At last week’s AJ Footprint Live event social sustainability was touted as the latest vogue focus of today's construction industry problems. Vogue maybe, but many architects have been championing this as the foundation of holistic, sustainable design for many years.
Indignance aside, it was great to see this vital issue given a spotlight over green bolt-ons, certifications, regulations and fabric performance – still important, but only relevant if we develop an architecture that enables its end user to maximise its green potential. To paraphrase speaker Greg Penoyre, how do we make buildings that genuinely affect how people operate them? Buildings capable of almost high performance but with minimal effort.
These sort of psychological questions are just some of the multiple facets and interpretations of social sustainability. Gavin Elliot from the Manchester studio of BDP took a wider view: true sustainability is less building, more educating and engaging communities - see Manchester's Carbon Literacy initiative.
Indeed a common developer view emerged, as put forward by Andre Gibbs from Argent and Anna Devlet of British Land, that engagement of existing local community is now viewed as a means of reducing risk. A part of this is driven by programming community space but is also, in its purest form, designing longevity into the public realm whether that be robust infrastructure or well-designed public space.
This is easier said than done: best practice often comes from a single land owner, such as a council or university (see Nine Elms and North West Cambridge respectively). The GLA's Stuart Murray noted that securing cohesive public realm through commercial means is difficult. In the case of Nine Elms creative mechanisms were needed, in the form of a new governance model for connecting into energy infrastructure, necessitating the setting up of a mayoral led energy company.
Of course, as the conference went on, the housing crisis provided a hot topic on which to hinge debate. Natalie Bennett, Leader of the Green Party, posited one way of dealing with housing crisis in London - don't build HS2! Is there too much focus on London? Too many economic eggs in one metropolitan basket? Perhaps. Bennett sees this as an economic inequality that housing policy could and should address. Lengthening standard designed lifespan of buildings was another topic of note: Bennett suggested we should be building for a 100 years and not a bare minimum of 30 - perhaps another demand on housing policy?
However Chris Brown and Mark Hallett from igloo presented my favourite housing provocation of the day (as demonstrated in their Bermondsey Square scheme): if you want a socially sustainable community, don't allow buy-to-let investors!
Hattie Hartman and co put together a great line-up – a shame more delegates did not attend!
(Cover picture: Alexandra & Ainsworth Housing Estate in London)