Bennetts Associates is a London-based architecture practice known for its highly sustainable approach to construction and a portfolio that includes theatres, offices, universities, hotels and historic conservation. The practice recently completed two new buildings for St Antony's College in Oxford that use green design features, while its 2010 restoration of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon has been lauded for its intelligent and sensitive repurposing of a disparate and partly unloved set of buildings.
During last month's Ecobuild China event in Shanghai, founding director Rab Bennetts took part in a panel on redeveloping existing buildings and abandoned industrial or commercial sites. We asked him for his general impressions of the event and its host city.
How did the talk at Ecobuild China go?
The debate focused on the dilemma facing Shanghai and many other cities, which is how to preserve the spirit of the place while, creating the buildings needed for an expanding economy. Too much destruction of the historic core of the city will make it a less interesting place, and this quality has enormous hidden commercial value. The Bund is a great example of imaginative conservation, but there is also the need to look at existing buildings of all kinds to see if there are opportunities for good design and profitable development at the same time. I went to a restaurant in the Cool Docks [South Bund] called The Waterhouse, which captures exactly what I mean.
What were your impressions of this second Ecobuild China event?
Ecobuild in Shanghai reminded me of Ecobuild in the UK when it started about six or seven years ago. At first there were just 900 people; this year there were more than 50,000. The interest in a sustainable built environment is growing rapidly in China, just as it did in UK, so there are many lessons that we can pass on from our own experience. My main concern in the UK is that Ecobuild has now become a very large trade exhibition and many of the exhibits are not "green" at all. The organisers are aware of this and I hope that the China Ecobuild will develop into a very influential event about sustainability in future.
Is there a lot of interest in sustainable design in China?
There is a huge amount of interest in sustainable design in China, but most people are not yet clear what it means. The new premier [Li Keqiang] recently mentioned sustainability in his introductory speech, so it seems certain to have a central position in government policy.
What innovations in sustainable design did you hear about in China?
One of the main innovations is the use of BIM (building information modelling) to develop the design in a sustainable, integrated way. It seems to me that this is more developed in China than it is in the UK, but we are catching up fast.
Was there a lot of talk of retrofitting existing buildings to make them more sustainable and extend their life?
There is growing interest in China, but compared to the UK there are not many planning controls to enforce a coherent policy. The point I made at Ecobuild is that retrofit projects provide design opportunities that are sometimes more interesting than new build. The architect must improvise and innovate, so the spaces and forms are interesting and stimulating. Only by showing design at its best will retrofit take off when it needs to. If Shanghai did not have a blend of old and new it would be a much less interesting city. Retaining only the facades is not the best way, in my opinion, as it may lead to a superficial type of architecture.
At the Ecobuild conference we discussed the need for regulations to achieve this, or whether we think it will happen naturally due to market forces. My view is that it will not happen without regulations.
What's a good example of a sustainable construction project you came across in Shanghai?
I saw a very impressive building that combined the best of reuse with the robust technologies required in a sustainable building. It is the former bus garage adjacent to Tongji University, which is occupied and designed by the Tongji Architectural Design and Research Institute. When the Metro was completed Shanghai did not need so many buses, so the building could be converted into something else. This symbolises the change to Shanghai as well as a brilliant use of an existing structure.
What are the biggest challenges for local or international architects wanting to work sustainably in China?
The main challenge is trying to define what is meant by sustainability. My view is that climate change is by far the most urgent issue, so we must focus on reducing carbon dioxide emissions. This is a scientific process that can be measured with hard data, so it is easy to see which buildings are performing the best. To do this it is essential to predict the energy consumption and measure the completed building. For architects, the main thing is to reduce demand for energy by good design and not get too distracted by aspirational issues, such as social or economic sustainability at this stage. The spectacular new Shanghai Tower claims to be sustainable, but how much energy will it use compared to other forms of buildings? We need to know the facts before we pass judgment.
What were the highs and lows of your Shanghai visit, architecturally speaking?
What has been achieved along The Bund is as good as any other city I have visited. The design is good, the construction is high quality and it is clearly very popular. It has created a substantial public space by focusing on the pedestrian instead of the car. For a visitor like me, it is the perfect way to relax, take a walk and see Shanghai's amazing panorama.
One area of Shanghai that was less impressive was the ground level in Pudong between the skyscrapers. The public realm should be just as important as the buildings.