savings in energy costs increased the incentive for building green homes and updating new ones, but the really exciting part is where sustainable housing may be taking us in coming decades.

Community Adventures

Recently Masdar made headlines as the first carbon-neutral city ever, built right beside the already-opulent Abu Dhabi. Rentier economies can better afford to finance such undertakings, especially if they are trying to attract the tourism market. The growing community of Finca Bellavista may be more your style if you prefer your house a lot closer to nature. Located in Costa Rica, this community is made of two dozen different homes – each one built up in Costa Rica’s thick treetops.

The Bellavista houses are situated on two acres of land and manage to include running water, electricity, HVAC elements, and full bathrooms. Why is this noteworthy? The residences rest dozens of feet up in the air. The community is fully off the grid and look like the Lost Boys should lease them. The inhabitants use zip-lines to move from house to house, a fossil fuel free way to travel. Hydro and solar systems provide most of the power, and everyone recycles, repurposes, and re-uses.

Of course, this ideal does not denote perfection. Costs, suitable trees, and of course pest problems are part of this community like any other. A tree house is also not a ubiquitous, global solution. A tree house community may not work among the red cliffs of Sedona, but even out in desert conditions you can purchase an off-grid or mostly-sustainable house, such as the Earthship.

Earthship is a self-advertised venture into biotecture with more down-to-earth homes that, rather uniquely, endeavours to maintain a completely green, sustainable and self-sufficient living space in every facet of its design. Through this program, Earthship hopes to show the world that eco-friendly houses can benefit your budget as well as the planet. Manufacturers are busy churning out modular houses room by room, building each piece in-factory to ensure they meet environmental standards with minimum of waste. The utilities may be old-fashioned, but the architectural approach is still new.

Korowai Tribe Treehouse

The Long Way Around

Even if the idea of living in a tree house neighborhood doesn’t ring any of your bells, you may still end up in the same place via the long route. As green rooftops and green walls grow ever more popular, new innovations are also gaining traction in the sustainable housing market. Architects are busy incorporating straw and wood in the most stable of modern building projects, and scientists like Edgar Stach of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville are busy dreaming of algae-filled glass walls in the city that can produce power through photosynthesis.

“Low-emissive glass screened by algae-filled glass tubes will reduce the building’s cooling loads and at the same time produce hydrogen as an energy resource,” writes Stach in a 2009 report. “Thin horizontal glass tubes placed on a steel framework in front of the glass will screen and shade the full height glass wall around the building and diffuse light through them from different angles. The hydrogen produced can be coupled with a fuel cell to generate heating or cooling energy for the building.”

With new innovations like these, the houses of the future are going to be spectacular feats of green engineering. Not to be crass, but when thinking of sustainable housing, it would seem the sky really is the limit.

Solar PV – How much businesses and consumers can save after everything is bought and installed

From last week onwards all <4kW systems installed in the UK will receive 16p/kWh, a 63% in subsidy level since December 2011. Under this new framework, the feed-in tariff rate will continue to drop at regular intervals. To most people witnessing this, solar appears to be getting less and less attractive, but this simply isn’t true.

Solar is getting cheaper and as a result more affordable. The tariff changes themselves highlight this. Once bought and installed both businesses and consumers can make significant savings through Solar PV.

James Woollard, Managing Director, Evergreen PV discusses further…

From Wednesday 1st August residential tariffs decreased from 21p/kWh to 16p, and typical commercial tariffs at the 50kW scale fell from 15.2p/kWh to 13.5p. Looking at this quickly you would think installing a solar roof now is probably not worth it. But this really isn’t the case at all!

As the tariffs are dropping, so is the price of a fully installed solar PV system. In recent years we have seen PV modules reduce in price by nearly four times. Other components are also dropping in price, such as inverters and solar mounting systems, which have benefitted from manufacturing improvements and a more competitive wholesale market here in the UK. On top of all this, installers have now become very experienced and can install the systems in a more professional and efficient manner than ever before. In-fact over the last couple of years installation costs have come down by more than half, which is similar to what has happened with the feed-in tariffs.

However, personally, there is too much focus on the feed-in tariffs. This is just one of the positives of having solar on your roof, but there are many more.

For example, any electricity generated means you do not have to buy electricity from your supplier. This is the most important factor of having a solar roof. According to DECC, the price of electricity will rise by 33% by 2020, and commercial tariffs will rise by 43%. That’s a hefty increase!

