Houses for a sustainable future at BRE Innovation Park

My environmentally friendly car of the future is a BMW M3. What does my sustainable house look like? Well this might give you an idea…

Last week I visited the BRE (Building Research Establishment) head quarters in Watford. More specifically I had a tour around Innovation Park. This is a live test bed for the future of Sustainable Innovations. Its focused on domestic housing and there are eight houses there currently – all integrating, showcasing and actually testing the latest in design and technology to maximise sustainable living. The Government are backing this initiative and pushing for continually higher standards. Domestic houses have standards set/ bench-marked by the Code for Sustainable Homes. These are not currently mandatory for all homes. The HCA (Homes and Communities Agency) have set specific ‘sustainability’ targets to be achieved for all new Social/ Affordable housing in the future.

The industry recognised measurement body for sustainability is BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method – you can see why they went for BREEAM!) I’ve always called it “BREE-AM”, but I was assured by the people at the BRE that it is actually said “BRE(EA)M” – like the Fish. Maybe there’s a tenuous association there to preserving natural habitats? Or maybe not.

I hadn’t appreciated that the BRE was first established in the 1920’s, although its focus in the early days was on improving housing quality generally, with less emphasis on Sustainability. I suspect they probably had little/ no understanding of the impact of buildings on the environment – and therefore the need for more sustainable homes back then. During the second world the BRE site in Watford was also used for confidential research and development of the bouncing bomb – used on the Möhne Dam in the famous Dambusters Raid in 1943. We saw the scaled ‘test’ model of the Dam which is still there today and is Listed by English Heritage.

The day at the BRE was hugely informative and insightful. Here’s some of my observations/ thoughts from it…

A lot of the houses there are very conceptual in their design; challenging the way we live now – as well as integrating sustainable design principles. This is commendable (and very good from an Architects ‘design’ perspective), but I cant help challenge it from a layperson point of view. It’s one thing people embracing sustainable living and energy use/ re-use, but to wrap this in an envelope/ floor plan format that is very different to ‘the british semi’ maybe a step too far? Surely this is adding obstacles to gaining wider public support? For me that’s the challenge here; to create houses which maxmise sustainable living, in a fabric and format which the majority of house buyers will want to buy/ live in. You can see links/ full details of all the houses being showcased by clicking here to open a PDF guide. However, three houses stood out for me, for different very reasons…

The Barratt Green House (click on title to see a pdf)
This is an ‘urban living’ home, designed to be built in terraces. It is designed to the highest achievable standard; CfSH Level 6. This is an interesting format and contemporary in its appearance. It has high levels of thermal mass through its concrete panelised construction. Externally is has triple glazed windows with external automated shutters, a sedum roof and rainwater harvesting. Internally it runs on a mechanical ventilation system, solar PV, solar thermal, and an air source heat pump – all managed via a computerised control system. This is all impressive stuff. Like most of these houses it requires a Plant Room (not the green growing things – M&E machinery!). This is something the homebuyers might also need to get used to in the future! The downside you ask?…it costs £1.2m to build at the moment! Not exactly deliverable to the masses.

The Renewable House (click on title to see a pdf)
This is probably the closest house to being ‘normal’ – as we know it. It is built with a timber frame and Hempcrete walls. Thermafleece roof insulation is made of British Sheep Wool to keep the house warm. Heating is provided via an under-floor heating system and solar thermal collectors provide hot water. This house concept was used by Kevin McLoud in his Haboakus housing development called ‘The Triangle’ in Swindon. A scheme which I didn’t really buy into when watching the Channel 4 documentary last year. However, this house is more conventional and therefore will possibly be accepted by the masses. It also costs £75k to build. This all seems quite good. However, it feels like any other ‘new house’ – is this good? Maybe there’s a balance to be had here.

