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Settlers, prospectors and pioneers: Why sustainability has to add up for everyone

Paul Finch’s letter from London: When it comes to green thinking, enough small things add up to a big thing

Aggregation is the word that has been informing recent architectural and masterplanning work by Studio Egret West (which celebrated its seventh birthday recently with a very pleasant office supper).

This approach – the clustering of smaller pieces into a larger whole, as opposed to the megastructure alternative – has huge appeal. There are also many examples of places that work because of aggregation: universities, inns of court, campus-style offices and medical developments, villages and some of the better tourist destinations. As a general proposition, these seem preferable to gigantism, which almost invariably results in tight-fit buildings with little prospect for alternative use once the first flush of its youth comes to an end.

The idea of aggregation also came to mind in Cambridge last week, at an excellent course on how to promote leadership on sustainability issues in the built environment, co-organised by the University of Cambridge and the Green Buildings Council. Again, the idea that lots of small things beat one big thing lay behind many of the stimulating conversations that took place over three days.

Speakers and delegates cited several examples of relatively minor changes to behaviour or organisation that could have a profound effect on energy demand and carbon emissions because they would affect vast numbers of buildings.

Suggestions came thick and fast: from district heating and CHP provision to office cleaning regimes and intensity of occupation, from putting doors on supermarket freezer units to introducing star systems to identify the quality of whole buildings. It was not just a case of ‘build another power station, as long as it’s not coal-fired’.

What we heard from major producers and consumers of energy in Cambridge, was that clever thinking can result in greener products and buildings that are far cheaper to produce and run. Again, this is not because of a single big reason. A myriad small ones involve everything from rethinking occupation policies to transforming production processes to exploit the potential gain from less wasteful methods of production. This ‘cradle to cradle’ thinking includes, for example, using recycling as an integral part of the process. No one is pretending that these changes will be easy.

A fascinating insight into why good ideas may fail to produce results came in a presentation on how three very broad groups, ‘settlers’, ‘prospectors’ and ‘pioneers’ make up our society.

If you want to win over all three groups to the merits of green thinking, it is not enough to posit an idea and expect everyone else to jump into line, which is what pioneers do. You can’t just leap from idea to action: prospectors will want to know how it will work, what it will mean for them, and how they will be recognised and rewarded.

Settlers, by contrast, will be suspicious of anything that appears to threaten their sense of security and wellbeing. For them, the critical thing is that any new policy or proposition looks ‘normal’. For example, a star system for refrigerator efficiency gives a sense of empowerment in making a consumer purchase, but feels comfortable because everyone else is doing it too.

This means that once it has the construction industry fully on side, the Green Building Council’s broader task will be to align and integrate the ideas it promotes across a far wider spectrum of society. That process will involve politics, marketing, and all the sort of stuff that leaves pioneers cold, because they are busy thinking about the next idea (or rethinking the old one).

All the folk on the course have made some sort of personal commitment to do something in the coming year about an area where they have some influence or responsibility (I am pursuing more ways to promote retrofit). No one person could achieve much on their own, but then this is all about aggregation.

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