Notes from last week’s Ecobuild conference

Some advice: If you’re due to speak at a seminar about the environment any time soon, please, stop to think about what your audience is likely to know already.

Ditch the stuff about how we’re all doomed and you’ve got the pie chart to prove it. We know. It’s not looking good and that’s why we’re there, listening to you, in the first place.

Ditch the stuff about how you knew this years ago, before the rest of us, but no-one has been listening.

Ditch the sermon from atop the moral – sustainably drained – high ground.

Just get on and tell us what you think we should do when we get back to the office.

That’s hopefully set the scene. Here are a few quite a lot of notes I took from some of Thursday’s speakers.

Adrian Hewitt from the London Borough of Merton presented some research done in collaboration with Fabio Carrera from WPI to help allow municipalities to understand it’s energy uses. Hewitt, understandably proud of his success in achieving the ‘Merton rule’, spoke about his plans to roll out CHP systems in Merton but was restricted by the cumbersome, costly process of assessing where best to deliver it. Enter Carrera and his ‘City Knowledge’ project, which aims to ‘…transform municipalities from hunter-gatherers into farmers…’, farming information about it’s energy uses throughout all it’s processes to build a constantly up to date database. Described in three moves, this takes you from,

plan demanded data,

which is costly to turn into

plan ready information,

when it would have been better to have

plan demanding knowledge.

Because at this point you get the reverse and the knowledge begins to demand a plan, creating new, unforeseen possibilities.

The project has been farming the data and combining it with GIS mapping. Carrera’s research can be found at

Peter Studdert from Cambridgeshire Horizons gave a very good talk on ‘design and sustainability at 3 levels – sub-regional, neighbourhood and individual buildings’ – via an all too familiar theme of comparisons with projects in the Netherlands and Germany. They always do it better abroad. Examples worth creating carbon emissions to visit include:

Cambourne SUDS Flows Project

Accordia, Brooklands Avenue


Malmo – Bo01

Vauban and Riesenfeld in Freiburg

He gave a sound assessment of the value of design codes versus current development control techniques – get the overall urban design principles right and let the details deliver diversity, rather than ignoring the bigger picture and just coming down hard (and late) on styles of windows.

Professor Koen Steemers talked us through the detailed computer modelling of urban microclimates (in relation to ‘urban heat islands’) and his findings on the relationship between choice and perceived comfort. An external environment version of the ‘adaptive opportunity‘ work in indoor spaces that shows how being able to choose, for example, to move between a warm space and an open window creates a greater perception of comfort than a space that delivers a steady optimal temperature throughout. The conclusion: microclimate diversity results is greater desireability. He had the nicest graphs.

Sandy Halliday from provided the I’ve-been-doing-this-since-the-70s talk. Which, for me, got in the way of what was otherwise clearly an impressive body of work. To end the morning session, Michael Squire pointed out to us that trying to ‘save the planet’ was daft, as numerous previous extinction events demonstrate that the planet will get along just fine; it’s the humans that are screwed.

In the afternoon I switched to the Cityscape session (podcasts available) to hear the talks on a topic close to my heart: suburbia.

Nick Falk from URBED continued the examination of Freiburg mentioned already during the morning session and added Almere in the Netherlands. His ‘lessons to be learnt from the Dutch’ highlighted a fact that had been touched on by others and I can corroborate with experiences in my own work: the rented housing sector is the only one delivering the quality that the industry is supposed to be striving for. I’ve no doubt CABE would agree.

I enjoyed his simple suggestion that front gardens are the epitome of suburbia. He also pointed out that the web site was replete with studies and critical tools, and Built Environment magazine was worth a look. I hadn’t heard of that publication before.

Richard MacCormac made me jealous by talking about some research that I never seem to be able to find the time to do. His study examined housing typologies and the resulting densities over 5 combinations, ranging from 50 dwellings per hectare to 120.

  • Courtyard housing
  • Terraced
  • Mews
  • Mews and terrace
  • Mews + flats and maisonettes

A valid question however, is whether either MacCormac or I need to do the research from scratch at all, as the debate about housing density has been going on a long time and there are plenty of existing examples to look at. I was reminded of a study published in 1934 that I recently learnt about on page 29 of ‘Eric Lyons & Span‘:


I can’t recommend this book highly enough. You’ll be hearing lots more about it from me in the coming weeks, especially this particularly outstanding chapter – Models for Suburban living – written by Alan Powers. Here he is describing the study behind this image: A Hundred New Towns For Britain by Arthur Trystan Edwards.

Edward’s two storey terraces, each with at 150 square feet of private outdoor space, were to be ‘charming streets and quadrangles which represent a happy mean between garden suburbia on the one hand and the tall standardised block on the other’, built at densities of 30 to 38 houses per acre.

The combination of distinctly recognisable typologies is as seductive now as it was in 1934 because it provides fertile ground for a debate on economics and aesthetics simultaneously. McCormac worked through the presentation of the aesthetics for each group and then moved to the economics to help him make a proposal for the most useful and robust density for new housing.

It goes like this: DETR figures state that for a neighbourhood to be served by a viable transport network you need 5000 dwellings. To design a ‘walkable’ neighbourhood we should provide all key facilities within a 10 minute walk. This defines an area contained within a circle of 600m radius. Take away the space recognised as necessary for communal facilities and roads and you’re left with a dwelling density of 50 per hectare.

Cue a series of images showing potential layouts at 50 per hectare, which MacCormac admitted himself was barely the beginning of any qualitative judgement of the resulting spaces. His key point, touched on throughout the presentation, was how this qualitative judgement is dependent on an improved understanding of the net vs. gross density – or, crudely put, the houses vs. the spaces.

He’s absolutely right and there’s a thread across this entry that moves from the CABE audit I mentioned earlier (which has much to say about better highways integration), to the car free environment of Trystan Edward’s terraces (whose high density probably land back at about 50 when you introduced parking), through the Span story of quality landscape better mediating the Radburn car/pedestrian divorce, to the shifting tessellations of MacCormac’s houses and gardens.

Relax, we’re almost done.

Hugh Barton from the WHO Collaborating Centre for Healthy Cities and Urban Policy had the thankless task of talking us through a bunch of statistics at 3:30 in the afternoon. However, beyond the tables of numbers was a perfectly timed foil to the density studies of the previous speaker. Interviews of people in 6 different suburban communities examined the actual performance of walking/cycling/driving possibilities to assess the health implications for residents. His conclusion? Reductionist principles to urban studies do not work; we need phenomenological case studies.

Ian Abley, the chair for the afternoon session, began the final panel discussion but stumbled out of the blocks confused about what the net vs. gross stuff all meant. Discouraged I headed for the door to deal with the all too phenomenological train journey home, wishing the density of passengers hadn’t caused me to sit next to the self righteous prick with the Powerbook who wouldn’t shut up about people’s phones going off in the ‘quiet zone’.

A good conference, which I’ll certainly be attending again next year. Splitting the day across different sessions was a good way to avoid excessive greenwash. Remind me next time to pre-book the lunch.

Related links: notes from Hana at Developing News

5 thoughts on “Ecobuild data farming

  1. I stumbled across your site while doing a Google search on Trystan Edwards. Nice work! The UK is so far ahead of us that it seems like another planet, not just another continent.


    Jamie Fisher, AIA
    Seattle, WA USA

Comments are closed.