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Climate change is too important for grandstanding

Paul Finch

To cut carbon emissions we should be looking to practical and deliverable solutions, such as making better use of existing buildings, writes Paul Finch

The reaction to last week’s column was, I suppose, predictable. Anyone who begs to differ over current orthodoxies in respect of carbon, energy and climate will be in for a digital kicking but, if you dish it out, then you have to be able to take it.

My only complaint was the assumption by some correspondents that in some way I am disputing the idea that man-made activities are affecting the planet in a deleterious way. I am not – and made clear that, since listening to a talk by Sir David King many years ago, I have assumed that we should be acting on the precautionary principle and trying to reduce carbon emissions and energy consumption generally – while seeking additional sources of carbon-free energy.

Former RIBA president Alex Gordon’s phrase ‘Long life, loose fit, low energy’ is still the best summary of such a strategy yet coined – in 1972, before we even understood the impact of carbon emissions.

I happen to think, like Gaia founder James Lovelock, that nuclear power should be part of that precautionary programme, at least over the next few decades, during which time we may perfect technologies relating to energy generation via sun, water and wind. If and when we do, then we will be able to run the air-conditioning and our electric cars all day long, without harming the environment in any significant way.

Except that the Puritan Tendency in green politics probably won’t be happy, because they want people to pay for their ‘sins’; they want you to be uncomfortable; they want to stop you travelling. Given half a chance, they would be issuing ration books to ensure your home did not exceed their notion of what is ‘fair’. It is hard to take these people seriously, particularly when they tie their green credential to other matters. I heard the only Green MP telling us on the radio at the weekend that if we leave the EU it will be a disaster for climate change. Pull the other one.

Let’s hear it for retrofit

What we should contemplate, as I suggested last week, is what we can do in respect of making the built environment as carbon-neutral as is practical in the short term, deliverable in the medium term and truly aspirational in the long term. A thoughtful feature in the last issue of Property Week asked what property owners are doing about energy consumption. The answer, with a few honourable exceptions, is not very much.

This was in the context of the UK Green Building Council pointing out that 30 per cent of UK carbon emission result from buildings in respect of heating, cooling and other forms of energy use. It is worth noting that it is the use of buildings that is significant, not their mere existence, which is a matter involving embodied energy/carbon and which is the subject of quite separate analyses.

One obvious thing we could all do now is make better use of our existing buildings, since brand new ones will (a) be designed and built to far more stringent energy standards than what currently exists; and (b) will be a minute percentage of total stock. That is why, after going on a UK Green Building Council course a decade ago, I invented the AJ Retrofit Awards, which started in a small way but have grown encouragingly – the word retrofit being used, rather than refurbishment, in order to make clear the intention of the programme is to address energy issues, not just aesthetic or functional concerns.

Ritchie iral royalacademymusic exterior 01ir2 (c) adam scott reduced 2

Ritchie iral royalacademymusic exterior 01ir2 (c) adam scott reduced 2

The trouble with smug grandstanding street occupiers, stopping ambulances and fire engines from doing their job at speed, is that they focus all their intentions on the new: why have we cut subsidies to land-owners for wind farms being one ironic battle cry. The fact they are rich land-owners isn’t mentioned, of course. Or why aren’t we building more garden cities, eco-towns and so on. In this they make common cause with people like Policy Exchange and the Town & Country Planning Association, who like those ideas for very different reasons.

What the grandstanders don’t talk about is the significant percentage of older building stock, which is responsible for a hugely disproportionate consumption of energy and hence carbon emissions. This doesn’t grab headlines and is too difficult to contemplate, especially since, if we were serious about it, we would probably have to go in for some serious demolition.

Old and new can co-exist

Could we we reconcile heritage, retrofit and new building in a synthesised way? I discussed this over dinner three years ago with the late, great Will Alsop, and we devised a programme called Add-Plan, an update of the Cedric Price/Paul Barker/Peter Hall 1960s squib Non-Plan, which attacked some of the results of conventional planning on many of our towns and cities.

Add-Plan posits that no significant building should be demolished in future, but could be extended in any plane and to any dimension, subject to building regulations. The possibility of such extensions would provide a powerful market incentive to maximise, or at least optimise, existing stock. It would also provide new accommodation within city boundaries, rather than splattering low-density development all over the green belt.

In the meantime, the grandstanders should start thinking about all that energy-guzzling housing stock, and how to reconcile green policies with an acute housing shortage – oh, and by the way, the capacity of the construction sector to deal with the massive issue of logistics an improvement programme would entail.

Politicians, of course, will continue to spend their time being photographed with teenage activists, instead of doing difficult, dreary stuff that will never make them look glamorous.


Readers' comments (21)

  • An open letter to Paul.

    We can do this without wearing a hair shirt, let alone sack cloth and ashes?!

    We can reuse existing buildings in all sorts of energy saving and producing ways. There is an old police station, very near where we met at the Curve enquiry that should be flats, with new penthouses on top, and surrounded by lower level houses. At the moment it is to be knocked down and replaced by the worst flats I have seen from the creative Pollard ThomasEdwards, themselves leaders in Code 5 technology in Cambridge and elsewhere! The locals, egged on by the silly Barbara Weiss, just want it demolished. It should be a mini Bosko Vertigale. As the Curve should be a full size Bosko Verticale, to keep Kew happy.

    Hooray Heathrow is also based in Chiswick. I am going to tell them they need 10 runways, not 3 or 4, with a London Airport, non of them at Heathrow, which will become a Garden Suburb. Houses built directly off the existing runways. Saving energy, not using the arrow breaker? £1.5m/house? The director will be “unavailable” when I call in at the Barley Mow, but perhaps will find time later in the week? I haven’t worked on KL, HK and Terminal 5 for nothing?! You will still be able to sign in at Heathrow, but the proposed LARTS, round the M25, with spurs to Gatwick, Stansted etc will take you to your aeroplane. A better use of the 2 hour check in time? Business or pleasure, by some way the biggest international or domestic/short haul airport in the world. Fit for Brexit? When that happens!

