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Building Sustainable Communities

Westfield Avenue is a sustainable mixed use scheme designed by 7N Architects in response to the need for affordable housing and small business space in Edinburgh. It won the Saltire Society Design Award in 2012 for Best Large Scale Housing Development. Ewan Anderson, Managing Partner at 7N Architects, explains what makes this and other developments sustainable.

Ultimately, sustainable development is about making the most efficient use of precious resources, be that land, materials or energy. Sustainability is about a broad, holistic approach rather than simply trying to score BREEAM points. It is primarily about developing long-term places that people enjoy living in, not ones which will be demolished after 30 years; to ensure that all of the money, materials and embodied energy used in the construction process are offset by its longevity.

The less tangible elements of sustainability, such as sustainable communities and wellbeing, are also critical in terms of a scheme's longevity. When 7N Architects developed the master plan for Westfield Avenue, this holistic approach to sustainability was integral to the design process. This mixed use, mixed tenure scheme was developed for a contaminated, vacant brownfield site on the edge of the City Centre on the site of a former bus garage next to a beautiful section of the Water of Leith.

When we developed the master plan we joined up the sustainability dots to create an integrated strategy making more intensive use of a riverside site on the fringes of the city centre. In the first phase of the project we orientated the buildings perpendicular to the river. This enabled the street-spaces to engage with the river landscape and we introduced a footbridge over the river to link to a local primary school. The site was also next to a stop on Edinburgh's new tram network and had access to pedestrian and cycle routes along the river to reduce reliance on the car.

Creating a sustainable community should be at the heart of any residential project. Although it is hard to quantify sustainable elements such as amenity and landscape in terms of numbers, they were fundamental to the Westfield Avenue project. However, the value aspect can be considered very simply. Places that have these qualities are more attractive, which means that there is more demand to live there and that, in turn, manifests itself in the value of the development.

It is always difficult to make the case for causative aspects of a scheme but in the last few years one of the positive aspects of the recession is that people have started to buy homes in which to live rather than buying places as an investment. When you take a longer term view, things such as quality and the wellbeing aspects of a scheme come to the fore.

The Westfield scheme was also designed to comply with Edinburgh City Council's sustainability standards. The primary focus was on reducing energy usage through the creation of well insulated dwellings with minimal heat losses combined with efficient energy generation.

As a result, the dwellings are highly insulated and the scheme has a gas-fired Combined Heat and Power (CHP) system situated in a central energy centre. The CHP generates electricity, which is sold back to the grid, in addition to generating domestic hot water. For this particular Housing Association client the CHP also helps reduce energy costs for tenants, which is an important aspect in tackling fuel poverty.

As an Architect, clearly I have the view that the profession is best placed to weave together all the various strands that make a scheme sustainable. Fundamentally, however, sustainability, will be achieved by getting the right team of committed professionals in place who are open minded enough to collaborate in developing an integrated solution. This is essential because the more you integrate, the more you can do with less through smart thinking which, to me, is really the essence of sustainability.

For further information on other 7N Architects projects, visit