Azara Blog: Urban Design and People

Blog home page | Blog archive

Google   Bookmark and Share

Date published: 2007/04/30

The Engineering Department has been running a lecture series in "Sustainable Development" for five years now. Today the Architecture Department (literally next door) has joined the fray, with a new "Sustainable Design" series. (The lectures are in the Engineering Department because the Architecture Department has no decent rooms.) The bean counters who run the university tried to close down the Architecture Department in 2005, and one of the conditions for saving it was that it would re-focus its activities on "sustainable design". Unfortunately "sustainable" is one of those dreadful buzz words that will soon enough go out of fashion. Still, the lectures can be interesting. The Architecture Department series is going to have two speakers each session, one external person and one internal person. The series kicked off today with presentations by Malcolm Smith from Arup and Koen Steemers from the Architecture Department, on the theme of "Urban Design and People".

Smith gave a slick Powerpoint presentation, "Integrated Urbanism", with many slides having only one bit of text on them. He went through a long list of issues to do with urban design (energy supply and consumption, water, population growth, housing, health and well being, etc.) Arup seems to be involved with master planning the new town northwest of Cambridge called Northstowe, but when getting down to specifics, Smith mainly talked about Dongtan, in China.

Dongtan is a new "eco city" located at the tip of an island next to Shanghai. Shanghai is exploding economically so of course needs much more housing, and Dongtan is just one city being built from scratch in the area. Dongtan is around three quarters of the size of Manhattan. Smith says it took all of seven weeks to get the planning application approved. He compared that with the seven years it took for some (relatively) small development in the East End of London that Arup was involved with. And Northstowe will be similarly painful. Of course the reason things happen so fast in China is that nobody has any rights, and no doubt the people who will be displaced will not be properly compensated. Then again, the people affected by large infrastructure projects in the UK are also not properly compensated. The main winners from the lengthy UK planning process are lawyers and consultants.

Smith quickly went through a litany of slides, showing how Dongtan was going to be more "sustainable" than existing cities (e.g. Shanghai itself). And they seem to have put a lot of effort in to make this more than just marketing spin. Of course, the proof is in the pudding, and we will see come 2010 how well the vision has been implemented in reality. Like everyone who works in "sustainable" design or development, the number one enemy is the car. So they have supposedly designed Dongtan not to be overwhelmed by the car. But car ownership is increasing by 15% per annum in China, so we know what the people want.

Smith would like Dongtan not just to be a dormitory town for Shanghai. So the city will supposedly have plenty of jobs. And well it might. But that is a necessary, not a sufficient requirement. Cambridge has plenty of jobs, but that has not stopped Cambridge more and more being a dormitory town for London, with thousands of people streaming into London every day. Smith estimates that perhaps 15% of Dongtan residents will commute into Shanghai. But they are not going to make this easy. It seems that the only road connection to Shanghai will be at the other end of the island. Well, that is today. No doubt if Dongtan is successful, there will eventually be pressure to build a bridge directly to Shanghai.

Smith claimed that energy production would be generated 100% by "renewable" energy sources. But he noted that Dongtan still needed to be connected to the national grid, because "renewable" energy is not reliable enough (e.g. it is not always windy, sunny, etc.).

He also said that Dongtan was going to grow some of its own food, not on fields but in factories (which Dongtan called "food machines"), using hydroponics. It will be interesting to see how that turns out.

It will be interesting to see whether Dongtan turns into a middle class ghetto (so no poor people need apply).

Steemers then took over and went through various facts about energy use (and therefore carbon emissions) for the UK. Transport and buildings both account for large chunks. (Of course it depends into what categories you slice the pie, which is arbitrary.) And since this was a "sustainable design" lecture, he concentrated on buildings, which by some reckonings (e.g. if you include the energy taken to construct the building) could be up to 47% of UK energy consumption.

Surprise, UK energy consumption has grown and grown and correlates remarkably well with economic growth. The only reason the UK is on track to meet its Kyoto Protocol target is because of the "dash to gas" (away from coal) in the 1990s. Now that that has finished, UK emissions are once more increasing.

It seems that energy consumption per household has stayed pretty constant from 1970 to today. But that is in spite of more efficient buildings. Space heating makes up around 60% of domestic UK energy consumption, so it would seem that the problem might be because people expect their homes to be warmer these days. And Steemers claimed that the average temperature in homes today was around 18C, versus only 12C in 1970 (was it really that cold back then??), and that supposedly this represents a doubling of heating energy use (all other things being equal).

Steemers also looked at the idea that the problem is partly due to the 52% increase in detached houses since 1970. Detached houses have a higher surface to volume ratio so can lead to higher energy use. But Steemers pointed out that on average around 13% of UK domestic heating comes from passive solar, and that if you build to high density then local obstructions cause increased energy demand. And he claimed that the difference between detached and other housing was actually fairly neutral (presumably given equal floor space).

Although the energy consumption per household has stayed fairly constant since 1970, the energy consumption per person has gone up. And this is because the number of people per household has steadily decreased since 1970. In the questions at the end, one person suggested that perhaps the government should think about regulating the number of people per household and suggested that perhaps the Chinese government would be more successful at doing that compared with the UK government. Well, that idea (fortunately) got short shrift.

Steemers looked at air conditioning. He claimed that in 1950 hardly any American homes had air conditioning, but by 2001 76% did. And over the same period the number of UK homes with central heating went up from almost nothing to around 85%. So he's worried that with global warming and economies of scale, the UK might start to buy more and more air conditioners, leading to a large increase in electricity consumption. Apparently B&Q sells one for around 600 pounds and Steemers thought if that price dropped to around 100 pounds then it would become a big seller. (Steemers contrasted that with the rather pointless B&Q windmill, which sells for around 1400 pounds. He quipped you would need five of the windmills just to run the air conditioner.)

Well, we will see how air conditioners pan out in UK houses, but Steemers said that in any case the far bigger problem was the use of air conditioners not in homes. In offices, for example, this must be down to the increase in computers and other electronic equipment, which generate a lot of heat and need to be kept at a reasonable temperature in order to operate. (The university certainly seems to care less about keeping humans at a reasonable temperature.)

Steemers looked at the variability of energy consumption (presumably per capita or per m2) in UK offices and said there was a factor of 10 (and more) between the best and worst performing buildings. He attributed 2.5 of this to the building itself, 2 to the building systems and 2 to the occupants. He said that while architects and developers model the first two factors to the Nth degree, they usually ignore the last factor.

Steemers claimed there was some building he had looked at (on the Sidgwick Site?) where the difference between two pre-build estimates of energy consumption and the actual energy consumption was a factor of three. Now that is scary. Someone, somewhere, ought to do a look at dozens or hundreds of new builds to see which ones actually do well in practise and which ones do not. It is always very easy for architects (and they all do it these days) to say that their buildings are "sustainable", but are they really or is it just spin?

All material not included from other sources is copyright For further information or questions email: info [at] cambridge2000 [dot] com (replace "[at]" with "@" and "[dot]" with ".").