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Sat 2 Jun 2007 12:00 AM

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Brick red is dead: building sustainable housing

From selling clothes to designing communities: Wayne Hemingway, founder of the Red or Dead fashion label and, more recently, Hemingwaydesign, talks to Angela Giuffrida about planning, sustainability and jogging on the Palm Jumeirah.

When Wayne Hemingway arrived for his interview, it was clear he had things on his mind. The fashion-turned-housing designer was scanning the makeshift room, along with everyone and everything in it: from the halogen lighting to the angle at which the decorative biscuit was positioned next to the coffee cup.

Sustainability is not just about the energy performance of a building.

The plants might have been a tad out of place, but the cream and leather sofa went down well.

"I imagine that these colours were around quite a lot in somewhere like Kuwait in the 1970s," he said.

"That's the problem with being a designer - you notice everything. My wife can't go to a restaurant without thinking about how the food should be placed on the plate."

Hemingway, who was recently in Dubai as a guest speaker at Light Middle East, was recognisable by his trademark glasses. A friend of the supermodels, he went from running a second-hand clothes stall in London's Camden market in the early 1980s to creating one of the best known brands for street fashion, Red or Dead, with his wife Gerardine.

The couple made their fortune after selling the fashion label in 1999. Still in their mid-30s, they bought a camper van, took their four children out of school for about a year and toured Europe.

While travelling around the likes of Scandinavia, Holland and Germany, housing design soon started to dominate their thinking.

"We noticed all these brilliant housing developments and wondered why we couldn't have the same in the UK - where there's landscape and places for children to play," said Hemingway.

"At the time, there was nothing even approaching that in the UK - every time we went back there we just kept seeing these really foul housing developments; they were all red brick, identikit rabbit hutches."

It was Hemingway's outspoken nature that led to the couple's next venture.

On returning to the UK, he wrote an article in
The Independent

lambasting his home country's housing developments.

His reference to the ‘Wimpeyfication of Britain', which effectively slated property developer Wimpey for creating bland, soulless homes, habitable only by ‘salesmen with identical cars', opened the media floodgates.

The furore surrounding the remarks soon spurred an invitation from George Wimpey to his office. Hemingway brought his legal team along under the assumption he was being sued for defamation. But rather than landing a lawsuit, he landed himself a new job, and one that was set to drastically transform the UK's housing landscape.

Hemingwaydesign was later formed and has been involved in affordable housing projects with Wimpey for the last seven years. These include the award-winning 700-home Staiths South Bank in Gateshead and The Dartford Project.

"We talked about how a development has to be about sustainability. A place isn't sustainable unless people absolutely love it. The Victorians were more sustainable than we are today - they built places, which, 100-odd years later, aren't being knocked down."

The scale of Dubai's building development and its sustainability was something Hemingway gave a lot of thought to during his visit to the emirate. The morning before his talk at Light Middle East, he went jogging on the Palm Jumeirah.

"The only other development in the world that's created as much excitement is the O-One, which was the regeneration of Malmo waterfront in Sweden," he said.

"The idea is really clever, as it's creating all of these strands of beach front development; but I'm not sure if it's going to be the kind of place that has liveability, where anyone can go for a walk or run. It seemed as if the best parts would be ‘gated' and reserved for the lucky few. And I think that's such a waste - a development like this should be an exhibition of what can be achieved by land reclamation."

When it comes to creating a sustainable environment, Hemingway believes it's less to do with ‘green building' and more to do with creating a place that people want to live in for a long time. Unless this liveability aspect is drawn into plans at an early stage, there's a danger that elements of a development that were initially key to establishing a community, such as schools and shops, could become soulless.

"Sustainability is not just about the energy performance of a building or materials being recycled - it's about much more than that, it's about people's lives," he said.

"I am sick of this rush towards things such as wind turbines, solar power and ground source heat pumps. While they are important, making a place sustainable means making it last for a long time - you have to think about how a place is going to age.

"We have pretty serious issues in city centres like Manchester in the UK now, with homes being empty, shops closing down, along with schools because they're under-subscribed. While in some ways development has made ours cities looks and feel better, it's not a sustainable urban model."

The UK government's drive towards building sustainable homes was emphasised in December last year with the introduction of the Code for Sustainable Homes, a standard that's intended to minimise the use of energy and reduce harmful emissions.

"This legislation will cost money to achieve, and the easiest place for house builders to take money from will be the quality of the finish, the landscaping and streetscape," said Hemingway. "The danger of doing this is that you could end up constructing places that, 15 to 20 years later become slums, like they did in the UK in the 1970s, which just end up getting knocked down."

While the sustainability agenda is becoming a more prominent part of development in the Middle East, Hemingway believes the process needs to incorporate all aspects such as water reuse and sustainable urban drainage with long-term liveability.

"I do think what's going on here is fantastic. Dubai, for example, has established a great brand. But it's the duty of the planning system to enforce sustainability, because that's what encourages society as a whole to think more."

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