    Sorry team, I’m just repeating myself? Turn up at the public meeting if you want to see it all over again? Milk shakes will not be lobbed!

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  • https://www.newscientist.com/article/2203700-sea-level-rise-could-hit-2-metres-by-2100-much-worse-than-feared/ = reality. Every scientific report suggesting far, far worse outcomes that originally thought. What do I suggest to my near 14 descendants living in coastal Clacton; wait for 50 years for their existing social housing to get 150mm rockwool insulation grant? How would the climate sceptics converse with my wheelchair bound friend Trevor, a perfectly healthy early 1950's baby, who contracted polio as a result of the second order effects of the Canvey Island floods? This is very ordinary concern, from very ordinary people, or is Trevor a zealot?

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  • Yup, we early 50s kids took some hard knocks? Almost as bad as the 40s kids?

    If we work diligently we can stop the worst results of climate change, and reward ourselves along the way? Get going today? Things will change, but they always have. The move from hunter gatherers to farming was a leap, and living with the animals gave us some interesting new diseases?!

    Just don’t do a Soubry or Chuka. Canute didn’t turn the tide! And they are not barking up the right trees. Tragic waste of talent. Change nothing, die poor? Climate change was an issue amongst the intelligent twenty years ago. No one moved! So now is the time?

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  • Comment posted on behalf of Jeremy Till:

    It is indeed difficult to take seriously any advice on climate change from someone who revealed last week that he does not know the basic difference between mitigation and adaptation. However, Paul Finch here makes perfectly sensible arguments about the need for retrofit. He then throws it all away by continuing to make unfounded attacks on Extinction Rebellion. Can he point to one instance where XR have argued against the need to address the performance of the current building stock? Of course not. Quite the opposite, as XR spokespeople have been consistent in their criticism of the governments’ withdrawal of the Green Deal scheme for insulating homes. But Finch’s rhetoric needs to frame the activists as delusional.

    For the record, I am an XR supporter. This does not make me a grandstander, zealot, puritan or hair shirt. Zealots are people whose extreme ideologies lead to sociopathic behaviour. XR is not based on ideology: it starts with a close reading of the scientific evidence, all of which points to much worse future than we are presently being told by the corporatists and politicians of the carbon state. On the basis of this evidence, XR is seeking systemic change – one that does not preclude technical innovation but sees it as part of a more radical change in values and behaviour. Yes, this would mean all of us would need to fly less, but no it does not mean a return to caves (as Jacob Rees Mogg dismissed Rupert Read of XR) or to insect eating (as Finch talked of).

    These kind of scare smears are symptomatic of other forms of populist demagoguery. It is indicative here that Finch cannot resist a swipe at Caroline Lucas over Brexit. She is of course right that a no-deal Brexit would be harmful to progress on climate change. All the evidence from any credible economist, business person or analyst points to economic collapse if no-deal goes ahead, and the disaster capitalists behind Brexit are licking their lips at the swathe of deregulation, including environmental, that will inevitably follow. However, the editorial director of the Architects Journal still sees fit to stick to an ideological move that will damage the livelihoods of all his readers. That’s what I call zealotry.

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  • Abuse mitigation would involve reducing it; abuse adaptation would involve developing a thicker skin. Given this example of what must pass for academic rigour these days, it will probably have to be the latter.

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  • Oh Paul. I wasn’t going to bother dignifying your piece with a response, but I think it’s important in an age where misinformation from old white reactionaries gets too easily accepted at face value.

    You complain about grandstanding - but that’s all your piece does. If you really felt climate change was important you’d recognise that protest has become essential in the face of too little, too late from successive governments. Sure, we need to retrofit, but we need to be talking about climate change all day, every day, in whatever form we can in order to make a difference and, more than anything - say ‘enough’. We need change now, and it’s difficult to see why you’re so rattled by people expressing an urgency. Maybe you’re trying to compensate, knowing your time has come?

    You’ve got nothing left to say. No one cares, Paul. Go home and fly your little England flag, and keep quiet if all you’ve got is the angry rantings of a clueless and over-opinionated old man, out of time and unable to make sense of the world.

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  • Sad abuse.

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  • It’s not abuse Paul. Piers is correct when he says it’s time for action... and that’s what we learnt from Extinction Rebellion. MP’s went on leave for Easter and XR took to the streets and reminded us all that issues of climate change, mass extinction of species and the destruction of the natural environmental is more important that Brexit. In a matter of days UK Parliament acknowledged that there is a Climate Emergency. Perhaps this was democracy at it’s best, not band standing.... and of course it was the kids that woke us all up to it. Go Greta go.... and we’ll said Jeremy Till

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  • The abuse was ageist and racist.

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  • You have a point. I'm still not sure why you object to the Greens so much.? One point though. The UK is beginning to create much more green/ clean, renewable energy, but this is not an excuse to plug in air conditioners. Whatever the energy source plugged into our cities, we need to reduce our consumption of it. Consuming energy tends to create heat, and lots of heat in our cities is not a good idea. The bottom line is that designers are the manipulators of resources, and with that responsibility comes the opportunity to reduce the consumption of stuff whether that's energy, water, or products and materials that make things like buildings. Add-plan is a good plan though. Seeing existing buildings as valuable infrastructure for new developments is one of the projects we set our students in Brighton, and of course considering Buildings as Material Banks (BAMB) for ther future is now taking off thanks to LWARB, BRE ETC.

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