From the commercial view-point, we would expect a 50kW installation to cost around £65k. However, we’d estimate the savings on electricity bills over 20 years to be well over £110,000, making PV by far the cheapest way of supplying electricity to the building. Add to this the additional feed-in tariff payment of over £200,000 for over 20 years, and suddenly it becomes very clear that solar is extremely cost effective, even despite the tariff cuts, with returns on investment of something like 18%, if not more.

With residential properties, the story is very much the same. A 2kW system costing £3,500 would provide savings of something like £5,000 and a feed in tariff of nearly £10,000 over 20 years, providing yet again a fantastic return on investment, coming to around the 15% mark.

Just looking at this here you can see just how much both businesses and consumers can save after solar PV equipment is bought and installed, even without taking the feed-in tariffs into account.

Customers must be aware though, they must be confident they are buying the best equipment, at the best price, with the best technical support available.

There are a lot of great solar panels, and solar inverters out there, but just as many bad ones. For example a lot of installers will supply inverters that won’t even last 10 years, and of course forget to mention this, which will have a big impact on any potential savings being made.

Anyone interested in installing solar, like with most things, should obtain at least three separate quotes, and ask about the technology that they are using, i.e. where it’s manufactured, its life expectancy etc, as this can have a big impact on the ROI.

Here at Evergreen we have spent the last two years sourcing the very best in solar technology, partnering with great manufacturers such as Samil Power, to ensure and guarantee that not only do our customers get the best prices, but the best technology out there, that will last the distance.

Over the last two years we have seen the UK economy crash and burn, and although there sometimes seems a glint of light for the future, many people remain dubious whether we will recover from this financial crisis for a fair while yet.

So, for the financially-savvy, the investment landscape has changed. Where stocks and shares were the 80s bliss, bricks and mortar a preferred investment in the 90s, today’s financial safe bets are few and far between. Banks have gone bust, high street heavyweights such as Woolworths, Habitat, MFI all gone, so the question is, where does the smart money go now? And how much will you realistically make?

I believe that solar PV is still one of the few viable investments around today. Providing homes with 15% ROI, and businesses even more, with a guaranteed revenue stream for the next two decades, even if you’re not interested in the positive environmental offering it provides, from a purely financial point it’s a no brainer!

Evergreen PV is one of the UK’s largest importers and distributors of solar PV kits. Based in Oxfordshire, and founded in 2010, Evergreen PV has spent the majority of the last two years sourcing the world’s best quality solar products and bringing them to the UK market. For more information visit or phone 0843 289 6636.

CTBUH 9th World Congress in Shanghai

Timothy Johnson, Partner at NBBJ and Chairman for Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

When John Portman & Associates developed the Shanghai Center in 1990, they helped launch a new era in tall building construction in China. The three-tower complex, with the tallest building rising to 165 meters, was a ground breaking development, creating China’s first mixed use center with homes, offices, a hotel, stores and entertainment facilities.

A little more than 20 years later China is in the midst of a historic tall building construction boom. There are 259 buildings of more than 150 meters in development, the most of any country in the world, according to data compiled by the CTBUH.

The volume of tall building construction in China is certainly one reason the CTBUH is staging its 9th World Congress in Shanghai, 19-21 September ( The Congress will be a historic event, bringing together the top builders and designers in China to discuss new technologies and the issues facing the industry.

But the development numbers only tell part of the story. China is also helping to lead the way in creating environmentally sensitive, sustainable tall buildings.

This might surprise some people. China’s environmental track record has been spotty, at best, as the country deals with widespread pollution issues. The problems have been exacerbated by a rapid, unprecedented urbanization process, as millions of people move into cities from the rural areas.

But tall buildings are playing a key role as China moves to create modern cities. With land scarce, growing taller is seen as one way to accommodate the fast-growing population of white collar workers.

For most architects working in China these days, sustainability and efficiency are at the forefront of almost every discussion. The Chinese have fostered a global partnership with some of most creative and skilled urban planners, architects and engineers from the West, with a clear focus on creating a new generation of green urban environments.

