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Amin Taha’s lead on materials could help save the planet

Emily Booth
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Architects love concrete but its high contribution to global CO2 emissions makes Taha’s preference for other materials a lead others need to follow, writes Emily Booth

Amin taha verdant jimstephenso

Amin taha verdant jimstephenso

Source: Jim Stephenson

Amin Taha, whose work and approach we focus on this week, is an architect of interest and ability. At the core of his buildings is the way materials tell a story. He strives for an honesty in how and why materials are used and, in Rob Wilson’s insightful interview with him, decries the wastefulness and inherent dishonesty of ‘doubling’ structure. ‘Why not take the concrete column away and allow the brick pier to be structural?’ he asks. It is cost-effective, you save money, and ‘you’ve made that brick pier hold up superstructure and also be an expression of a building’.

The ‘concrete column’ encapsulates so much about how and why we build. Concrete is ubiquitous in construction – useful, versatile, strong, quick and cheap (in monetary terms). However, it has a concerning environmental impact which is starting to be recognised.

15 Clerkenwell Close may be at the centre of a planning storm but surely its most pertinent message is one about the potential of building with stone

Developers love concrete (often used behind the scenes of the pseudo-pastiche façades that Taha lambasts). Architects love concrete (often for different reasons: the look of it, the feel of it – to work successfully with exposed concrete is a rare talent). There are academic and coffee-table books about concrete’s aesthetic virtues and its place in the Modernist and Brutalist movements. To appreciate concrete in design is often a mark of sophistication. Like plastic, concrete is embedded in our lives, for good and bad.

But climate change is an emergency issue. The UK construction industry accounts for 35-40 per cent of all the nation’s carbon emissions, and cement (a key ingredient in concrete) accounts for 8 per cent of global CO2 emissions.

In our first climate-focused news analysis of 2019, Will Hurst considers the positive steps some architects are taking to address the overuse of concrete, such as using more CLT. Sudden step-changes can sometimes have unintended consequences, but the mantra ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ would seem to be a good starting point. Can you actively think about when and where you need to use concrete? Do you need to use so much of it and can you use it more effectively? How might you work differently? Making a positive choice about use of materials can be a catalyst for real change.

Taha’s 15 Clerkenwell Close might have been at the centre of a planning storm but, for architects, surely its most pertinent message is one about the potential of building with stone. For starters, the material can use as much as 90 per cent less embodied carbon than concrete. As all aspects of production and consumption come under the microscope, perhaps now is the time for an honest discussion about materials.

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