The Prince’s House (click on title to see a pdf)
This house has been designed by the Prince’s Foundation. Describing the vision, HRH The Prince of Wales said; The Natural House doesn’t wear its “greenness” as if it was the latest piece of haute couture. . This is and interesting perspective. When I talk to people about their ‘ideal house’ more often than not they describe an old House, with well proportioned rooms and windows and solid walls, but wrapped in a modern, efficient and low-maintenance fabric. As an Architect people often say to me ‘would you like to design/ build your own house one day?’ – Actually my ideal house would be an old brick/ stone barn conversion, with complimentary contemporary additions – a blend of old/ new. Something spacious with real character, texture and detail. I digress a little here, but there’s a link. What has been achieved with the Prince’s house is a blend of efficient building technology with decent spaces internally. Its not uber modern or full of M&E ‘machines’, but actually really attractive – most of all internally. It uses natural materials, is highly insulated, uses wood fibre and sheep wool for insulation and a Passive ventilation system which modulates humidity and promotes a ‘healthy’ environment for occupants. Externally it could have a degree of flexibility in its aesthetic, but what they have designed has meaning.

“The Natural House’s basic appearance is that of “evolved tradition” – it used the simplest and most successful building solutions of the past and updates them to meet the needs of our low-energy future”.

The proportions of the house are based on a 6m x 6m square. This has a historic reference to early mass-housing design. These are the dimensions of each side of the house in elevation and also corresponds with the internal floor layouts. The front and rear rooms are each 6m x 6m. Internally it has high ceilings and big windows – the affect this has is wholly positive. I think this house has a lot of considered, informed and successful design thought in it. Figures to build this aren’t confirmed, but its believed to cost around £140k to build. Of all the houses we saw, I think this has perhaps has the most going for it.

I’ve often felt frustrated by modern house design – and a sense that their proportions, details and ‘features’ look and feel wrong (to me). Maybe this is because a lot of modern homes aren’t actually designed by Architects? Add to that an immense pressure to make them cheap and quick to build and the output is, by and large, average at best. We should go back in time. Understand the thinking behind Georgian and Victorian homes in particular – a lot of which still exist.

So future housing design should obviously embrace sustainability, but also consider the past in terms of spacial and proportional qualities in housing design. Perhaps all this technology isn’t what its all about? Maybe we should keep it simple.

However, the real challenge now though is not really what all our new homes should be like (although long-term its important), but rather how we can adapt our current housing stock to improve energy efficiency and help the environment. There are currently around 25 million homes in the UK. New ‘eco’ housing stock will be, for some time yet, a very small proportion of this figure. How can we assess ‘the british semi’ and make it better? Well this is being looked at, although there was little evidence of this at the BRE. Actually the University of Nottingham have a similar Sustainable homes research programme on-campus. You can see details of it here. The image below is one of their houses. A 1930’s Semi-detached house – a format that makes up around 60% of the UK’s current housing stock. This is the problem in terms of the environment and this is what we need solutions for. Effective sustainable innovations which can be retro-fitted to current homes.

So, I think I’ve probably talked enough for now! This is a hugely important subject which needs continued research, testing and wider public awareness/ promotion. If you want to go the the BRE’s Innovation Park, go to their website. You can book a visit for just £30 per person and I think its very worthwhile.

One final thought; part of me expected/ hoped to see the car park at the BRE full of super efficient hybrid cars like Toyota Prius’ and super-mini electric cars…I was surprised. There were actually a lot of 4×4’s and the odd BMW M3 also! Maybe Jeremy Clarkson was right when Top Gear ‘proved‘ that a BMW M3 is more efficient and better for the environment than a Toyota Prius. Watch it here.

The future is sustainability.

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Multisensory Mumbai.

After spending a few days in Dubai, the second half of our recent business trip took us to Mumbai in India. We have have an office there, which has been successfully delivering architectural consultancy, Pan India, for five years now. Leaving the dry heat of Dubai and everything looking rather beige (thanks to the sand), arriving in Mumbai was an immediate assault on the senses! It was monsoon season while we were there, but luckily the weather wasn’t too bad.

