The current buzzword in the industry is sustainable architecture, also referred to as the concept of green buildings. More design firms are practising this type of architecture, championing the cause of greater environmental awareness.

What exactly is sustainable architecture? Speak to different people and you will get different responses. While some generalise sustainable architecture as any design that is driven by environmental goals, others argue that sustainable architecture is merely a focus on construction. Then there are critics who accuse practitioners of being opportunists preying on environmental concerns to gain profits.

David Nelson, partner and head of design of world-renowned architectural firm Foster & Partners, admits there is confusion and uncertainty when it comes to defining sustainable architecture. So, what is his definition? "Many people string a lot of words together and come up with descriptions," he says. "However, no matter how the concept is described, the only way to get to its core is to understand the reasons for sustainable architecture."

Nelson says that former US vice-president Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth, on climate change and global warming, made people aware of the pressing environmental problems.

"Thus, from this aspect, sustainable architecture should be seen as a way to play down the negative impacts that a building can have on its landscape. To do so, it would require all parties involved to ensure that, above all, the building is energy efficient and uses environmental-friendly materials," says Nelson, who has over 30 years of experience with Foster & Partners.

Among the projects in Nelson's portfolio are The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (UK), Century Tower (Tokyo), the New German Parliament in the Reichstag (Berlin) and Canary Wharf Underground station in London. Eco-friendly buildings designed by Foster & Partners include the Commerzbank headquarters in Germany, the Masdar Initiative's maiden project of the world's first zero carbon, zero waste city in Abu Dhabi, Free University Berlin, Germany, and wind turbines developed by German power company Enercon.

On the local front, Foster & Partners is involved in Bandaraya Development Bhd's The Troika. Together with GDP Architects, Foster & Partners designed Perak's Universiti Teknologi Petronas, which was among the nine winners of the latest Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The award was established in 1977 by Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, to enhance the understanding and appreciation of Islamic culture as expressed through architecture.

Nelson was in town recently to participate as a judge in YTL Land & Development Bhd's Bird Island Green Homes Competition. The winners (each firm can submit up to two entries) will get to design and build six villas on Bird Island, a feature of YTL's freehold 35-acre Sentul Park in Sentul. The six homes, each comprising three bedrooms, will sit on plots ranging from 4,144 sq ft to 5,554 sq ft. These will not be for sale.

Each of the firms will receive a US$20,000 (approximately RM67,511) participation fee and the construction budget of each home is capped at US$200,000 (approximately RM675,138).

The competition has attracted entries from eight international architectural, environmental engineering and landscape design firms. These are: UK's atelier ten, Grant Associates and Plasma Studio; Germany's GRAFT, Australia's innovarchi, Hong Kong's KplusK associates, China's MAD and America's Zoka Zula.

Designs are judged on their architectural vision, which covers innovation, new approaches to material and sustainability and also contemporary design in a sustainable community and landscape.

The competition, to promote the importance of green architecture, was launched in July.

It was held in association with Stephen Pimbley of SMC Alsop, one of UK's leading architectural firms and Australian-based Paul Sloman, principal of ARUP, a leading consulting firm providing engineering, design, planning and corporate advisory services.

The winning designs will be announced early December. Construction will start next year with completion slated within a year.

Besides Nelson, the other judges were YTL Land managing director Tan Sri Francis Yeoh, YTL Land executive director Datuk Victor Yeoh, Pimbley, Sloman, Institute of Architects Malaysia past president Tan Eng Keong, Tange Associates president Paul Tange and Seksan Design principal Ng Sek San.

On the competition, Nelson says: "It was a daunting task deciding the best entries and we spent the day looking at things from a number of different standpoints as the judging panel comprises architects and engineers. We had to take into consideration how the designs work as a house in this tropical landscape."

He notes that the US$200,000 construction budget given was a fair amount. "We cannot throw in a huge amount of money for green housing. How can it be sustainable when no one can afford it?"