The results are evident in the buildings under development. The 632m Shanghai Tower, which will be the tallest building in China when it is finished in 2014, includes a unique dual-skin design which provides atrium space for ‘gardens in the sky’ every 12 to 15 stories. The transparent tower, designed by Gensler to achieve a LEED Gold rating, will be a true vertical community, with wind turbines, a rainwater collection system, geothermal thermal heating and cooling systems, and 33 percent of the project devoted to green space.

Shanghai Tower is not an isolated example. In Wujiang, Skidmore Owings & Merrill’s Greenland Group Suzhou Center is built around a 30-story central atrium which serves as the “lung” of the building, inviting in cool air during the summer months and flooding the interior spaces with natural light.

Then there’s SOM’s recently completed Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, which utilizes many state-of-the-art techniques to help reduce the project’s carbon footprint. Careful wind engineering, a double-facade curtain wall, radiant ceiling, solar panels, daylight harvesting and underfloor ventilation all help make the tower a model for sustainable design.

But tall buildings remain controversial, even within China. A recent editorial in the Southern Metropolis Daily referred to skyscrapers as ‘white elephants’, citing concerns about safety and the high costs of operations. There are real concerns about the costs and long term-sustainability of projects. But several China developers are trying to create projects that enhance and grow the urban environment.

It will take more than a few high-profile projects to reach China’s goals. And there are many challenges to overcome. We’re expecting lively discussions at the Shanghai Congress, as experts explore new ways to work toward the ultimate goal of creating a zero-energy tall building.

Solar power – Can the UK replicate the Germans?

German solar power producers have once again set a new record in solar energy production by pumping 14.7 TWh of electricity into the power grid during the first 6 months of 2012. That’s 4.5% of the total power production during that period.

So, can the rest of the world get anywhere close to achieving this? And if so, how?

James Woollard, Managing Director at Evergreen PV explores…

Earlier in the year German solar power plants also announced that they produced a world record 22 gigawatts of electricity – equal to 20 nuclear power stations at full capacity – through the midday hours of a Friday and Saturday May weekend, which met nearly 50% of the nation’s midday electricity needs.

That’s right – half of all of Germany was powered by electricity generated by solar plants!

Last year Germany decided to phase out nuclear power by 2022. Renewable energies are set to generate 30 percent of the electricity by then, and 80 percent by 2050.

Germany is pretty much singlehandedly proving that solar can be a major, reliable source of power – even in countries that aren’t all that sunny!

And it’s the result of two main factors:

Fukushima and a feed-in tariff

Now, the German Government started to cut off nuclear power long before the Fukushima disaster happened in Japan, but the event did show how important it is to rely not only on ‘classical’ energy sources. So the country made a promise to shut down all of its nuclear plants, and replace them with clean sources.

Germany, similar to what we’ve done here in the UK, also instituted a feed-in tariff system, which requires utilities to buy solar power from producers, large and small, at a fixed rate. So basically anyone can buy solar panels, set them up, plug them into the grid, and get paid for it.

The German feed-in tariff does make electricity more expensive, as the cost of subsiding that higher fixed rate is absorbed by all electricity consumers. But to be fair, Germany doesn’t really mind. In the wake of Fukushima, a poll showed that 71 percent of the German public said they’d pay 20 euros more per month for clean, non-nuclear power. Essentially, Germany, and its people have agreed that producing non-nuclear clean power is worth shelling out for.

The truth though, is that solar PV is actually both viable at scale and cheap. For example Spain is installing large-scale capacity at a basic cost of $0.03/Kwh next year.

In the UK, there has been some drop in demand for solar, as a result of our feed-in tariff cuts, but I believe that’s more to do with a lack of consumer confidence. There have been a lot of mixed messages around solar, solar panels, and solar investments. And just in the UK but across the globe too.

Germany is a powerhouse of engineering, technical know how and a willingness to invest in future technologies. Given the fact that in Bosch and Siemens Germany has two of the world’s major power conversion specialist manufacturers, I think it eminently believable that Germany will achieve a very high proportion of its electricity generation needs from renewables.

Solar is relatively predictable and the next step is to develop energy storage. Energy storage will obviously add cost, but as is starting to be realised, solar is not expensive and is getting cheaper all the time. Add energy storage, and solar is not just an alternative, it is the best solution. And we (the rest of the world) can make it happen. We just need to want it more, but we’ve got to act now. Germany has chosen solar, because the people want it, and we need to be the same.