Mumbai is intense, in seemingly every possible way. It is perhaps the busiest place I have ever been to (and I spend a lot of time in London). The amount of activity in any one moment is a lot to take in. Your senses are overwhelmed; sights, smells, tastes and sounds. As we drove down roads, there were people, animals and vehicles all jostling to progress on their journeys. The blend of life is amazing; from the wealthy to the poor. It is fascinating to experience, but tiring also. The roads are interesting. I’ve been on some busy roads, Rome springs to mind as one place. But in Mumbai the roads are so busy, its pretty much standstill a lot of the time. What would be three lane carriageways here are typically five-six vehicles abreast, Lorry’s, Buses, Cars, Taxi’s, Tuk Tuk’s (lots of those!) and motorbikes all moving around with no real regard for lanes. Sounding your horn is mandatory and is done so to advise other drivers that you are coming – its noisy all the time! Getting to your destination is about being patient, calm and to some extent forceful. But impact seems to be a rarity?!

Our offices are locating in Andheri West and we stayed at Juhu Beach, both in the north west area of Mumbai. This area is also home to the Bollywood film industry.

One evening we took a drive to south Mumbai, on the way we passed the “worlds most expensive house”. I was expecting to see immense landscaped grounds and a large stately looking mansion – perhaps a bit like Buckingham Palace. No, this is a tower, its actually a 27-storey house (which is the equivalent to 60-storeys with standard floor to floor heights). It was commissioned and is owned by Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries. Reliance are a bit like Virgin (they have many different businesses), including a major retail company which owns the franchise rights to many global brands in India. The house is called Antilia and it has a floor area of 400,000ft2, parking for 168 cars, Nine lifts, three helipads, an Ice room (where it snows), a health spa, a 50-seater theatre and much more! Its has over 500 staff to run the place. This, as with the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, is a statement of wealth. Architecturally, I have mixed views on it. It looks better in the flesh than this photo portrays.

While in south Mumbai we visited the Leopald Cafe, made famous for two reasons; the novel Shantaram includes many references to the cafe…

“Shantaram is a 2003 novel by Gregory David Roberts, in which a convicted Australian bank robber and heroin addict who escaped from Pentridge Prison flees to India where he lives for 10 years. The novel is commended by many for its vivid portrayal of tumultuous life in Bombay.”

The cafe is also where the devastating Mumbai terrorist attacks first started in 2008. From there the terrorists went on to 10 other public buildings, killing 168 people in total and injuring a further 308 (according the official reports). The cafe experienced open gunfire and grenades. There are still visible signs on the walls of the shooting. A sobering experience. Going back to the roads (which we seemed to spend a long time on), our journey back to Juhu beach was around 10-12 miles away. It took us two and a half hours to get back. Getting around Mumbai definitely takes patience.

Architecturally, Mumbai is very interesting. There is a eclectic blend of old and new buildings everywhere and limited evidence of a true vernacular from what I saw. The amount of building activity is impressive – in some parts there are tower cranes everywhere and some impressive contemporary structures being built. The fact that there are so many people in Mumbai (12.5m and the fourth most populated city in the world) means the demand on housing is significant. There are many Slum area’s in Mumbai (we didn’t get to see these properly). People also live on the streets. But high-rise apartments are the ‘norm’ and they pack them in very closely. This photo I took shows around 4-5m gaps between circa 15-storey blocks! Directly next to these blocks is a significant high quality all-glass office building being built – the juxtaposition of such diverse buildings is unlike anything I’ve seen before.

Since being back home (and suffering a severe dose of Flu, resulting in being hospitalised to check for any tropical infections!) my friends and family have asked; Did I enjoy it? Would I go back?  “Yes” to both. My experience of Mumbai was sadly compromised by me being ill, but it is an amazing place to visit. I think two things stood out for me, which hopefully I’ve touched on in this blog. 1) Everything about the place is ‘intense’; people, movement, activity. This is fascinating, mesmerising and also tiring. 2) It has an amazing ‘diversity’; of people (again) and in its urban fabric. The spectrum of wealth is huge and it often sits together/ very close by.

