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Tuesday22 July 2014

Dow Jones Architects has designs on London’s waste line

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Dow Jones Architects is proposing a radical series of waste-crunching towers across London to help meet recycling targets and generate low-cost energy for local communities, says James R Payne

Photomontages Dow Jones Architects/Arup

The great Victorian engineer Joseph Bazalgette was appointed by London’s Metropolitan Board of Works in 1856 to oversee a radical transformation of the city.Responding to a severe environmental health crisis, his job was made easier — perversely — by cholera epidemics and the overpowering stench of the Great Stink of 1858. Members of Parliament, with handkerchiefs at their noses, voted to give him sweeping powers and huge financial resources to clean up the Thames, then an open sewer running past the Palace of Westminster. London’s enclosed sewer system is now largely hidden and it is taken for granted that human waste simply disappears from view. Bazalgette’s fantastically ornate pumping stations outside the city are the most visible reminder of his incredible and lasting achievement.

Dow Jones Architects, working with Arup’s alternative waste technology specialists, has produced a report, Rubbish In, Resources Out, for the Greater London Authority and Design for London. It may not attract the executive power granted to Bazalgette, but it proposes an equivalent transformation for London and its attitude towards rubbish — while rubbish trucks are not yet dumping their loads outside the Houses of Parliament, there is some urgency.

Under the London Plan first published in 2004, the GLA is committed to making London 85% self-sufficient in terms of waste by 2020. At present only 60% of waste is managed inside the capital, and much is dumped on Thames barges headed for landfill downstream in Essex. The sorry reality of the recycling carefully gathered by households is that it is often shipped to countries such as China for sorting. This unsustainable approach will be superseded by a strategy of retaining waste within the M25 and dividing it up between London boroughs.

The report proposes new buildings in Greater London to house advanced waste technologies. These would offer an alternative to the greenhouse gas-producing incineration method used by most waste service providers contracted by councils. Dow Jones and Arup assessed the scale of buildings that would be needed to deal with certain amounts of waste using specific technologies, then scattered them on four hypothetical urban sites, proposing them as “parts of the city and building types that would form an appropriate match.”

Waste that can’t be recycled or composted would be turned into energy or useful materials using techniques such as anaerobic digestion — which produces the low-cost fuel biogas plus compost — and advanced thermal treatments, which produce syngas for industrial processes plus a vitreous slag that can be used as a construction material. The gases produced can be routed in closed loops to produce power for local electricity and heating networks serving nearby homes and workplaces. The efficiency of combined heat and power (CHP) plants is preferred to the very British “combi-boiler in every flat” approach.

The first and largest scheme, a 4ha integrated resource recovery park, is for a peripheral industrial area near several major traffic routes. Serving three boroughs, this huge industrial shed houses plant around a central sorting area into which waste is deposited by rubbish trucks. The second is a riverside gasification plant that takes advantage of existing river transport, its towers proclaiming its civic importance in the manner of Bankside and Battersea power stations. The third is an urban mixed-use block for a central London district such as Covent Garden. The block would have an anaerobic digester and power plant under its central courtyard instead of car parking. The fourth is for a gasification plant on a super-urban site which would be not at all concealed but proudly sculptural in its inner city position. On these sites, Dow Jones’s Alun Jones explains, “[Waste] becomes an urban and architectural design problem.”

Waste plants would dot the cityscape like Wren churches

For the GLA, the waste industry’s attitude of “we don’t care what it looks like” is not enough. Inspired by the example of Tokyo’s parking towers which act as markers in the city landscape, such structures would be visible reminders of the profligacy of our society. By vertically stacking processes, the schemes have a common language of tower-like forms, with flues concealed within the building envelope. This approach relies heavily on careful design, together with good management and environmental control measures to ensure such plants would be tolerable to their neighbours and keep noise, traffic, litter and smells to a minimum.

Dow Jones proposes a recognisable family of structures clad with recycled facade materials; windows will provide glimpses of the machinery inside, while some structures will house a programme of community visits and education events.

A change in attitudes has got to come about not just within local communities but also in the received dogma of planning — of contextual design at all costs. With luck, the importance of raising awareness of the waste issue will be enough to offset this. It would be an intriguing scenario to see these structures popping up throughout London, a mirroring of the unselfconscious industrial vernacular documented by German photographers Berndt and Hilda Becher. Dow Jones’s own collaged overview of London seen from the north at Primrose Hill dots waste plants into the cityscape like Wren churches. The reality is that the projects are more likely to develop in a piecemeal way as there is no unified waste provider in place — instead, a set of contracts is regularly contested.

As well as a possible pilot housing scheme with an integrated waste and power plant, and a research project by diploma students at London Metropolitan University, the architect suggests several opportunities exist to deploy its approach: the 2012 Olympics in east London, the redevelopment of Brent Cross in the north-west, and even a CHP unit for Robin Hood Gardens in Tower Hamlets. The ideas expressed in this report could provide the same long-term benefits to the city as Bazalgette, if somewhat more visible.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • This looks really interesting. In the hands of people like Dow Jones, this could be really brilliant. Dotted around like Wren Churches you say...? Hmmmm.

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