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Design is not a Barcelona chair: Max Fordham roundtable

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Is climate change a design problem we need to solve? Or has design become a substitute for style and taste? Max Fordham and the AJ host a lively debate

It started with a provocation: Design is not a Barcelona chair. (Or how the hell do we solve climate change?). Together with the AJ, Max Fordham - pioneers in sustainability - was seeking an inspired debate. We got one.

We asked a number of guests, who we knew had contrasting opinions, to join us at the engineer’s Camden headquarters for a lively discussion on the tabled motion. This is how we primed our team:

‘Design is not a Barcelona chair. We’ve already solved not sitting on the floor. Don’t you want a real challenge? An industrial design challenge? An engineering design challenge? An architectural design challenge? Design is solving problems. We’ve got a big problem right now. It’s called climate change. We need a solution. We need it now. Take a seat. Let’s talk about this…

Science fiction author and design theorist Bruce Sterling said: ‘The number one trend in the world, the biggest, the most important trend, is climate change. People hate watching it; they either flinch in guilty fear or shudder away in denial, but it makes a deeper, more drastic difference to your future than anything else that is happening now.’

You know he’s right. So what are you going to do about it? Design a new chair? Or find better ways to reduce energy consumption; reduce waste; make technology work harder; detoxify the building process…’

Rest assured, no-one agreed with the premise. But it did kickstart a discussion. What follows isn’t a manifesto. Far from it. None of our delegates would be that presumptuous. Eight people, a mix of architects, engineers and thinkers in the field, debating around the table for 90 minutes on whether sustainability is a design problem, a lifestyle choice or rod for our own backs, were never going to reach a consensus. But each and every one of them had something profound to say, something powerful, insightful and well worth pondering. And we wanted to share the highlights with you. We’re not attributing the outcomes to anyone because the debate itself, the dialogue, was more important than the individual viewpoints held.

Read the full transcript here.

Design is not a Barcelona chair: Max Fordham roundtable

■ Rory Olcayto, AJ deputy editor

■ Ian Goodfellow, partner, Penoyre & Prasad Architects
■ Daisy Froud, AOC co-founder and brief builder
■ Je Ahn, co-founder, Studio Weave
■ Alasdair Reid, sustainability team leader and senior partner at Max Fordham
■ Keith Bradley, partner, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
■ Alastair Donald, director at the Future Cities Project and project director for the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2014
■ Philip Armitage, senior partner at Max Fordham
■ Yeoryia Manolopoulou, founding partner, AY Architects and director of research at the Bartlett School of architecture
■ Hattie Hartman, AJ sustainability editor

10 points of interest

Designers should be careful with the words they use

Do we need a new word for sustainability? It’s way too baggy for its own good, at least in terms of what architects and engineers are expected to do in its name. Most of the time it is used it just tends to wash over the target audience. But a new word? It would surely be just as susceptible to misuse and obfuscation. Instead, we should pledge to examine our language from time to time - to see if it is still serving a purpose. Is it right to define climate as a problem? Is it right to think of design as simply an aesthetic veneer? Words change their meaning over time. We need to watch that.

Tech-heads block creative thinking

Tech-head, paternalistic solution-finding blocks a more collaborative, questioning way of looking at how we live in the world. Le Corbusier was wrong. A house is not a machine for living in. That has led us down the wrong path. We shouldn’t be making buildings super-airtight. The rain, the sun, the cold, the wind: the environment should be in dialogue with space, with form and with aesthetics, too.

The cult of sustainability … is unsustainable

People always talk about sustainability as a kind of promised land, the golden future, the thing that we are always going to get at and it is just around the corner. But it is old news. The Brundtland Commission, which positioned sustainable development as a political idea, was appointed 30 years ago. Already by 1988, Margaret Thatcher was talking about championing sustainability. The Queen was talking about it by the early 1990s. The European Commission introduced its first sustainability legislation in 1990. Already sustainable transport was part of planning policy by the early ’90s. All of these things have been in place for a quarter of a century, and yet what’s the discussion today? Well, we don’t build houses so we’ve got a housing crisis. We have a serious question over our energy future and whether we can provide enough, and mobility is reducing for the first time in two centuries.

Architectural design is not a toxic process

Architects are not toxifying the world, they are a source of creativity and seek to create a better world. But the focus on resources is restrictive. Throughout history we have discovered new resources and we will continue to do so. Of course there are limits, and we must use what we have and what we find, with care. The barrier is not being creative enough to exploit the world around us. The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stone. We learned to use metal instead and found much better ways to make tools. We are at one of those turning points again: where a new set of tools could take us up a level.

Buildings are better when users help design them

We may have solved certain problems in terms of energy saving in housing design with sophisticated building management systems. We all know, however, that when residents move in, they do not operate those systems in the way expected and energy is often wasted. But where it has been successful - in self-build co-housing schemes in places like Germany - residents have been involved with the designers from the beginning, adapting and designing the systems that work around their particular ecology of collective life. Then, of course, they take ownership of those systems and start using them effectively. Simple.

Buildings that people love will last a whole lot longer

If we are able to design buildings that are well loved by the people that use them in the ways they want to use them they will be inherently sustainable. They will continue to be used and valued. Sustainable design is about making good places to be in, places that people enjoy being in. That enjoyment will come from the aesthetic side; it will come from the sense of pride in the place; it will come from the fact that the building works and that they are comfortable within it. Architects and engineers need to work together on this. You want your building to be valued? Make it loveable.

Sustainable architecture is spatial and social

The relationship between environment and architecture is synergistic: we have got to stop seeing it as one part harnessing or avoiding the other. There’s no real difference between a building and its site. Good sustainable design flows not from an instrumental approach, but instead from a spatial approach. When we think about how to extend or renew our cities, let’s think more spatially - and ditch the mechanistic approach.

Rules and regulations are creative frameworks

Regulation is a form of human enterprise and creativity. It is not something that exists independently of culture; it is part of culture. We produce the regulations that we need: regulations are designed, as well. To say that regulations are something that are imposed upon us is a lazy way of thinking. When regs become oppressive, invariably human ingenuity tweaks the system for the better. We need to design appropriate regulations that allow us to express our creativity, but also to keep ourselves in check.

Building typologies: what’s the point?

Isn’t a good building actually just a flexible building which can have any number of uses and a long life? Typologies are constraining: having a different type of building for each kind of use is wasteful. There are only a few typologies that are really fixed and couldn’t be anything else - like a nuclear power station - those ones can remain, but everything else? Get rid of them. We have an opportunity now to apply some core design principles to create a decent internal environment that can cover many flexible uses. Design on the basis that it could be reused.

Climate change is not a problem, it’s a context

Sustainable design has to be a process-driven activity and a collaborative activity. It goes hand in hand with a more social participatory and collaborative way of designing: one that considers spatial and environmental issues and social and economic equity alongside the act of producing buildings and places. The world isn’t black or white. It just is. We just are. We exist in a context, we inhabit certain systems, and if we could find a way to operate as a collective ‘we’ and not exploit certain groups for the benefit of others, climate change would no longer look like a problem to solve.

We can’t separate a problem from its social, economic and political context and then seek to resolve it. The design media in particular also has a role in communicating that - and generating public conversations about it, too.

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