From the ground up

How do we create a built environment that uses a lot less energy? London Eye architect David Marks s

The UK is luckier than most other developed countries, in that it has for a long time been pretty much self-sufficient in energy. But with our ageing coal and nuclear power generating plants reaching the end of their useful lives, and oil and gas production in decline, there will inevitably be a heavier reliance on less secure supplies of imports in the future. Add to this scientific and public concern over carbon emissions, climate change and biodiversity loss, and you understand the urgency of the government's policies to improve effici-ency and diversify energy supply, including from renewables - most notably, from wind power.

Between 40 and 50 per cent of energy and carbon emissions are used in, and come from, the built environment. So how much does the goal of efficiency figure in current architectural thinking, and how can designers play a role in reducing energy problems in the future? Architects, engineers, contractors and other construction professionals have a huge responsibility here, and can readily respond innovatively to the challenge and changes set by new legislation.

The revisions to Part L of the building regulations, due early next year, are widely expected to include standards defining and setting the maximum allowable amount of carbon dioxide that buildings can produce. The hope is that this will meet 25 per cent of the government's planned emissions cuts by 2010, and will come from pressure to reduce energy use not just by higher thermal performance as in earlier revisions to Part L, but by maximising passive measures (whereby a building stores energy in the form or "heat" or "coolth" from the environment to be released over time) as much as incorporating the use of renewables.

The wind turbine technology available now provides one of the best environmentally sustainable and economically viable sources of renewable energy. That is why we, and other architects, are exploring ways to incorporate wind turbines, solar and other micro-renewables within landmark buildings that we are designing today - for example, in our proposals for Skyhouse, a high-density, low-energy, city-centre, vertical village.

All this comes at a cost and, understandably, clients and developers are asking how practical this it is and how it can be paid for up front without placing an undue burden upon them? Others, somewhat disingenuously, point to how developed countries are already twice as efficient in their use of energy (measured in terms of GDP) as the fastest-growing emerging economies. It is easy to point the finger elsewhere, especially while the US remains the biggest consumer of resources and worst carbon culprit.

However, while the debate rages about what price a barrel of oil should be for it to be considered "stable", we have to ask who is going to ensure we pass on a "stable" environment to our children, and to their children.

Our vision for the built environment of the future is one in which buildings and cities are net contributors to the triple bottom line. As well as being healthy places that people would wish to live in, they would also be net energy producers, net waste importers, and net water exporters. Blue sky thinking? Not really.

What we need is a new value system. Why can't we change the accounting principles, for example, from conventional GDP measures to "green" GDP measures? In other words, rather than considering merely the conventional bottom line, we should consider the ecological "footprint" of what we do and where we do it, and move to a triple-bottom-line economy in which the environment and social equity are considered and measured alongside the usual economic measures.

Many people accept our present growth model is not sustainable. A value system that rewards reductions in resource exploitation could help address this. Rather than a flat tax on energy, what about a "polluter pays" tax? It's ironic that greenfield development still attracts VAT relief, whereas brownfield development does not. Perhaps this is a matter for the Chancellor's in-tray, as he begins to draft his pre-Budget report.

David Marks MBE RIBA is a principal of Marks Barfield Architects and, with his wife Julia Barfield MBE RIBA, founder of the London Eye Company