It is solar that is bringing prices down now in Germany due to merit order effect on peak prices and we can choose to do the same, or not. We can choose to bring prices down or not. We can choose to bring down emissions or not. We can choose to move away from importing energy or not. We can choose to be controlled by energy companies or not. We can choose to replicate Germany.

It is not a debate about what is possible; it is a debate about what we want, and what world we want to leave our children.

The fact remains that Germany has achieved something remarkable here, and its experiment need not be anomalous. We should be striving to replicate its success – Germany has proven that solar power isn’t just some daydream, but an engine that can power the world’s most industrious and advanced nations.

Evergreen PV is one of the UK’s largest importers and distributors of solar PV kits. Based in Oxfordshire, and founded in 2010, Evergreen PV has spent the majority of the last two years sourcing the world’s best quality solar products and bringing them to the UK market. For more information visit or phone 0843 289 6636.

China vs. the US – Is there a potential trade war now that the U.S. have slapped tariffs on Chinese-made solar panels?

James Woollard, Managing Director, Evergreen PV

Solar panels are supposed to be a product of the future, but they are caught up in an old battle between China and the U.S. Some analysts are warning of a trade war after the U.S. slapped tariffs on Chinese-made solar panels, but are they already in one?

For a number of years U.S. energy companies have complained they can’t compete with the vast amount of ‘cheap’ solar energy products that are coming from China and flooding the U.S. and other world markets. Companies facing financial troubles or even bankruptcy are looking for a scapegoat, and many of them are pointing at China.

In response, the U.S. Department of Commerce is launching an investigation into these practices. They announced recently the preliminary decision to impose ‘anti-dumping’ duties of 31.22% on crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells imported from China. This anti-dumping investigation has led Commerce to explore the option of levying duty fees, or tariffs, against the Chinese-made solar goods.

For me it’s an odd industry for the U.S. administration to target – as all those Chinese subsidies have made solar roughly price-competitive as an energy source for the first time, something the supposedly environmentally-minded administration would approve of. But now the administration wants to make it more expensive.

Just last year, China sold more than $3.1bn worth of solar cells and panels in the U.S, so I guess I can see why it is referred to as a ‘dump.’

Obviously The Chinese Government is protesting the U.S. anti-dumping tariffs on their solar panels, calling them unfair and damaging to producers and consumers. A statement from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce said Washington’s decision sent a ‘negative signal’ about trade protectionism.

It’s fair to say the Chinese aren’t best pleased, whilst many American firms have kept pretty quiet, and for the rest of us, well, we just want everyone to get along!

Only recently the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the national trade association representing companies across the solar value chain, released a statement saying that the two parties must immediately work together towards a ‘mutually satisfactory resolution.’

China-based solar firms, however, have been finding ways to avoid paying the tariff such as transferring solar orders to Taiwan.

Taiwan-based solar cell makers have been experiencing rising capacity utilisation rates but indicated that orders from China-based firms often have unprofitably low quotes. China obviously doesn’t want to give up on the U.S. market, because it is one of the fastest growing solar markets in the world, but the U.S. Department of Commerce aren’t making it easy.

This isn’t the first time Commerce has threatened to impose such tariffs, or indeed carried them out. Protectionism is always controversial, and in today’s global economy it’s not always easy to know if one country’s tariffs might not also harm companies within that same country’s borders. For example, some American energy companies that use Chinese-made solar parts might stand to lose profits if they have to buy them at higher margins.

Following the announcement of the tariffs, Beijing mounted a spirited response, with officials accusing Washington of illegally helping its domestic industry and Chinese solar companies teaming up to fight the levies.

At the end of May China’s Commerce Ministry said in a brief statement that its investigations of six clean-energy projects in five U.S. states had uncovered violations of international trade law, although wouldn’t go into further details.

The chief executives of four major Chinese solar power equipment companies then announced that they had allied to fight Washington’s allegations, saying the Chinese industry is beneficial to the U.S. The alliance said U.S. consumers benefit from the lower prices that result from the industry’s concentration and competitiveness.

Chinese manufacturers shipped nearly half the world’s solar panel’s last year, representing more than 10,900 megawatts, while U.S. supplied just 3%, or about 780 megawatts. U.S. policy isn’t the only challenge for China’s solar industry. A study published last year by three scholars at George Washington University estimated that Chinese companies will be able to make 38% more product than they can sell this year and predicted that the question of whether Chinese supply and demand can come into balance will depend on the bite of U.S. import policy and installation of the equipment in China.

