‘London topped Paris to win the 2012 Games with a promise to deliver the greenest Games ever,’ said Hattie Hartman last year. The promise wasn’t unfounded, even though such a mega-event delivered at breakneck speed to a tight deadline, seems incompatible with a sustainable agenda.

Hartman, an American architect and an expert on sustainability, reveals that the London Olympic Games are surprisingly green, with environmental thinking underpinning each and every project. Quite rightly Hartman sees sustainability not just in the aesthetic design of individual buildings but also in the social and economic benefits for the wider community. Her book is an insightful and informative 250-pager with colourful diagrams that document the environmental strategies behind designs at the Olympic Park.

The London Games anticipated the transformation of a post-industrial East End, boosting the sustainability industry and providing a flagship for the UK’s future eco-designs. The key demand was for adaptable structures to give lasting benefits for future generations. London was already halfway there, with a 200 ha site divided by the Lea River near the mouth of the Thames, already serviced by transport links. Notable highlights include reclamation of 80 per cent of excavated soil, with the use of a ‘soil hospital’ to sort and chemically stabilise materials for reuse – a technique not previously used in the UK. Hartman uses her expertise to zoom in from the macro to the micro, with a wider look at the overall master plan before examining the finer details of individual buildings, such as the Velodrome and Olympic Village.

A big majority of the individual arenas and stadia achieved a BREEAM standard of excellent, while little-known facts include that Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre used concrete with up to 100 per cent recycled aggregate and up to 50 per cent cement substitution; Hopkins Architects’ Velodrome had to balance the cyclists’ requirements for high temperatures of 26-28 deg C while maintaining spectator comfort; and the Olympic and Paralympic Village has the largest number of homes compliant with the Government’s Code for Sustainable Homes to date.

London 2012 has been relentlessly occupied with ‘legacy’, and what will happen to the buildings after all the Olympic action is over. Once the perimeter fence that currently seals off the community has been removed, ditto the temporary stands, London will have a much-improved area that was once a contaminated brownfeld site. How this will impact the social and economic opportunities for local residents remains to be seen, but we have the initial building blocks for the regeneration of East London.

At the very least, it has raised awareness of environmental issues within the construction industry by the sustainability targets of the Olympic Delivery Authority and a requirement for an environmental manager on each site. A lot can be learned for future Games, especially for 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, through the International Olympic Committee’s Host-to-Host agreement to share best practice.

The book shows that sustainability can no longer be an afterthought or a byword for architects to promote an environmentally friendly intention through ‘greenwashing’, but that it has to be an integrated solution.

London 2012 has made sure that sustainability was part of the strategy from the outset, thinking ‘legacy’ and not just the few weeks of the Games. Hartman does say in her conclusion that the 2012 Games could have been more sustainable, despite pushing sustainable design standards further than previous Games. ‘Disappointments are inevitable when ambition is high,’ she says. If sustainability had driven the Olympic bid at the competition stage in 2005, Hadid’s Aquatics Centre could have been more future-proofed, ‘but designing for legacy means spending more upfront, which is at odds with the short-termism of a one-off mega-event with a fixed budget,’ Hartman notes. As it is, her book does portray London 2012 as the greenest Games in history, affirming 2005’s commitment.

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