City&Country: Green Moves-- Moving towards sustainable urbanism

More emphasis should be placed on creating green neighbourhoods, because at the moment the focus is on achieving green credentials for the individual building, British architect Noel Isherwood of the London-based The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment tells City & Country.

According to its website, The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment is an educational charity with the objective to “improve the quality of life through teaching and practising timeless and ecological ways of planning, designing and building”.

Isherwood says in an email interview that one of the best approaches to educating the built environment industry about building low-carbon neighbourhoods is by “building exemplar mixed-use, dense and walkable neighbourhoods using locally sourced natural materials, integrated with agricultural food production. This is called ‘sustainable urbanism’, or sometimes eco-towns”.

Isherwood cites as an example the Poundbury community in the southwest of England, developed by the Duchy of Cornwall some 20 years ago and designed by master planner Leon Krier. It has been recognised internationally as a model for structuring settlements.

“Poundbury was the first in recent times to use the ‘walkable neighbourhood’ principle, with the additional innovations of non-segregated, integrated affordable (government subsidised) housing, mixed land uses, shared surfaces and traffic calming based on organic, permeable streets and public places,” he explains.

“The current infrastructure-led built environment where the highway engineers’ dominance reflects our obsession with the motorcar. We view the world through the windscreen, requiring heavy road signage to keep the traffic flowing along at top speed. To create walkable neighbourhoods requires moving from a vehicular-scaled environment to a human scale.

“Roads, streets and underground infrastructure should be rescaled to produce quality places that can begin to compete again with natural settlements that have given so much pleasure in the past, and where we choose to vacation,” he says.

altIsherwood, an architect since 1984, joined the Prince’s Foundation in 2007. He has been involved in several pioneering projects, including Newquay, an urban extension and design workshop with the Duchy of Cornwall to create a sustainable neighbourhood, as well as Coed Darcy, a new urban quarter in Swansea in South Wales, together with British Petrol and St Modwens.

Isherwood says developers take the longest time to change their tune as they have vested interests in the old models of development. “Government, however, is being pushed by the climate change pressures to at least be seen to take the lead. The public is beginning to see the health and quality-of-life benefits of non-car dominated environments and are happy when their fuel bills come down especially as energy prices rise,” he says.

In terms of time and cost in relation to low carbon building and communities, Isherwood says it is difficult to summarise: “But it is becoming clear that long-term investment models are needed to move to a more sustainable future. The standard short-term investment models have resulted in poor standards of sustainability for the built environment in recent times.”

Isherwood will be speaking on low carbon building and communities at the upcoming International Green Building Conference in Penang on May 13 and 14.

Building responsibly in Malaysia
Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM) president Boon Che Wee, who will also be speaking at the International Green Building Conference in Penang, believes that Malaysian property developers have moved rapidly beyond the early phase of concern over the cost of building green to focus now on meeting the demand for green properties.

alt“As a developing nation we cannot stop building, but we can start building responsibly. Given that sustainability is a primary concern of the property industry, the cost of not building green, that is not meeting market expectations, can be substantial,” he says.

Existing buildings and their communities contribute over 40% of greenhouse gases to the environment. “With the recently launched Green Building Index for non-residential existing building rating on April 26, it will unlock a new and critical capacity in the country’s carbon reduction to meet Malaysia’s commitment to the world,” Boon says.

He believes it is entirely possible to design and build a home that relies little on mechanical cooling, or none at all.

“In Malaysia, the environmental and economical benefits for residential properties can be substantial. We are too familiar with the cycle of leaving our home that had been perfectly cooled overnight, for it to absorb heat throughout the day, only to have to re-cool it again when we return in the evening.

“The investment in mechanical cooling could instead be directed to a renewable energy source such as photovoltaic installation to harness electricity to run other appliances in the house. And very soon, we will be able to feed the electricity that we have harnessed at home to our grid during the day when electricity is least used, and be compensated for it,” he says.

The Malaysian government announced on May 4 the implementation of the National Renewable Energy Policy and Action Plan, which will see the start of the electricity feed-in-tariff (FiT) mechanism by 2011. FiT is a mechanism that prioritises electricity generated from renewable energy resources to be purchased by power utilities at a fixed premium price for a specific duration.

“I believe green building is the architecture of hope — hope because we do have the knowledge, the skill, the technology and most importantly, the opportunity to build green now,” Boon says. The International Green Building Conference is organised by the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM) and Green Building Index Malaysia.

This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 805, May 10 - 16, 2010

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