We have a great team of people/ talent in Mumbai. It was great to spend some time in the office, to understand a bit more about Indian Business culture and, of course, to see Mumbai. Thank you especially to Brijesh, our Director who leads the Mumbai office, he was a great host.

The Tallest Building in the World. The Burj Khalifa

Whilst in Dubai this week, I got to see the Burj Khalifa – its practically impossible not to see it! Opened in January 2010; this is the tallest building in the world. It stands at 829.84 m (2,723 ft). That is unbelievably tall! Much talked about this week; The Shard in London is 309.6m (1,016 ft). I have blogged about this recently – click here to see it. So to try and put this into some context; the Burj Khalifa is nearly three times taller than Europe’s now tallest building.

The tower’s architecture and engineering were performed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill of Chicago, with Adrian Smith as chief architect. The project cost was just under One Billion pounds and it is owned by Emaar Properties. Although the project nearly failed in the economic downturn commencing in 2007. The Government sought a multibillion dollar bailout from ‘neighbours’ Abu Dhabi. The tower, initially known as Burj Dubai, was then renamed at its opening the Burj Khalifa, said to honour the UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan for his crucial support in realising the completion of the scheme.

The project see’s the return of the title of ‘the worlds tallest building’ to the Middle East region after the Great Pyramid of Giza held the name for four millenia – it was suppassed by Lincoln Cathedral in England in 1311. The same building also took the title in the UK from St. Paul’s in London.

The building has many impressive statistics; here are just a selection;

  • Building with most floors at 163. Previously Willis (formerly Sears) Tower – 108.
  • World’s fastest elevators: 64 km/h (40 mph) or 18 m/s. That’s over four floors per second!
  • World’s highest outdoor observation deck: 124th floor at 452m.
  • World’s highest restaurant (At.mosphere): 122nd floor at 442m.
  • Over 26,000 glass panels were used in the exterior cladding.
  • A 304 room Armani Hotel, the first of four by Armani, occupies 15 of the lower 39 floors.
  • Floors through to 108 will have 900 private residential apartments (which, according to the developer, sold out within eight hours of being on the market).
  • The building is expected to hold up to 35,000 people at any one time.
  • The building has 2,909 stairs from the ground floor to the 160th floor.
  • It takes 36 workers three to four months to clean the entire exterior façade.
  • The construction is estimated to have taken 22 million man-hours.

This is a building of epic proportion. A global statement – as it was intended. It is to be another reason to pull people from around the globe to Dubai to sustain its future.

The building sits next to the Largest Shopping Centre in the world which I blogged about earlier this week – that blog has been a big ‘hitter’ so thank you for reading. It also looks down on the Dubai Fountain set in the Burj Khalifa lake.

Thanks to our business hosts in Dubai, we were able to visit the At.mosphere bar on the 122nd floor at twilight – apparently the best time to visit in respect of the climate at that time enabling that longest views. Also seeing Dubai fall from day to night is incredible. You really can see the whole World up there – well the uninhabited island resort they have built at least! According to one source, from the top you can see ten countries: United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Oman, and Qatar. Also, you can also see the curvature of the earth and a distance of around 500 miles – I’m not sure whether to believe this or not, but it could be true.

There are around 100 skyscrapers in Dubai today (buildings over 180m). These range from 40 storeys to 101 storeys – and everyone of them is dwarfed by the Burj Khalifa.

Whilst in Dubai I was keen to see the Burj Al Arab – one of few seven star hotels in the world. Its exclusive and therefore difficult to get into easily. But we took a short walk through the Jumeirah Beach hotel (this building takes no architectural credit from me!) and stood near to the Burj Al Arab. I have to say; its beauty is definitely in its form on a macro level. Its positioning on its own island is impressive. But close up, the building detailing is dare I say it; basic. Its panellised cladding and blue glass seems to dilute any feeling of quality. I’m told by our hosts in Dubai that the interiors are a little garish also. Having said that, I do still love this building, but I expected more and therefore felt a little disapointed.

