Surveyors play a key role in regeneration schemes that are changing the face of the country

The first time most of us come across a surveyor is when we're buying our first flat or house and we find out that the bank won't lend us the money until a surveyor has cast a critical eye over the property. The result can often be a disappointment. What we thought was a charming place, nicely balancing character and practicality, is, in fact, a structural wreck, built in a notorious area of subsidence.

Well the same professional skills, drawing on knowledge of how buildings are put together, and how they fit into the surrounding landscape, are applied by surveyors when casting their gaze over a whole area. And their ability to marry creativity to hard-nosed practicality makes them key players when plans are being drawn up to regenerate run-down corners of our towns and cities.

The size of such regeneration schemes can vary enormously, according to Nigel Smith, who chairs the RICS regeneration policy panel.

"It goes from the very small, like tidying up a patch of land and turning it into a garden, to the very big, like the Canary Wharf project on the Isle of Dogs (pictured below) or the Brindleyplace development in Birmingham," he explains.

Smith co-founder of the London-based property and regeneration firm Hewdon Consulting is currently engaged in the relocation of Central St Martins College of Art and Design, from its current five separate buildings dotted around central London, into one big property in the regeneration area north of King's Cross station. The scheme as a whole is enormous. The plans include nearly 2,000 new homes, 20 new streets, half a million square feet of shopping space, together with schools, hotels and health service buildings, all alongside enhancements to the Regent's Canal, which runs across the landscape. Twenty existing historic buildings will be renovated and about 50 new ones built.

The new college building will be partly new-build and partly renovation of one of two giant railway engineering sheds on the site. The Hewdon scheme incorporates several "green" elements: energy efficiency will be maximised by combining heat and power; rain water will be captured and used, in various ways, instead of fresh water from the mains; there'll be strict control of how rain runs off the hard areas, to avoid local flooding; and, strikingly, a virtual ban on cars there'll be just seven car parking spaces serving the entire college, reserved exclusively for disabled use.

"The entire scheme has the very highest green credentials," says Smith.

In fact, all round the country now, there are regeneration schemes exhibiting prominent features driven by ecological and sustainability concerns. But this hasn't always been the case.

When Chris Brown, a chartered surveyor, was involved in the start-up of the igloo Regeneration Partnership in 2002, he was aware that most people in the field did not prioritise the environmental aspects of their schemes.

"When we started, people thought we were mad," he recalls. "But the transformation in the last five years has been extraordinary. The environmental side is now viewed as an absolutely crucial part."

The current igloo projects, overseen by the partnership's team of 15 surveyors, include: the regeneration of the last derelict site in Cardiff's inner harbour, entailing the flooding of two dry docks to create one and a half miles of new waterfront; and the refurbishment of Marshall's Mill in Leeds, a tiny element of which is the creation of a bicycle hire business to keep the car at bay.

And inextricably linked to the environmental side is the need to ensure that regeneration projects are built in harmony with the human beings who'll use them, and live within them, most of whom have been living, to some degree or other, in impoverished surroundings.

"I believe regeneration is primarily about doing things that benefit people in deprived areas," says Brown. That is why most successful regeneration schemes emerge after collaboration between private design companies (such as igloo), public regeneration agencies and local communities.

A current igloo project exhibiting just this cooperation is the Bermondsey Square regeneration near Tower Bridge in London. Here, the eye-catching component, among the apartments, shops, hotel and provision for the long-established antiques and farmers' market, is a 55-seater community cinema. This will be rented, on a subsidised basis, to a local resident who teaches teenagers on the adjoining estate about film making. The plan is that the cinema will show films made by local people, and be used, for commercial presentations, by the advertising businesses expected to occupy the businesses premises on the new development.

Another leading firm in this field is Urban Splash, with a string of major schemes breathing new life into parts of the North West. The firm's website blurb tries to get across a commitment to ecology without sounding too preachy. "We aim to be green, without being holier than thou," it proclaims.

"We were one of the first companies to put a combined heat and power unit in a project," says Nick Johnson, the deputy chief executive currently engaged in the renovation of Park Hill, a gigantic series of listed blocks of flats in Sheffield. A key element of this approach is electricity generation taking place on site, perhaps serving a large building or small district. This avoids what can be an energy loss of up to 80 percent as electricity passes from a conventional power station through the various stages of the national grid.

However, there is one way in which Johnson believes the surveying profession is a little off the pace when it comes to embedding ecological practices into its work.

"The principle operation of the surveyor is to value, but the industry does not yet have mechanisms in place to capture the value of energy-saving measures installed in buildings." He'd like to see the known science about thermal efficiency and the resultant reduction in carbon dioxide emissions formally embedded in every surveyor's calculations.

"We apply subjectivity when comparing the value of identical living spaces, where one is in a Georgian house and the other in a Seventies concrete block, so why can't we apply the science of carbon dioxide emissions as well?"

There's no doubt, though, that these issues are assuming increasing prominence on surveying degree courses.

Kingston University, for example, which currently has more than 500 undergraduates on its four main surveying courses, has just been designated a centre of excellence in this field.

"Everything that we teach has a focus on the green agenda and sustainability," says Amanda Lewis, director of teaching and learning at the centre, and a teacher in the School of Surveying.

And across the country, this new focus of the green side of the education of surveyors seems to be bringing the right people into the job.

"We are getting people coming in to the profession who want to change the world," says Chris Brown, "which is fantastic from our point of view, because these are exactly the people we want."