Time to make waste beautiful

Clean and aesthetic design will become increasingly important if the public is to accept new waste infrastructure in the future, argues Andy King

‘The beauty of waste’. A strange phrase, you might think. Can sludge, for example, ever be attractive? Maybe not. But it’s becoming ever more important to recognise that waste infrastructure, if not waste itself, can be striking, stunning and inspirational.

Let me put this in context. We are going through substantial political and economic change, profoundly affecting our built environment. We have an energy crisis and urgently need to introduce new forms of power generation to boost supply. We also have to reduce the waste we send to landfill. So, it’s vital that we look at how we can generate more energy from waste.

That means designing new energy from waste infrastructure and then, of course, getting schemes off the drawing board and through the planning approvals process. We have the potential to generate 15% of our energy through biomass and energy from waste by 2020, but this will only happen if new plants are built. And we need a lot. A CBI report in February 2011 said the UK should have 2,000 new waste management facilities by the end of the decade.

Overlay this with political reform. The concept of localism is ushering through one of the most significant changes to planning policy in a generation. Now, views on localism differ. Is it a NIMBY’s charter which will stop any meaningful development? Or does it devolve much-needed power to the people, forcing designers and developers to be more alert to local needs?

However you see it, localism, and the views of local people, cannot be ignored. And those of us working in the sector are acutely aware that, often, the view is that waste plants are dirty, intrusive and unpopular.

So, if we design waste infrastructure that does nothing to combat this view – or, worse, reinforces it through ugly, harsh design – how can we ever hope to get the public on side for new energy from waste plants? And if we don’t do it, how will we secure planning approval to build even half the new sites we need?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about introducing flashy, cutting-edge design which looks great in the design studio but utterly out of place in its local context. We must remember that designers, through the choices we make and the buildings we create, are custodians of the future built environment and must take a responsible approach.

All design must be balanced by functionality and be sympathetic to the area. It does need to provoke, but in a positive way. At the very least, it should neutralise criticisms of new waste development but, more than that, it should inspire people to praise and be proud of it. What’s more, good design will be future-proof, ensuring sustainable waste infrastructure in terms of adaptability to climate change and longevity.

Where are these design principles working well? The Beckton Sludge Incinerator in east London (pictured) shows how a focus on aesthetics can really work. The gentle yet prominent curves of the building make it look like anything but a traditional incinerator, and its striking design is award-winning and fits with the locality.

On the Isle of Man, SITA has built a waste incinerator designed to resemble a Viking ship. It takes its design inspiration in part from the rolling hills of the local area and has been praised by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment as exciting and imaginative. It’s a scheme which got good public support locally and is now fully operational, processing all the island’s commercial and domestic residual waste and producing 10% of its electricity.

We can also take ideas from overseas. Recently unveiled is the proposed Amagerforbraending waste treatment plant near Copenhagen, which features a ski slope on its roof. The result is to integrate the building into the community in an entirely different way.

So, the solutions are many and are becoming more imaginative, mixing innovative process engineering with striking architecture. Each of the schemes I’ve highlighted is inspirational and takes a new approach.

Will we see more designs like these? I hope so, because guiding a dull-looking concrete box or wrinkly tin shed through the planning process will always be fraught with difficulty. Thoughtful, exceptional design can help give the industry the product it needs to win over a sceptical public in the localism era. But we must have more of it.

Andy King is waste and energy sector leader for Morgan Sindall Professional Services

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