To stay at the Burj Al Arab you can expect to pay nearly £20,000 a night for the highest specification suites. A ‘standard’ room is over £600 a night. I think I’d rather stay in the Armani hotel in the Burj Khalifa.

One final observation I made in Dubai is how much post-modern architecture exists there. I didn’t expect this for some reason. The diversity of architectural quality is vast – its not all good! There is no doubt that American Architects have been busy here, but I do suspect James Stirling would have liked Dubai. I enjoyed Dubai – its scale and ambition is impressive.

The world’s largest Shopping Centre. The Dubai Mall.

The Dubai Mall is the world’s largest shopping mall and forms part of the 20-billion-dollar Burj Khalifa complex, which includes a staggering 1,200 shops! It is over 12 million sq ft in total floor area (equivalent in size to more than 50 football pitches). The Mall has a total internal floor area of 5.9 million square feet (55 ha) and leasable space of 3.77 million square feet (35 ha). This is big. Really big.

The Mall sees more than 750,000 visitors every week and has become the world’s most-visited shopping and leisure destination, attracting more than 54 million visitors a year. To put this into context Times Square in New York attracts 39.2 million people a year.

The scale of this Mall and the surrounding complex is truly phenomenal. You cant really appreciate it without seeing it. But then that could be said for everything in Dubai. The centre is zoned into 10-15 ‘malls within malls’ and each area has a totally unique look and feel. The quality of this environment in terms of design, materials and overall quality is extremely high. Interestingly many UK high street brands are here; M&S, Boots, Waitrose…to name just three of our clients. Also, having worked on a number of Westfield developments in the UK over the last ten years, we understand Shopping Centres from a design and construction perspective. One of many unique and distinctive features of the Mall is the Dubai Aquarium and Discovery Centre. It has the world’s “Largest Acrylic Panel” – measuring 32.88m wide × 8.3m high × 750mm thick and weighing 245,614 kg. The panel can withstand the pressure of the 10 million litres of water used in the aquarium, but its transparency gives visitors clear views of over 33,000 marine animals on display. The aquarium tank itself is also the largest suspended aquarium in the world.

On one side of the shopping centre, externally, is the turquoise 30-acre manmade Burj Kahlifa Lake. Within the lake is the amazing Dubai Fountain. This is a choreographed fountain display, illuminated  by 6,600 lights and 25 colored projectors, it is 275 m (902 ft) long and shoots water 70m into the air – that’s over 20 storeys in building height!! The display is accompanied by and synchronised with a range of classical to contemporary Arabic and world music. It was built at a cost of £130m – for something which has no real function or tangible use other than to attract visitors. The photo below is from the top of the Burj Khalifa tower (more on that later).

All in all, this is one seriously impressive complex, inside and out. As you walk around you are constantly met with often large and magnificent features of some sort. But this is not the only Shopping centre in Dubai – far from it! There are 68 built to date! Within another, The Mall of the Emirates, is Ski Dubai. This is a 60-meter high indoor mountain (!) with 5 slopes of varying steepness and difficulty, including a 400-metre-long run, the world’s first indoor black run. Adjoining the slopes is a 3,000-square-metre Snow Park play area comprising sled and toboggan runs, an icy body slide, climbing towers, giant snowballs and an ice cave. Ski Dubai is also home to a number of penguins who come out to play several times a day. Unlike many other things in Dubai, it’s actually not the largest in the world, but no other Ski centre is located in such a hot external climate. Controlling this huge environment must consume a huge amount of energy. Sustainability doesn’t appear to be high on the agenda in Dubai, certainly compared with the UK. Unlike so many other parts of the world, fuel is in plentiful supply for everyday consumption and is cheap! But will this last.