The way I see it is that the U.S. market even with added costs would survive, as it is currently in a state of boom. A report prepared by GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association showed that in the last quarter the U.S. installed 506 megawatts of photovoltaic panels – the second-most number of quarterly installations ever and an 85% spike from the first quarter of 2011. But more importantly the developers of projects have good margins and can afford to cut back on margins, if needed to. The same cannot be said however for the Chinese who already have deeply cut margins.

Furthermore, and adding to China’s growing headache, as I write this article, Solarworld AG (SWV), Germany’s biggest solar-panel maker, have announced plans to file an ‘anti-dumping’ case against Chinese competitors as part of a group of European manufacturers. Apparently they want to submit the case in Europe as soon as possible.

The sad part is that China has done a fantastic job with making solar a viable energy source for the future, and they do produce some very high quality products.

If the tariffs go through, Chinese companies will be left to either raise their prices in hopes of turning a (now lowered) profit, or as I’ve already mentioned move their manufacturing centres outside of China to dodge the tariffs.

Whether an energy company in America is smiling or frowning about these potential tariffs depends greatly upon where they sit on the solar supply chain. The people who shape steel and silicon into panels might be happy, but the people who actually install the finished panels onto rooftops, for example, might be less so.

I am optimistic for China and I think they can prevent the tariff from hurting them too much. Hopefullywe can all work together; China, the U.S, Europe and everybody else, preventing this from becoming any more of a trade war, and instead a war against reliance on carbon based fuels.

Evergreen PV is one of the UK’s largest importers and distributors of solar PV kits. Based in Oxfordshire, and founded in 2010, Evergreen PV has spent the majority of the last two years sourcing the world’s best quality solar products and bringing them to the UK market. For more information visit or phone 0843 289 6636.

The Green Deal – Is the government’s flagship green policy set for failure?

James Woollard, Managing Director, Evergreen PV

The Green Deal is at the heart of the UK government’s ambition to be the ‘greenest ever’ as it will deliver large cuts in climate-warming carbon emissions, and curb high energy bills by making houses warmer and less expensive to heat.

But with just three months to go, and many unanswered questions, is the policy set for failure? James Woollard, Managing Director at Evergreen PV takes a closer look…

The flagship Green Deal policy has massive potential, but with so many unanswered questions the road ahead for the project looks decidedly rocky.

Businesses considering developing Green Deal services, homes and companies looking to take out Green Deal offers, and environmentalists keen to see the UK meet its carbon targets need to know more before they back the project, and if they don’t back it, then quite simply, there is no project.

One very important question that the Government has yet to be clear on, is what the interest rate will actually be. They’ve hinted that packages will be between six and eight percent. This might not sound much of a difference, but in reality it is, and will have a huge impact on which solar panels, inverters etc will be able to qualify under the ‘golden rule.’

If the Government decides to go with high interest rates such as eight per cent, will people really take out a financing package that would require them to pay back around double the initial £10,000 loan?

Also, there’s been a lot of talk on how the scheme will be incentivised. The treasury has confirmed £200m will be available on a one-off basis to support early participation, but details are still yet to be confirmed. For example would this be a cash-back incentive, or have the Government got something else planned? Different incentives work for different people, so you can see why people will hold back until they know more.

Then there’s the ‘golden rule,’ which is promising people energy bill savings that are greater than resulting energy bill levies, e.g. net financial benefits. But if the rule doesn’t stand up, and the National press got hold of a few stories where households see their bills rise or weren’t happy with the work done through the Green Deal project, then this could quickly turn into a PR nightmare, putting others completely off the scheme.

Of course the Green Deal is open to businesses too, from SMEs to much larger companies. However calculating the golden rule will be a lot tougher for commercial premises than domestic, which again could prove a real nightmare.

I guess the ultimate question is; ‘will this work, and if so will it make a enough of a difference.’ This is a crucial time for the UK, and for achieving its carbon targets. If the Green Deal works as the Government says then the next few carbon budgets will be completely achievable. But if high interest rates emerge, along with problems with the golden rule, then there is a serious risk the Green Deal will be ineffective with regards energy efficiency savings, which will only mean that we will just have to do it all over again in a few years time.

