A new generation of green architecture is dawning -- with Irish design right at the cutting edge.
The Government has set a hugely ambitious target for Ireland's new housing to be carbon neutral by 2013.
As a key step in this process, a €100m national insulation programme to "retrofit" Irish homes was unveiled by the Government last month.
Sustainable Energy Ireland chief executive Professor J Owen Lewis believes the technology necessary to make us carbon neutral already exists today. But he argues that we need to radically review the way we build, to innovate in our business models and to consistently deliver high standards.
Our beleaguered housebuilders are desperately concentrating all their energies on shifting their stock of unsold houses at present. Our architects, on the other hand, are to the fore internationally in paving the way for the next generation of "sustainable" buildings.
When RIAI journal Architecture Ireland (AI) dedicated an entire issue to sustainability in May 2003, it had to cast its net very wide to find innovative built projects, with many building features at the concept stage.
Six years on, the journal has just published another sustainability special issue and editor Dr Sandra Andrea O'Connell has been able to choose from a wealth of innovative buildings, ranging from the small scale one-off house to large office developments.
AI zeroes unerringly in on the fact that universities are one of the largest energy consumers. The journal highlights the fact that energy reduction was a key objective in the renovation and extension of the Boole Library at University College Cork by Wilson Architecture.
This innovative scheme received an SEI Sustainable Energy Award for "Excellence in Building Design or Specification 2008".
Nottingham University has, meantime, opened a new campus in far away Ningbo, Zhijang, China. Mario Cucinella, with his Irish partner Elizabeth Francis, headed up the international team based in Bologna responsible for the remarkable Centre for Sustainable Energy Technologies (CSET) there.
Their stunning new CSET building, which recently scooped the Green Building Awards at the MIPIM conference in Cannes, France, is featured in the latest issue of the journal. This highly innovative block focuses on the diffusion of sustainable technologies such as solar power, photovoltaic energy and wind power. The design is inspired by Chinese lanterns and traditional wood scene.
Its façade folds dramatically to create a dynamic shape, while the building is entirely clad with a double skin of glass whose screen-printed patterns evoke historical buildings of the area.
Sustainability as an education tool is, meantime, the theme of the innovative ARC Centre for the Built Environment in Hull designed by Niall McLaughlin Architects.
Swiss-born McLaughlin grew up in Ireland and studied architecture at UCD from where he joined leading Dublin-based designers Scott Tallon Walker. "ARC is engineered to embody 'carbon sense' in an elegant and educational way," the RIAI journal relates.
"It celebrates how new buildings can minimise their CO2 emissions through efficient design and renewable energy."
An array of wind turbines and solar panels generate electricity. The building utilises high levels of insulation, so that minimum amounts of energy are required to heat up the carbon into the atmosphere.
In summer, air is cooled using water mist sprays in a pool at the lower edge of the roof. Air is cooled by evaporative cooling before being drawn into the building at low level.
Pioneering research projects are all very fine, but AI shows how technical breakthroughs are now impacting on the small residential scale too.
Among the projects featured in the journal is an A3-rated family house on a mews lane in Rathmines, Dublin. The design by FKL architects "proves that energy efficiency can be combined with a high design aesthetic and respond creatively to challenging site constraints".
The house features bespoke architectural glazing, air-vented rainscreen facades and, in short, provides a glimpse of the shape of tomorrow's world today.
The house for a family of five -- a former back garden of a two storey over garden level Victorian terraced house -- was chosen for its proximity to schools, local shops, recycling facilities and work, allowing a daily life independent of the car or public transport.
The site of Sean Harrington Architects innovative York Street housing project in Dublin is likewise singled out for favourable mention by the journal:
"Although the project was commenced under the 2003 building regulations, it was designed to better them and has exceeded the 2007 regulations, with a collective BER of B1, while parts of the complex achieved an A3-rating," editor Dr O'Connell observes.
"However, crucially, York Street Housing considers sustainability in its widest sense and central to the scheme is the sunny, sheltered courtyard, which features perceptive community facilities such as shared gardens, an allotment plot for vegetables, a recycling centre and a community room. Well planned, low energy apartments and excellent community facilities make York Street an attractive place for families and individuals who have been living on the site for several generations.
"Dublin City Council must be commended for commissioning this innovative scheme and private developers should be encouraged to follow, if we are to attract more people living in our cities."
The journal also notes that Mullarkey Pedersen Architects' headquarters for Waterways Ireland in Enniskillen achieved the highest rating of any building in the North of Ireland to date. This building is "sympathetic to its context, yet bold enough to act as a modern foil for the historic Enniskillen Castle on the other side of the river".
Dr O'Connell presents a persuasive argument overall that the Government's targets for a 40pc reduction in energy consumption and carbon emissions (rising to 60pc by 2010), combined with the introduction of Building Energy Rating, has undoubtedly contributed to a new generation of sustainable building.
William Scott, a member of the RIAI's task force on sustainability, details the institute's checklist, used for assessing projects for the annual awards. The checklist for sustainable buildings sets forth the following categories: choice of site; use of site; building form; use of materials; functionality; indoor environment; energy CO2 and utilities, emissions, design and construction process and performance in use.
"A building should respond to the three classic demands of sustainability: social, environmental and economic," the design expert concludes.
"If a building fails to pass scrutiny in one of these areas, it is unlikely that it is a truly sustainable building."