thoughts on our urban future

Conference Review – GBSC 2011

Recently I presented a paper at the 2011 Green Buildings and Sustainable Cities conference in Bologna Italy.  This was the first conference of this name put together by Universities and professional organizations in Italy and China.  Over 500 papers were submitted, 150 were accepted for publication, and there were 100 presenters at the conference.  Apparently all of the conference papers will be available for free online through Procedia Engineering but they don’t seem to be up online yet.

It was the first conference I have attended as a renewed academic.  It was very international with participants coming from all across the globe.  The language of the conference was officially English, though many people fell back into groups speaking in their native languages during breaks and meal times.  I was also slightly saddened that there were very few comments or questions during any of the presentations.  Most people got up, made their presentation and sat down.  There were a few people who may have elicited commentary from the attendees but this was not standard.

Some of the presentations and research were better than others, although I assume that is fairly common and particularly common with so many papers to choose from.  I was somewhat disheartened by a number of presentations that I felt were no better than any architecture design project.  A few presenters would present a possible project and then a sustainable solution, but generally these were hypothetical, and only some included interesting research to back up the sustainability claims.  This was troubling because I don’t think that the problem is necessarily ‘what’ to do in many cases, but rather how to fund it or how to get it accomplished.  At any rate, this was a particular pet peeve of mine, but in general, I enjoyed the conference and listening to the diverse range of presenters and topics.

There were two key themes throughout the conference, mainly, the multidisciplinary nature of the sustainability challenge, and the importance of the partnership between research and industry.  I will give a taste of the conference by highlighting a presentation from each session that I attended that I found interesting and worth looking into further.

The first session I attended, “Sustainable Urban Planning” had one particularly interesting French presenter, Loiez Bourdic from the Urban Morphology Lab who presented ‘Power Laws for Energy Efficient Cities’.  His work examined urban morphology, energy consumption, and urban sustainability.  He spoke about fractal patterns and hierarchies and applied those to energy delivery systems and efficiency.  He had an interesting point that modern morphology has moved towards a system of simplicity and away from complexity which has moved urban sustainability away from a more natural order of efficiency.  Although of course one could argue that a move towards simplicity generates a different type of efficiency.  It will be interesting to read his paper once they are published.

The second session I attended, “Sustainable Urban Planning II” had a presenter from the Bologna council offices who dealt with planning issues, Inti Bertocchi.  He spoke about the environmental requirements that the city had placed on planning applications in the areas of energy, ecology, water, and demolition/waste.  They had simplified the system to three levels: basic (required), intermediate, and excellent.  After the first year, evaluations of projects showed that most projects were achieving well beyond the minimum standards.  This was a positive example of how good government support for training and assistance could bring about change and it would be interesting to find out what the plans are to improve the minimum requirements.

The second day of the conference was held in Ravenna at the University there.  The opening speakers had some interesting thoughts on the role of the green economy in addressing the global financial crisis.  The first session I attended was on “Energy Retrofitting of the Existing Building Stock”.  One of the presenters, Laura Gabrielli was working on a project to look at the feasibility of energy efficient social housing retrofit in Italy.  I thought this was an interesting project because outside of the traditional cities, a lot of Italian housing is in large multistory post-WWII apartment blocks.  I appreciated that her presentation showed phases of retrofit and also took financial measures into account including detailed cost effectiveness analysis as well as a discounted cash flow analysis.  She showed that with the case study they were looking at, a full retrofit could be done and pay for itself within 15 years time.  This would be attractive to the public sector, but may be less interesting to the private sector.  It was also interesting because it allowed for an increase in floor area, as Italy includes for allowances of additional space with building improvements.  So perhaps not 100% useful to other parts of the world, but an interesting case to look at.

I presented at the “Sustainable Energy Policies and Technologies” session.  One of the interesting presentations in that session, other than my own of course, was by Maryam Ahmadi on the particular challenges faced by architects in Iran when considering sustainable architecture.  She spoke about the difference between a buildings useful lifespan and desirable lifespan as well as the difference between adaptation and adaptability.  Her key point was in a rapidly developing area, it might be better to delay demolition through adaptation in order to make best use of limited resources, but in order to do that, the design process needed to account for future adaptation potential.

The following session, “Sustainable Energy Policies and Technologies II” had an interesting presentation by André Stephan on a more holistic approach to reducing the energy demand of dwellings.  He cited that space heating and cooling is a policy priority but does not represent the whole story in the longer life span of buildings, nor does it take into account morphology.  He listed three energy priorities, the embodied energy (micro scale), the operational energy (meso scale) and the transportation energy (macro scale).  He used Belgian case studies to prove that new developments in the suburbs were almost 2x energy intensive as similar developments to those in urban areas.  He also showed that generally to improve energy efficiency, there was a higher embodied energy cost, and that eventually these began to cancel out the benefits of the perceived savings.  He concluded by showing that in a 50 year cycle, heating only accounted for 23% of the total energy cost which, as buildings become more energy efficient, is certainly significant to consider.

Obviously there were many more speakers that I could mention.  As I said, this was just a taste of what was going on.  Next year, the conference will be held in China.  We’ll see if I have anything relevant to submit by then!  If this post attracts any visits from fellow conference participants, I welcome your comments and thoughts on the conference or presentations.

Tagged as: , , , , ,

1 Comment

Leave a Response

You can add images to your comment by clicking here.