Here is the strange thing when you consider this huge development over recent years. Dubai has a population of circa 2.2m people, that’s two and a half times the size of Birmingham. However In 1975 Dubai’s recorded population was a mere 375,000. The growth of this place is incredible. Can it sustain this growth? Where will it stop? Money certainly isn’t an object here. That said, the economic downturn did have a major impact on Dubai. But in 2012 it’s picking up again at a vast pace. As are many other places in the GCC/ UAE.

So why are these Malls so important? Why are there so many? Simple really; they are true destinations. Not just in their design and function, but in Dubai people really only socialise and enjoy leisure activity in two places; hotels and shopping centres. Nobody walks around outside – it’s too hot most of the time! Because of this I think it’s really difficult to grasp an understanding of authentic culture here. It’s so heavily Westernised. Dubai is mesmerising, fascinating…and confusing – especially when visiting from a country with so much culture and history. I have enjoyed spending some time in Dubai. In reality we got such a minuscule snapshot of the place as our time was primarily consumed in meetings with some great and talented people which, we hope to do more business with.

I remain intrigued by Dubai and wonder where it will go from here. Can it continue to grow? Can it sustain itself now? After some challenging years influenced by the global economic situation, Dubai and the wider region is picking up again.

33% of Dubai’s population are Indian. I’m spending the second half of this week visiting our offices in Mumbai to discuss current and emerging opportunities in this region with our team and some new clients. Mumbai is the antithesis of Dubai, although only three hours flight away. We’ve gone from 40 degrees dry heat to 30 degree tropical rain storms. It’s my first visit here also and already I’ve been overwhelmed by the amazing assault on your senses as soon as you arrive.

More to follow shortly on my short time in Dubai and specifically the Burj Khalifa building. Also I’ll be writing more on our Mumbai experiences too…

London Olympics 2012 – bringing out the ‘Great’ in Britain and making us shine.

Friday saw the Olympic torch travel through both Nottingham (incl. past our office) and Derby (where I live). We went to watch the event in Derby – so we could say we took part. My daughter is two and we felt it was important for her, and us to experience this once in a lifetime event – we accept she may not remember it,  but we do have a photo of her holding a torch! I was very impressed and particularly struck with two key things…

Firstly the ‘idea’ of the torch relay (and more importantly the flame) around the UK, including celebrating a diverse range of individuals who have given something back in one way or another – “a moment to shine”. The tour means that a huge proportion of the UK population have the opportunity to take part in the build up to UK/ London hosting the Olympics. I think this ability to connect with such events on a personal level is important. The atmosphere was fantastic. I must admit, I’m not sure whether this torch relay is something unique to the UK or whether it is something other countries have done? The Second thing that struck me was the organisation behind this epic torch relay – its impressive! When you see it, you really appreciate the huge amount logistics behind this tour and it was done with superb efficiency. We got to see James Toseland, World Superbikes champion, carrying the torch.

Having been in London quite a bit recently, it is fair to say that London has a real and tangible buzz at the moment, initiated by the recent Diamond Jubilee Celebrations. Again a celebration of all things British. The Euro 2012 seemed to pull everyone together, albeit briefly! We are now in the middle of Wimbledon – again something quintessentially British! And next weekend sees the Formula One 2012 British Grand Prix at Silverstone – where F1 first started in 1950. I am looking forward to seeing the action in a Grand Stand at Luffield! Sport has a huge part to play in our day to day lives and while much of it is global in terms of coverage, it’s also very accessible to us and can promote the UK positively.

So being British seems and feels really good at the moment. The media seem to be  giving it all positive coverage too, which is good for a change! I think that in these continued times of austerity and economic uncertainty is it good to have an important economic boost and also a morale boost for Great Britain – but also celebrate our amazing diversity and history as a nation. Talking of global coverage; I am currently in Dubai and later this week will travel to our office in Mumbai, India. We are involved in a busy schedule of meetings regarding our emerging international work, more to follow on that shortly…