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Architects needn’t take a guilt-trip on concrete

Paul Finch

Look at the big construction picture before condemning concrete, writes Paul Finch

Taking statistics with a pinch of salt, sometimes a bucketful, is not a bad attitude to adopt when trying to digest shock, horror stories in the media. The latest batch to set my contrarian bells ringing gives the impression that architects are responsible for 8 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions because they specify concrete.

A good feature in the AJ unpicked the arguments and made them less black-and-white but, as with most coverage of the world of carbon, couldn’t address in a single piece the overall context in which construction needs to be viewed. Among other things this includes a comprehensive league table showing what makes up the 100 per cent of emissions (methane from billions of expiring African ants, not to mention the world of beef). Such a list demonstrates why it is easier to pick on architects than, say, the global travel industry. Designers are easier, less popular targets.

When it comes to looking at a specific sector, like construction, the situation is no less complicated. Buildings are the generators of a significant proportion of carbon emissions but, to become useful, the statistics need to distinguish between emissions-in-use and emissions-to-create – a subject about which the architect Simon Sturgis has undertaken brilliant pioneering work in recent years.

Looking at the big construction picture, we also need to distinguish between civil engineering and buildings, and between new and retrofitted contracts; there are parts of buildings (piling, foundations, some structure) where it would be perverse to use anything other than concrete, at least until the development of entirely new materials. We also need to ask ourselves what exactly we would use as substitutes for concrete if this excellent material were largely outlawed, and what environmental impact production of the replacements might have.

In relation to architectural specification and carbon, a few questions to put things in context would include: what proportion of construction (and separately what proportion of buildings) are designed by architects; what does new stock represent as a percentage of all stock (ie what percentage of carbon emissions are generated by the new compared to the existing); and what percentage of new stock is replacing or upgrading poor-quality buildings with a net environmental benefit?

I don’t think any architect designing a house in concrete for its aesthetic value should feel at all guilty about proceeding, especially since in all likelihood the house will be there for decades if not in near-perpetuity. Real wasteful carbon emissions result from buildings with a huge initial carbon footprint which are demolished after 30 years. All that wasted embodied carbon – one big argument, by the way, for having retrofitted the Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens.

The corruption of permitted development

Office-to-resi conversion as of right is an excellent idea which, in the British way, is being ruined by political pygmies. How can this government, which claims to believe that Scrutonesque ‘beauty’ is the answer to our housing and planning problems, allow the creation of a generation of ghastly little fuck-hutches (copyright Philip Larkin) via its permitted development policies?

It is no bad idea to make it super-simple to change redundant offices to homes – at a time when some places have a glut of redundant offices and a dearth of new housing – the situation in Croydon until quite recently. All Whitehall needed to do was insert a simple clause in the legislation requiring minimum space standards (for example those introduced by Boris Johnson when London mayor) and conformity to latest building regulations. Its blind belief in the free market is producing rubbish – but not always. The RIBA should surely be campaigning for proper standards, not telling architects to abandon the market to the less scrupulous.


Readers' comments (2)

  • With regard to office-to-resi conversions it's come to a pretty pass if conformity to the latest building regulations is not mandatory.
    But then we have a society where the remarkable rash of back-yard residential sheds and shacks for the 'worker ants' in a particular area of West London is seemingly material for press comment but not for planning and building regulation action.

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  • Not all concrete is created equal. Cement is main the bearer of the embodied carbon. It is quite possible to make concrete with anything from 50% to 80% of the cement replaced with something with a much lower embodied carbon: GGBFS, PFA or fine limestone powder for example. Architects should familairise themselves with the technical requirements of low carbon concrete and specify it whenever it can be used.

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