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architecture, historic buildings, London, sustainability, transport, urban projects

Thinking outside the brief: Arup “gets” Green Sky week

Open-City’s Green Sky Thinking Week is about ideas. Big, small, failed, famous – doesn’t matter. The idea is to share interesting experiences in sustainable urbanism, spark dialogue and ideally generate more ideas.

You might think Arup’s London team wouldn’t step too far out of the box. They’re part of a humming global corporation and an event sponsor, with clients in the audience. Why sacrifice scarce time or highlight anything but blue-chip projects? All of us attending knew there’d be short, sophisticated presentations, a good venue, and a lovely breakfast. It would have been acceptable to stop there.

But Arup doesn’t settle, and doesn’t seem to do boring. Following a theme of the “intelligent, connected, adaptable” city, project leads offered up six quick sustainability case studies (timed with a bell), including recent showpieces like the Olympic Aquatics Centre, University College Hospital’s Macmillan Cancer Centre and Siemens’s Crystal expo/office complex. They’re not all perfect, but they’re leading the way.

Siemens showcase: the Crystal

What got my attention were two sessions about ideas rather than engineering feats. The first outlined a scheme to reduce Regent Street traffic. It followed from The Crown Estate’s area redevelopment, and had to maintain retail and office service levels while making the space safer (and less annoying) to navigate on foot, bike or behind the wheel. A study by Arup, Transport for London and Clipper Logistics found that 26,700 vehicles a day used the street, over 5,500 of them on goods deliveries – and over 1,100 of those directly servicing Regent Street businesses.

Courtesy Arup

Arup worked with Clipper to set up a consolidation centre in Enfield, got retailers signed on to the streamlined service, and the group added an electric delivery van in 2011. Arup now project-manages the system, set to continue with Crown Estate support through at least 2013. From an initial 13 retailers, 23 are now participating and have cut their deliveries by 80%. Shops get offsite storage, Clipper gets predictable revenue, and fewer vans clog Regent Street and its service arteries. From a triple-bottom-line perspective, the whole thing seems obvious, but it took a trusted third party to get it moving.

It’s true that this is a well-resourced group in a prestige area, but it doesn’t take a consultant to get office-building tenants together on stationery or food deliveries (another Regent Street plan) or to consolidate shipments. New Covent Garden Market and its 200 wholesale and retail tenants have undertaken a similar programme. Working with TfL and their own SEEDs trader support arm, they’re tackling their 4,000 – 7,000 daily vehicle movements by focusing on logistics and driver behaviour.

One final point: Regent Street’s winning application for TfL’s Smarter Travel Award – Workplace Project of the Year  noted that the project was accomplished “on a voluntary basis with no recourse to the planning process…” Hmmm.

Urban-scale district heat

The other “hmmm” was a fairly broad criticism of district heat. Throughout the Sustainable Urbanism MSc I took at UCL – and probably in most other courses at leading UK planning and architecture schools – district systems were touted as the great green hope for low-carbon urban energy, together with a [non-nuclear] decarbonised grid. Local-scale systems for heat and power clearly have advantages (especially when they use waste heat or recovered biomass like garbage or fish guts). They’re effective in dense areas, for new housing clusters, in 24/7 situations like work/live complexes, or in conservation areas where renewables aren’t practical or allowed.

But Arup’s Rick Wheal and colleagues want to see the data behind the assertion that district heat is a universal low-carbon solution. Among other issues, larger systems suffer leaks and transmission losses. The systems themselves can involve high levels of “new” embodied carbon. And most systems still run on natural gas, which is in increasingly limited supply.

If and when we finally shift to renewable energy sources, most of them will deliver electricity. So why do we still focus on boilers and dig more gas pipelines? I remember another Arup engineer standing up at a 2011 Green Sky session and asking that question – the room went totally silent. This year in another session someone spoke up against blanket district-heat applications, and the Oxford-based architect next to me hissed “nuclear flak.” But given how uncertain we are collectively about the technology and ethics behind future energy (remember biofuels?), it’s good to ask questions. Let’s see more research into district heat, and take lessons from its successes and failures, rather than opting for community-wide systems that may need to be dug up and rethought in 10 or 20 years.

Certainly got me thinking…

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