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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)

  • I don’t object to Greens at all, and once voted for them. But I disagree with their apparent view that we are all doomed without the EU.

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  • OK but there is a big issue that we are probably not going to get out of this environmental pickle without all working together.... and that is probably the biggest challenge we have. So the EU could have been a way into that idea.

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  • I just think that environmentalism in one continent, like socialism in one country, won’t cut it. We have to be internationalist rather than sectoral— I imagine you might think similarly.

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  • You bet

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  • That's nice Mr. baker Brown that you pour oil on the water. professional discourse is too important to descend to this level. Equally undermining those who step up, in a comments section, as is our right, is too insidious to let go.

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  • I think the gap here is between people that think we can each have an opinion on energy generation strategies, and the people that think there are clear scientific and economic imperatives towards a certain direction.

    Nuclear power is expensive and unproven, wind power is cheap and reliable. that is the current economic reality, the idea you present is out of fate, which is i believe why other respondents are referring to age. Wind can also be rolled out in about 1 to 2 years, whereas nuclear takes multiple decades. We are currently in a position where a supposedly economically liberal government has banned the cheapest form of energy generation (onshore wind).

    When you look at the evidence there are clear paths that must now be taken to avoid disastrous climate change, and those paths are a lot more extreme than those proposed in the 70's or 90's, because nothing was done. This isn't dogma, this is current science. I would suggest that that going against current scientific consensus would put someone in the realm of the zealot or grand-stander.

    Having said that, retrofit clearly needs to be a big focus, but we all need to get more serious about proving reduction strategies. To solve this involves government action on tax (particularly VAT) and this will only come through lobbying and protest. This debate must be held using facts and comparable data, personally I think Whole Life Carbon has to be the solution and as an industry we need to move very quickly towards this, and it will inherently encourage retrofit.

    There are already several free guides and tools out there that can help architects to start this process.

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  • Also, the big winners in the EU elections were the green party, whose liberal coalition will now form the largest block in the EU parliament. We are likely to see more green policies emanating from Europe soon, and if we want a positive future trading relationship we will likely be following these rules.
    Paris and London share each others air pollution, the solutions are also going to have to be shared.

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  • Im an Architect who supported XR on the demo. Im looking for architects who want to form an Architects for XR group to pressure RIBA and the planning system. Please let me know your interest. Chris Procter

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  • 1) RIBA needs to declare a Climate Emergency
    2) The planning system needs Permitted Development for retrofit low energy with set examples for homeowners to get on without planning.
    3) Climate Emergency retrofitting needs to come before Conservation.
    4) VAT for Climate Emergency approved retrofits needs to be zero.
    etc. Lets form an Architects for XR working group!

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  • One has to understand conservation, before an effective 'retrofit' can be designed. If the way a historic building performs is not understood properly, any 'retrofit' will be a waste of time and money.

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