Eco-architect has dreams for Chch

DREAMS: Eco-architect Charlie Luxton.
DREAMS: Eco-architect Charlie Luxton.

Christchurch has an amazing opportunity to create something special in its reborn inner city, internationally renowned eco-architect Charlie Luxton says.

He might be known for designing and building sustainable homes and offices, but Australian-born eco-architect Charlie Luxton believes the future of city planning revolves around creating walkable cities.

A regular face on British property and architectural shows for the past decade, Luxton's latest series, The Great Treehouse Challenge, is screening on Sky's Living Channel (Mondays, 10pm).

While agreeing that treehouses are not the answer to future housing issues, he advocates them as a terrific idea for a community space.

"I don't think you should live in one, but you should go and spend a bit of time in one every year."

Luxton says anything that makes inner-city living more enjoyable is to be encouraged, which is where his belief in walkable cities comes in.

"The idea that you don't need to own a car is just fantastic. And this isn't just a pipedream. There are some fantastic examples already out there,'' he says.

"They've got this wonderful rebuilt area in Stockholm which is heated with biogas and connected to the waste incinerating plant. There, around 70 per cent of local journeys are on public transport, compared to 45 per cent citywide."

Aware of Christchurch's plight, Luxton believes the city has an amazing opportunity to do something truly exceptional.

"You really could rescue a phoenix out of the ashes."

However, he warns against not thinking sustainably when it comes to architecture and also rushing to recreate or reject our architectural heritage.

"At the end of the Second World War, the Germans rebuilt a lot of their cities the way they were before being bombed and today they still look good. In England, they threw up a lot of contemporary, cutting edge-thinking creations in places like Coventry and, frankly, they look pretty crap,'' he says.

"But you also have to remember that it's about the spirit of a place as much as the building. Doing a mock-up of what has gone before will never be quite the same as the original.

"At the end of the day, it is just a building and it's the people and the culture that surround it that make it more interesting."

While architectural crimes still abound, Luxton thinks people have got a lot smarter when it comes to building in recent times.

"There's a wonderful thing called bio-architecture, where you learn from nature in optimising the location in terms of things like sun and wind and integrate all its systems together. I also know that creatures like termites can teach us a lot about using little. They can build a termite mound where the C02, humidity and moisture levels are all even with just some mud and really smart design."

While he admits that everyone involved in "sustainable" architecture has their own "slight agendas", at its base is a sound belief in minimising people's impact and not wasting resources.

"But, to be honest, it's quite wide-ranging. Sustainable architecture is also about keeping local vernacular and local architectural styles alive, as well as creating better communities. Truly, making sustainable architecture is a magnitude more difficult than architecture. And the more I do, the harder I realise it is."

That is particularly so in Britain, the relocated Aussie says.

"If I want to knock up a brick building that looks a little bit traditional, I can get planning tomorrow. If I want to do something more contemporary, you have to do so much to persuade them it's OK.

"We have one of the oldest housing stocks in Europe if not the world, but it's one of the worst- performing thermally so things need to be tackled. There is lots of investment in new housing but actually we've got 25 million houses that need to be sorted out. I live up in the Cotswolds, which has wonderful architecture, but trying to make those houses sustainable - it's possible, but it's just a lot of hard work and it's very expensive."

The Press