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Stunell: ‘Time to lose post-occupancy blame culture’

Backbencher Andrew Stunell, who worked as an architectural assistant for 20 years before becoming a Lib Dem MP, on tackling energy efficiency

What do you think about the future of sustainable construction?
I have had a long-term interest in the green agenda, dating back to when I was at the drawing board. The roll of the political dice meant I became a minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). On day one I went to see the secretary of state and I asked which minister would be in charge of Building Regulations? He didn’t know what they were, so I got that job without any great difficulty.

I worked very hard to get consequential improvements so that when a building is upgraded or extended, you have to bring it all to a reasonable standard. But because of bureaucratic barriers, that has not succeeded. However, I’m still needling from the backbenches whoever I can to push it forward – there is a huge job to do.

What can the architectural profession do about making homes more energy efficient?
One of the real challenges for the building and architectural profession is making sure what we say we are doing, actually happens.

Some of the studies which have been done on actual performance of high-spec homes have been very disappointing.

When the Elm Tree Mews project – demonstration terraces done for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in York [by Cole Thompson Anders] was tested, none of them reached even 50 per cent of their performance standard. And that was when nobody was cutting corners or taking Friday afternoon off. Everybody was trying their best.

There’s a challenge for the profession to come clean and say that we can’t actually do this stuff.

Architects must not be too starry-eyed about the latest high-tech solution

If I had £100 million to spend on reducing carbon emissions, the best way is not to produce a small number of extremely high-spec new homes, it is to tackle the backlog of the 20 million homes which we will still have in 40 or 50 years’ time. You stop more water flooding into the boat by plugging up big holes, than you do by fiddling about making them airtight. Architects must not be too starry-eyed about the latest high-tech solution, but be very pragmatic about the most cost-effective carbon reduction strategy. The question is how do we fix bog standard, ordinary people’s homes so that they half their bills?

How can we encourage architects to scrutinise the performance of their buildings and share findings with others? 

The situation is not made easier by the increasing blame culture

The situation is not made easier by the increasing blame culture. It is a challenge in the health service to own up to mistakes. So it is obviously a challenge in a professional sphere where you have indemnity insurance. It is interesting that the airline industry is very much better and actually the marine industry is getting quite good at a completely blame free reporting of incidents. I do not know how you could replicate that in the building industry, but we need that spirit of openness, or we won’t learn from each other.

Is there a role for architects to get involved in planning on a macro scale?
I last picked up a pen at a drawing board in 1985 when I was working on Runcorn New Town – the end of the heyday of totally planned holistic solutions. Quite often those totally planned solutions do not join up – with awfully clunky bits at the edges.

While it’s attractive to think that there is a big solution to a big problem, sometimes there are thousands of small solutions. If the answer to our energy problems is to make our existing town systems more efficient, we are not talking about taking 60 acres and drawing new roads. It is about taking loads of existing homes with fragmented service delivery and saying what is a cost effective way of reducing carbon emissions in that area.

How would you ensure the new homes being built are also quality places to live?
The thing that maintains quality is consumer demand. But what baffles me is how we get consumers to talk about the [energy efficiency] of their homes.

If you go back 100 years, the big debate in the industry when building a new house was whether to put in a new-fangled electric light or whether to stick with gas?. The argument was won and electric lights were put in. It was won because nobody would buy a house which did not have electric lighting. But the fascinating thing is that there is no requirement for a house to have electric lights in Building Regulations. Improvement comes from client demand. But nobody is saying: ‘I’m not buying that because it has only got a ‘D’ rating.’

How can this change?
There is no doubt that architects have a role to play in this in terms of their clients. But it also works at the trade level – even engineers who come around to replace your boiler will tell you the way that you can bypass the new regulations using a low-spec boiler. They ought to be saying what you need is something that will really do the business.

Energy is not something [tradespeople] take seriously

Energy is not something [tradespeople] take seriously, the way that they do fire doors. People don’t put in papier-mâché fire doors – not just because they might be caught, but more because they believe it is important that buildings are properly fire resistant.

Is there a role for a city architect?
The days when councils could expect to have a single, professional chief officer responsible for one particular discipline are gone. Today it is much more about being able to juggle and manage resources to achieve a more holistic outcome, than it is about maintaining a particular professional discipline’s pre-eminence.

[Having said that] we need to see some architects in public service, aspiring to be generic chief officers or standing in mayoral elections. Architects need to be a bit more ambitious about doing that.

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