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Construction National blog: 06/06/2012

Construction National blog logoSustainable construction as a principle has come a long way since it was first mooted as a way of keeping stock of the environmental impact of a building. Then, the issues were the amount of recycled material used, the ability to recycle the materials once the building came to the end of its life and the amount of energy used both to construct and to run the building. Developments have come to include 'whole-life sustainability' and 'embedded carbon'.

Recently, however, the concept of sustainability has developed further to encompass social and economic sustainability. This latter has been the necessary result of needing to retain sustainable development as a priority in the face of new economic prosperity and the accompanying philosophical attacks on environmentalism from green sceptics – they know who they are. Social sustainability owes its existence to a more grown-up approach to the environment.

Known as the 'triple bottom line', this threefold assessment of sustainability has particular relevance for public buildings. In my own experience that has meant theatres. On 12 June the conference of The Theatres Trust will take place at the Stratford Circus in London. Delivering Sustainable Theatres follows on from the theme of four years ago, Building Sustainable Theatres.

In a blog for the DCMS website, the trust's director Mhora Samuel describes the task for the future of theatre development as: "...to question and develop our understanding of what sustainable development really means for the design, construction and management of theatres so that we can promote the value of theatre buildings in the value chain of sustainable development. If we achieve this we will be better prepared to address the challenges we now face and make the case for our future." Theatres, she said, need to learn to do more with less.

That idea was already rooted in the arts centres movement of the 1980s. Arising from community movements, they were often in already cherished buildings and included along with the 'cultural' stuff such elements as amateur theatricals, rock concerts by local bands and folk clubs. My first career position was as press and publicity assistant at my local arts centre in the early part of that decade. With a full-time staff of four, part-time box office and front of house staff and a host of volunteers we clocked up knocking on 500 events in a single year. The rock music club led to me being roped in, by a young friend and musician from my own outlying township, to help set up and run a similar outfit there, at the civic hall. Our concert for African famine relief pre-dated Live Aid by several months.

The centre is still going. That is what I understand by social and economic sustainability in the theatre. The fact that it is housed in a Victorian neo-Gothic edifice designed by Sydney Smirke (thus saving the building from dilapidation) is evidence of the environmental sustainability of the project.
It was nearly 30 years ago I cut my writing teeth in that building and I'm still proud to have been involved.
Chris Stokes