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Architects should take the lead on achieving zero carbon

Paul Finch
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Look to science and smart thinking to achieve zero carbon construction, not Whitehall, says Paul Finch

The Negroni Talks programme takes place in a splendid Venetian-style bar and restaurant in Hackney. The brainchild (like the restaurant) of architects fourth_space, the talks are informal, sometimes heated, and accompanied by the cocktail that inspired the programme’s name. Last week’s event discussed ‘the role architects can play in the climate change debate, and what can be done in terms of leading by example, lobbying or more direct action’. 

My contribution, in summary, was that architects should not blame themselves for policies and contexts (eg population growth) over which they have little control; that direct action generally has little effect in the UK; that lobbying is the most likely way to achieve change and the RIBA is best placed to lead collective action; and that individual architects or practices could have significant leverage in respect of what they design and should exercise it to the full.

Another contributor, Maria Smith, of architect-engineer practice Interrobang, gave a good example of what designers could all do: use more timber, as part of a conscious decision to reduce carbon impact on a calculated basis.

Interrobang’s Ilford Community Market project, perspective render

Interrobang’s Ilford Community Market project, perspective render

Source: Interrobang

Interrobang’s Ilford Community Market project, perspective render

Speaking from the floor, Bennetts Associates co-founder Rab Bennetts noted that the application of science and scientific analysis in respect of buildings could generate a different (and better) architecture.

Chatting afterwards, Rab reminded me about some of the work on this subject done by Paul Morrell when he was the government’s ‘construction czar’, and I interrupted the latter’s holiday to check a couple of points. The first was the size of the problem, for example in trying to decarbonise housing stock. 

To get to zero carbon housing stock in 40 years would require us to retrofit or replace a dwelling every 50 seconds

In 2010, when he looked at this, the estimated number of dwellings in the UK was about 26 million. At historic replacement rates, it looked as though 25 million would still be with us in 2050. To get to zero carbon housing stock in 40 years (21 million minutes), would therefore require us to retrofit or replace a dwelling every 50 seconds.

A fragmented supply side, epitomised by a white-van delivery culture, would be incapable of achieving such a target. The situation has changed for the worse subsequently. Moreover, even if the supply side became more efficient and better-integrated, what would be the incentive on the demand side to embrace the disruption and cost involved?

The Morrell proposition ran as follows: regulation will be essential if the scale of challenge is to be taken seriously; regulation and time deadlines would focus free market supply-side organisations on the potential financial rewards of responding to guaranteed change with scale and longevity; and in order to encourage innovation across the sector, professional bodies should be working with trade associations to promote smarter thinking, smarter technology and products, and a unified front which would command political attention.

Instead of expecting Whitehall to come up with all the answers, the industry as a whole would be spelling out what it could achieve, provided government gave some practical support (free of ideological objections to regulation, for example).

We have wasted a decade, but it doesn’t mean that good ideas, based on rigorous analysis, cannot be revived.

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