The Government has responded to a lot of the criticism of the Green Deal fairly well, and I’m sure most of us would love to see it prove to be a big success. There aren’t many opportunities that come about where you can transform the UK’s building stock, so let’s hope we can all work together and make this really happen.

Evergreen PV is one of the UK’s largest importers and distributors of solar PV kits. Based in Oxfordshire, and founded in 2010, Evergreen PV has spent the majority of the last two years sourcing the world’s best quality solar products and bringing them to the UK market.For more information visit or phone 0843 289 6636.

Is it worth rebuilding Kevin’s house?

Duncan Baker-Brown – BBM Sustainable Design

It’s a month since I last updated my blog. Rather remiss of me I know, but I do have one rather nice excuse. We have just received funding to rebuild a house that I first built in 2008. This wasn’t any ordinary house, it was The House That Kevin Built (THTKB in short), Europe’s first prefabricated dwelling (well since 16th/ 17th Century) made entirely of compostable, replenishable & waste material.

TalkbackThames, the TV production company behind Channel 4’s hugely successful Grand Designs presented by Kevin McCloud, were looking for a slightly different angle on their brand. So they came up with an idea for a live version of the show that would follow the building of this unusual house over six days. When they approached me to design it I initially thought that it would not be possible to do as although prefabrication was good from an environmental point of view because it reduced waste in manufacture, the systems out there utilised lots of nasty petrochemical products that for me undermined any eco credentials. However I was also aware that a number of UK based architects were developing just the sort of construction systems that would do the job nicely.

THTKB Mk I in 2008

So I had one week to develop a design making the most of two brand new hardly ever (if ever in one case) used prefabricated systems. The first had been around for a couple of years. It was called ModCell and was the invention of Craig White of White Design. It comprised engineered timber boxes on roughly 3mx3m modules, in-filled with either straw or a Lime & Hemp mix. In both cases panels uniquely mixed the positive qualities of thermal mass and insulation. At 1.5 tonnes a panel we used these in the ground floor areas combined with an amazingly slim (120mm) engineered timber first floor panel system. The first floor was open planned and vaulted; a big lightweight bubble formed of ply boxes by FACIT that locked together creating the first floor external envelope. Married to this were a two storey rammed earth wall and the UK’s first full integrated solar roof creating hot water and electricity.

THTKB Mk I was built on time in 6 days. An average of 5,000,000 viewers a night watched the show. It was delivered using mainly UK-based companies and it was UK’s first A+ Rated dwelling in May 2008. A great success by all accounts. However it was only up for two days before it was pulled apart.

THTKB MkII on campus at University of Brighton Faculty of Art

Fast-forward to May 2011 and we had just cast low carbon foundations in the grounds of the University of Brighton’s Faculty of Art for THTKB Mk II. Students from the University and apprentices from Brighton contractors Mears installed all below ground works. But then it went on hold again due to financial problems.

So why did we want to rebuild this structure from 2008? Well firstly because THTKB was only around as a building for two days we had never had time to test or monitor the performance of its cutting edge design. However it would be rather boring to just rebuild the same thing again 4 years later. So this time we are going to slow down the build process so that we can include school pupils, students and anybody else who wants to be involved. We also want the design, construction and occupation of THTKB Mk II to be a fully inclusive experience and regularly updated as a test-bed of innovative green ideas. For a start we worked with students within the Faculty of Art to design/ invent some new construction systems for the rebuild project. This time around we have also decided to focus on reducing the amount of new resources we will need to construct THTKB. So we are asking around for waste material within and outside the construction industry. Material such as waste textiles/ clothes etc for wall insulation. As well as low-tech green ideas we are also plugging into brand new green technologies.

The plan is to develop the design of THTKB MkII over the next three months and then be on site in the Autumn of 2012 and Spring 2013. Want to get involved? Contact Duncan on For more information see THTKB website.

A question of VAT

Duncan Baker-Brown – BBM Sustainable Design

For my third blog I wanted to focus for a moment on UK economics. The Architects’ Journal is currently calling for entries for its third annual Retrofit Awards, which it says ‘celebrates design, engineering and construction excellence that prolongs the active life of buildings and infrastructure’.

