After years of delay and blistering criticism from environmental groups, residents and politicians, in February UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail project would go ahead, in totality. 

The initiative – which will ultimately link London with Leeds and Manchester passing through Birmingham – is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the UK for generations. Originally earmarked to cost about £33bn, a leaked government document earlier this year suggested the price tag could now amount to as much as £106bn once completed. 

Speaking in the Commons to announce the decision to proceed, and responding to the growing chorus of criticism it faced, Johnson said: “Together, this revolution in local and national transport has the potential to be truly transformative for the entire country. Yes, it is ambitious. But ambition frankly is what we have lacked for too long.”

The prime minister’s ambition is equally matched by that of one element of the HS2 project, Birmingham’s Curzon Street Station. Over the last two years, lead architect Canada-based WSP has been – out of its Birmingham office – working with Grimshaws and landscape and public realm specialists Grants Associates to develop the £724m, 141-hectare project – a substantial investment in the station and surrounding space in the Digbeth area of the city.

A boost for Birmingham

Aside from the obvious significant investment and redevelopment of the site and being the first major rail terminus project in the UK since the 19th century, by far the most eye-catching aspect is HS2’s commitment is to achieve net-zero carbon emissions once operational. 

“We will maximise the benefits of natural resources such as sunlight and water.”

“Curzon Street Station will achieve the ‘BREEAM Excellent’ standard – a globally recognised industry standard for sustainable lifetime performance, and will achieve zero carbon emissions from day-to-day energy consumption,” says HS2’s lead architect for stations Hala Lloyd.

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Lloyd adds that the site will be highly energy efficient and generate energy through a range of different technologies. “We will maximise the benefits of natural resources such as sunlight and water, and provide seamless connections between different transportation modes with the objective of protecting Birmingham’s communities and its wildlife habitats,” she says.

The interchange is the first planned site across the HS2 network to get the greenlight. Credit: HS2 Ltd.

After receiving approval from Birmingham City Council in April, the interchange is the first to get the go-ahead of any of the other planned sites across the HS2 network. As part of the first phase of HS2, it is hoped work will begin in late 2020. 

Sustainability at its core

The company says that Curzon Street will cut carbon emissions by as much as 55% during its anticipated 120-year lifetime. “During the design process, architects WSP have employed various measures such as rainwater harvesting, the use of photovoltaics and passive ventilation design, making designs leaner and incorporating reused, recycled or renewable material where possible,” Lloyd continues. 

“Our multidiscipline team was responsible for weaving a thread of future-ready sustainability throughout the design.”

Energy efficiencies will also be achieved through innovative building integration systems such as LED lighting and heating and cooling capabilities, as well as the station producing its own energy through solar panels and ground source heat pumps. The solar panels – which will have a footprint of 2,855m2 – will be ideally placed above the platforms’ on canopies, which will receive nine 400m-long trains per hour capable of carrying 1,100 passengers. 

“Responding to HS2’s socio-environmental ambitions, our multidiscipline team was responsible for weaving a thread of future-ready sustainability throughout the design,” said WSP’s project lead Tim Danson in a company press release. “Over 40 delivery partners have been involved in the design, collaborating to develop the scheme across technological, carbon, climate, biodiversity, community and materials themes.”

The plans have already received a warm welcome according to Lloyd: “The environmental credentials of the station design have already been recognised as Curzon Street Station has been named as a shortlisted finalist in the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment awards. These awards celebrate and recognise people and businesses that are helping to transform the world in the sustainability field.”

It is not just the station that will be environmentally conscious. During its construction, sustainability will be at the fore, says Lloyd, and the design will complement the local area as well as provide a natural setting that boasts the potential to be a thriving business and recreational destination.

Curzon Street will cut carbon emissions by 55% over its expected 120-year lifetime. Credit: HS2 Ltd.

“We’ve worked closely with Birmingham City Council, key local stakeholders and the independent design review panel to develop designs that respect the context and in particular the existing historic Old Curzon Street Station building, linking it to the new station’s eastern concourse at New Canal Street,” she adds. 

Public space will also surround the station, which includes the area around the Old Curzon Street Station building. Lloyd continues: “The design of the space will enhance the setting of the station and recognise the heritage of the site, in particular the historic track alignments of the former goods yard that used to lie to its east.” 

There will also be new open green spaces and damp grassland habitats between Curzon Street and the viaduct to the east, and an environmental mitigation zone of broadleaf woodland to the south of the car park and viaduct. 

Shaping the future of sustainable travel

As part of its environmental credentials, the station is designed to encourage the use of public transport and cycling by commuters. It will link with the Midland Metro running alongside and underneath, as well as Sprint rapid transit bus services, and provide access to services from Moor Street and Birmingham New Street stations. There will also be the capacity to park 250 bicycles with the potential to extend that to 556 should there be demand.

“HS2 is pushing the boundaries of innovations in carbon reduction.”

With a completion date of 2033 at the latest, the project will create 36,000 new jobs, 4,000 new homes and 600,000m2 of commercial development says HS2. The station itself will be the width of a football pitch and have a total footprint of around 32,600m2

“Using renewable technologies and lean design, Curzon Street Station will be a shining example of how HS2 is helping the UK to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050,” said Hannah Leggatt, HS2’s environment manager for the station in a press release. “Working with our supply chain, HS2 is pushing the boundaries of innovations in carbon reduction and leading the way in developing the green infrastructure of the future.”

The station will produce its own energy through solar panels and ground source heat pumps. Credit: HS2 Ltd.

It’s a view strongly shared by Lloyd, who says: “HS2 is striving for ambitious standards for its stations’ designs in regards to inclusive and environmental design credentials, with the aim of setting new industry benchmarks for future sustainable transportation infrastructure projects. The design for Curzon promises to do just that.”

The development promises to reshape a large part of the city’s centre, delivering green space, an abundance of recreational facilities, what planners hope will be a bustling business community and much-needed housing. It will also generate work opportunities for the city’s residents and lead to a thriving local economy (all being well). It is an exciting time for HS2 and Birmingham.

Perhaps its true legacy, though, will be how it redefines infrastructure projects for the future. For all its critics, even the most hardened opponent must surely see the long-lasting benefits this project and hopefully others like it might bring. At least, the team heading the project hopes so.