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Chris McCarthy on society and the need for a rethink

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According to Chris McCarthy, engineers 'are not loved in society' - British society, that is, where they 'survive the system', in contrast with France or Spain, where their role is celebrated.

This seems a surprising comment from someone whose firm, Battle McCarthy, has met with considerable success and acclaim in the few years since it was established, with a portfolio of high-profile commissions: Le Grand Bleu in Marseilles; the GSW tower in Berlin; Bluewater; Greenwich Millennium Village; and now the Elephant and Castle masterplan. But McCarthy maintains that the fact that 'engineering is about change' makes it 'very uncomfortable' for society to deal with.

The two major issues which he identified as having most significance for society in the immediate future are the UK's ageing population - 50 per cent of whom will soon be over 50 - and the impact of global environmental developments, notably the depletion of resources, which will force us to make far-reaching changes to the way we live: 'There's not enough materials to go round.' In relation to the latter, he insists on the need to set up a governmental department of materials, as exists in the US.

As engineer for the environmental audit on the skin of the Millennium Dome, he suggests that new, breathable materials and insulation fibres are replacing the old stalwarts of construction which simply won't be available in the future. They are transforming buildings into relatively soft structures, begging the question 'is there a new aesthetic out there?' And they should help to cut the construction industry's enormous contribution to waste generation, by facilitating demountability and re-use. But, at the same time, we need to know we won't 'all be lying on the floor dead in 20 years' due to toxic fumes emitted by new substances.

McCarthy stresses that health issues are becoming the driving factor in building design. It is all very well talking about brownfield development, but if people living around a busy traffic interchange begin to suffer from chronic illnesses over a period of time, someone will have to pay for it. Similarly, 'living in a basement isn't good for you', and if you're building to a density of 75 units per hectare, you have 'got to get the acoustics right'. At the moment, UK Building Regulations set the lowest standards on acoustics 'in the whole of the globe'.

Battle McCarthy's work has been focusing on areas such as waste water recycling (as at Nintendo's HQ), natural lighting and ventilation (as at Bluewater), and 'bringing the outside in', by exploring the use of balconies as buffer zones in housing. But the problem with sustainable design is that it must be, by its nature, integrated, 'there's no point developing a product that no-one can run', in an entrenched bureaucratic culture where everything is broken down into departments. Social 'rethinking', therefore, must be at the top of the agenda.

Chris McCarthy was speaking last week at 'Dimensions of Sustainability' at The Gallery, 77 Cowcross Street, London EC1

vital statistics

Eight out of 10 owners of newly-built houses in the UK find defects, according to a government survey of 10,000 housebuyers. The worst performing company was Barratt.

Some 81 stretches of railway track across the UK have the same risk factors as at Hatfield, where a train derailed, killing four people last week. The UK's rail safety record, 0.36 deaths per billion km, is worse than Italy, France and Germany.

Farm incomes have fallen by 90 per cent since 1995-6 and in the past decade agriculture has shed 70,000 jobs, according to a report from accountant Deloitte and Touche.

The government is to establish a £50 million trust from Lottery money to research renewable energy sources. The UKhas committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 12.5 per cent below 1990 levels by 2010.

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