Since the credit crunch of 2008 Past RIBA President Sunand Prasad and others (myself included) have been urging architects to engage with the concept of working on retrofitting projects; reworking existing building in other words. Sunand quite correctly saw this as a possible growing area of work in an otherwise shrinking marketplace for architects. Rather predictably there was a chorus of negative replies from architects making statements around the idea that they hadn’t studied for seven years to tweak other people’s designs. However if we are honest a huge amount of any architects’ workload has come from this sector; who hasn’t worked on converting a Victorian terrace house?

As I have argued previously, retrofitting our existing cities so that they perform as low carbon circular metabolisms is an urgent priority if we are to have a hope of living in harmony with the natural world.

Of course the concept of retrofitting has a bit of a dull image: it certainly doesn’t sound sexy. In addition I would argue that for every rather dull over-cladding project there are plenty of underused or empty urban developments requiring an architectonic response to a new complex hybrid programme.

The Nook in Brighton

My practice like many others has just completed a number of domestic retrofit projects. One of them, The Nook in Brighton, is a free-standing large ‘listed’ Victorian villa divided into six small apartments. As part of the central government’s TSB Retrofit the Future initiative we over-clad the dwelling with insulation and render, added double and single glazing, MVHR and a couple of solar thermal panels. The ambition was to reduce the CO2 output of the house by 80%. The building has been occupied by six separate tenants for the last six months and is currently performing in excess of our targets. Not architecturally that challenging I agree, but extremely satisfying to know that we have turned this old gas guzzler into a lean low carbon 21st-century home for about £25,000 + VAT per tenant. As it is ‘listed’ VAT was ‘zero-rated’.

We have just finished another project where the client was prepared to pay the VAT associated with the extension and green retrofit of his 1950’s home. However more and more clients cannot afford to pay this tax and simply abandon their retrofit projects once they realise that what they thought was a decent budget is immediately cut by a fifth in order to pay HM Treasury their due. This is a very sad state of affairs. Since 2007 VAT has risen by 33%. This has resulted in many smaller retrofit projects becoming unviable, and more disturbingly larger projects morphing into ‘new build’ ones simply because if the budget gets over £500,000 or so the £10,000 or less required to demolish an average sized 4-bedroom house looks minuscule when compared to £100,000 or more of VAT.

Varndean Gardens green retrofit of a 1950's house in Brighton

Many individuals and larger organisations have been lobbying The Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne for the last couple of years asking him to remove, or at least reduce, VAT on green retrofit projects as a way of kick-starting the sadly depleted construction industry. Mr Osborne’s response in his last budget in March was to add VAT onto ‘listed’ projects as well. This caused a huge kerfuffle among the great and the good and the situation is obviously not resolved as I write this blog.

So sadly we still have the position where ‘new build’ projects are ‘zero-rated’ and retrofit projects are all taxed. However, if Mr. Osborne is concerned that people will take his tax a run, he should rest assured. I truly believe it would be very straightforward to prove to HM Treasury that your project was indeed as green as you contest. Simply by getting the applicant to employ a government-approved energy assessor to work out the CO2/m2/annum of the existing and proposed situations just as we did at The Nook. Then allow for monitoring the performance in-use for a year. You could have a sliding scale of VAT reductions based upon the percentage reduction in CO2 emissions. Therefore zero-rated VAT would be awarded to scheme achieving 80% or better CO2 reductions. It would also kick start the extremely valuable small-scale residential construction sector. Another example of a green industry that could help get us out of our current economic turmoil.

Anyway until George Osborne MP sees some sense I am officially in the business of demolishing perfectly good homes in order to replace them with low carbon versions of what was there before.

Duncan Baker-Brown is co-director of one of the UK’s leading award winning green architectural practices: BBM Sustainable Design. He is also an academic and campaigner focusing on issues of sustainable development, holding the position of Senior Lecturer at the School of Architecture and Design at the University of Brighton. Duncan has spent a long time designing buildings that utilise locally sourced, ‘replenishable’ material such hemp, straw, timber, grass etc. His practice designed the first public building using straw bales (Romney Warren Visitors Centre), as well as the first prefabricated house made entirely of these materials; The House That Kevin Built in 2008.

Look towards Paris?

