As far as trailblazing green building initiatives go, the development known as North West Cambridge (its official name as well as location) looks rather uninspiring at the moment, merely fields bounded by busy roads on the outskirts of an East Anglian university town. There aren't many clues to suggest that, when construction begins here in 2012, it will change the face of sustainable building in the UK.
But that is what is scheduled to happen here with the creation of what will effectively be a new city quarter. The land is owned by Cambridge University, and the scheme is intended to accommodate the academic institution's expansion over the next 25 years, when numbers of students and staff are expected to increase by 8,000.
As a result 3,000 new homes will be built on this patch of the greenbelt, together with new faculty and research buildings, and a significant number of community facilities. This week, emulating universities in the US, Cambridge issued bonds for the first time with the aim of raising £400 million towards the cost of the £1 billion project.
Instead of the usual uproar and demonstrations at the prospect of yet another piece of undeveloped land going under the bulldozer, the project is largely being met with excitement and approbation. Why? Because, on completion, it will be the greenest development of its size anywhere in the UK.
The area action plan adopted by Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council requires North West Cambridge to achieve an initial level 5 on the Code for Sustainable Homes, level 6 (zero carbon) by 2016, an 'excellent' BREEAM [BRE Environmental Assessment Method] rating, and to provide a site-decentralised energy system.
The mixed-use development will be constructed on the 120-hectare site between Madingley Road (A1303), Huntingdon Road (A1307) and the M11. As well as the new homes and 2,500 student beds, a local centre complete with supermarket and unit shops has been proposed, a new primary school, a hotel, nursery and community facilities.
Another 100,000 square metres will be set aside for academic and commercial research and development space. All buildings will be 'climate-proofed' and all non-residential buildings BREEAM 'excellent'. If planning permission is given, the first stage of construction will begin in 2012, with materials and design decided upon closer to the time.
North West Cambridge will also have its own site-wide decentralised energy system, which if fuelled by renewables, could save more than 60 per cent on current carbon emissions. Again, the specifics have yet to be decided upon; a wide range of options will be considered, but all will be required to keep harmful emissions to a minimum.
'The university's consultants are currently considering a range of systems to meet the policy requirements, including combined heat and power (CHP), and we have recommended that they build upon the work carried out by our consultants, which informed the development of the policy,' says Emma Davies, planning officer at Cambridge City Council.
'The systems considered in this piece of work included renewably fuelled CHP - of which biomass gasification and anaerobic digestion CHP was found to have the most scope for incorporation into the site, with biomass district heating also being considered to be complementary to the anaerobic digestion; gas CHP, as a low-carbon way of supplementing any biomass energy provision to the site; and renewably fuelled district heating.'
Towards top-class environmental credentials
The university's environmental credentials currently fall a long way short of its academic prowess. People & Planet's annual Green League indicates it is something of an underachiever, in fact, gaining a 2:2 with a score of 37.0 - a world away from top-class Nottingham Trent University on 58.5 and pioneering institutions such as Edinburgh and the University of the West of England, in Bristol.
The North West Cambridge project offers the gowns a chance to lower their overall carbon emissions: it's difficult to make some ancient university buildings energy efficient; a carbon negative extension to the northwest would go some way to mitigating inefficiencies elsewhere.
Locals are generally supportive of the project, appreciating the university's need for expansion, and aware too that this is not some fly-by-night developer but a mainstay of the city for almost a millennium, with time to consult and no cash-linked time restraints on construction.
'Their main concerns have been around the impact of development on properties adjoining the site,' says Emma Davies - residents want the 'Girton Gap' protected, the boundary with the village of Girton to the north - 'and the transport implications of the development on the surrounding road network'.
The development needs to demonstrate that it will add as little traffic as possible to Cambridge's already congested roads. Residents will be encouraged to keep car usage to a minimum; the site will be well served by public transport, and cutting through the centre will be the Ridgeway, a dedicated pedestrian and cycle route linked with the city centre.
Those parts of the site that aren't developed will keep their greenbelt designation; independent planning inspectors actually reduced the amount of greenbelt proposed by the policy. The nearby Travellers Rest SSSI will be maintained, and the councils promise biodiversity in the area will increase with the 'generous' open spaces slated for the development.
In a city that gets less rain per annum than Madrid - and possibly even less in coming years if climate change predictions are borne out - water is a major concern. Water usage in North West Cambridge is expected to be cut in half with the addition of a 'sustainable urban drainage system'.
'Rainfall is expected to diminish and flooding to increase, polluting potable supplies,' says Eithne Flanagan, sustainable construction coordinator for Cambridge City Council. 'The aim in North West Cambridge is to create a water system that will reduce usage significantly. Grey water will be recycled and rainwater collected for use on site, which will result in much lower bills for residents and less drinking water wasted.'
Simon Bunn, Cambridge City Council's sustainable drainage engineer, says dealing with flood water and surface water sustainably will also benefit biodiversity.
'A comprehensive series of swales throughout the development will feed down green fingers to the development's open spaces, where there will be a series of linear ponds. Some will be more of a retention basin with a low flow channel through the centre and others will be more recognisable as ponds. There are great crested newts on an adjacent site; sustainable drainage can provide habitat with a minimum of maintenance.'
A site of learning
Given its size and scope, it's interesting to wonder whether a project such as North West Cambridge would get the go-ahead anywhere else in the UK. After all, the land has been taken out of the greenbelt in order for the university to submit its planning application, but it's doubtful that this will precipitate a flood of protestors to the site.
The only crowds the university is gearing itself up for, when planning permission is approved, is the host of other councils and organisations eager to learn about building high spec sustainable communities from scratch.
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