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.

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