Duncan Baker-Brown – BBM Sustainable Design

If we continue to aim for the UK government target of reducing CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050 we will have to collectively retrofit our housing stock at a rate of over 500,000 properties a year for the next 38 years…and that doesn’t include the millions of gas guzzling non-domestic properties; offices, factories, schools, shopping malls etc, that also require a green overhaul. Some properties will be demolished of course, but the UK tends to preserve its older residential buildings to such an extent that we expect to have 80% of our current housing stock to be around in 2050.

So our future ‘Eco Towns’ are in reality our current towns and cities. Building new Eco Towns will not help reduce our collective carbon/ ecological footprint at all. At best they may act as an exemplar for construction techniques and design. The responsibility of working in harmony with our natural world lies squarely with improving and nurturing existing systems, places and behaviour patterns.

What I am most interested in is ideas and projects that demonstrate how we can work with existing situations to develop them cleverly to meet current and future demands without simply/ dumbly wiping the slate clean and demolishing buildings/ infrastructure/ communities as we have often done in the past.

Existing Brighton Tower by Unplugged Student Stuart Paine: Creating Energy from Green Algae/ Reusing existing building but adding hotel and spa while enhancing existing low cost apartments. Image by Stuart Paine

Over the last 5 years or so my design partner and I have run a post-graduate studio ‘Unplugged’ at the University of Brighton considering just this design scenario: “How do you work with existing urban places and transform them so that they create their own energy, deal with their own waste, perhaps grow their own food, drastically reduce their carbon footprint, look good and support sustainable communities?”

We took our inspiration from many sources. Ironically one of the richest was the Alabama-based practice & school of architecture Rural Studio who have run their $20k house project for nearly a decade. $20k comes from the idea that it would be the realistic mortgage a person on social security could maintain. Obviously this is no budget at all to work with. Rural Studio students have to work with existing stuff and scrounge materials, re-appropriate things normally thrown away, whether it is car windscreens, carpet tiles or whatever to create new structures.

Another inspiration was Cuba’s ‘Special Period’ that started in 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba immediately lost 50% of their imported oil supply and 80% of their imported food. The people of Cuba were incredibly resourceful and survived their own ‘Peak Oil’ crisis by growing their own food and creating their own local (often passive solar) energy. Currently they are the only country to be subjected to such a situation. However many people believe that we could all find ourselves in a similar situation over the next 50 years or so unless we find ways of reducing our addiction to fossil fuels and other resources.

Looking nearer to where I am based, I am often struck at the clever ideas immerging from Parisian-based architects such as Lacaton & Vassal, and Jakob & Macfarlane.

Keeping the concrete structure of the 'Docks of Paris' Building from 1907 Jakob & Macfarlane's new French Fashion Institute (IFM) building Paris. Image by DBB

Lacaton & Vassal first came to my attention when they took over the refurbishment of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris that was first built in 1937. The original refurbishment project was abandoned in 1997 after much of the interior fabric was stripped out and too much of the original budget used up. Lacaton & Vassal picked up the project and using a minimal budget made the best of what they had to create a careful and witty centre for ‘contemporary creation’. Famously when they received the commission to transform a triangular town square in Bordeaux Lacaton & Vassal decided that the square was fine as it was and that the ‘existing life there made the square already pretty’.

Current projects include the elegant refurbishment and clever extension of a 16-storey, 96-apartment tower block in Paris, Tour Bois le Prêtre-Druot. Again Lacaton & Vassal have worked with existing stuff and not thrown it away (and that includes existing successful communities). The net result is a hugely reduced carbon footprint associated with this development both during construction as well as in use. Building a new ‘green eco tower’ on the site would have required far more resources.

The greening of our cities will require many ideas from a diverse range of sources. It is my opinion that simply increasing fabric insulation and adding on solar panels, while crucial, will not do the job on its own. We need clever, holistic and visionary design solutions. No change there then.

Duncan Baker-Brown is co-director of one of the UK’s leading award winning green architectural practices: BBM Sustainable Design. He is also an academic and campaigner focusing on issues of sustainable development, holding the position of Senior Lecturer at the School of Architecture and Design at the University of Brighton. Duncan has spent a long time designing buildings that utilise locally sourced, ‘replenishable’ material such hemp, straw, timber, grass etc. His practice designed the first public building using straw bales (Romney Warren Visitors Centre), as well as the first prefabricated house made entirely of these materials; The House That Kevin Built in 2008.