This contest is an attempt to make us architects feel like we’re doing our bit by scribbling away at two in the morning on an unpaid ideas competition, writes Maria Smith
If the government really wanted to reduce the enormous contribution of the built environment to greenhouse gas emissions, they’d be announcing a huge retrofit initiative, complete with gas boiler scrappage and zero-rated refurbishment. Or a scheme to protect the livelihoods of the millions of steel and concrete workers whose jobs become precarious in a low-carbon construction industry. Or some robust legislation requiring all development to be low-carbon. But instead, they’ve announced a design competition, dubbed ‘Home of 2030’ – to generate cheap media content and the appearance of action.
This competition is an attempt to create a good news story: here are some artists’ impressions of what an eco-utopia could look like. Well, those images will bear about as much resemblance to what life will look like under current government policy on tackling climate and social injustices as a teenager’s Instagram feed does to their inner emotional life. It is an attempt to distract us, to make us architects feel like we’re doing our bit by scribbling away at two in the morning on an unpaid ideas competition while the government is pushing through the Future Homes Standard. Scrapping fabric energy efficiency, removing local powers to set higher energy efficiency standards, not measuring the actual performance of buildings, and not including up-front embodied carbon, the Future Homes Standard is a tragedy. Both these initiatives are from the same playbook: all-fur-coat-and-no-knickers policy designed to look like progress while actually further entrenching business as usual.
The systemic issues preventing the built environment from delivering net zero-carbon homes are much harder to unpick
So why the ruse? Because the real systemic issues that are preventing the built environment industry from delivering net zero-carbon homes are much harder to unpick from the cluster-fuck of planning, procurement, building control, conservation, a vertically integrated concrete industry and an unconditional pursuit of profit above all else. Granted, delivered examples of genuinely low-carbon developments are fewer and further between than we’d all like but this is not because we can’t conceive of them. It’s because the entire system is rigged against realising them. This design competition will unearth scores of beautiful ideas, the majority of which will have close cousins that have already been deemed unbuildable or commercially unviable and been rejected by planning authorities across the country.
The Home of 2030 competition is trying to reinforce the fallacy that what we need to solve the climate emergency is new technology. Let’s get them ‘doing it with it on a computer’ (sic), as former housing minister Esther McVey announced. Never mind that most of the ‘technology’ for creating low-carbon homes is as old as the hills or that the technologification of everything is part of the problem: cloud computing has a larger carbon footprint than aviation.
This is also why – as exhibited in the Future Homes Standard – operational carbon is the focus and the up-front embodied carbon emissions associated with building the thing in the first place are nigh-on ignored. To be fair, a reduction in ‘embodied impacts’ is listed as one of the low environmental impact ‘brief informatives’, that, bafflingly, only make up 15 per cent of the assessment criteria. I wouldn’t worry about embodied carbon here, though, as those emissions only apply to projects that actually get built and with the winners getting to ‘explore the possibility of developing bids for a series of homes on Homes England land’ I wouldn’t worry about that too much.
Low-carbon developments are fewer and further between than we’d like but this is not because we can’t conceive of them. It’s because the entire system is rigged against realising them
No, it’s ‘homes which use emerging technologies to reduce carbon emissions’ that are preferred. It’s much easier to shove loads of tech into a building that only needs to reduce its operational carbon. We can have smart meters measuring smart appliances communicating with smart actuators opening and closing smart mechanical systems until every pixel of our environment is definitely exactly as it ‘should’ be. But try to design a low embodied carbon building and Neolithic technology starts to come into its own. Alas timber, straw, hemp, and earth construction just don’t have the economic growth potential of a voice-activated robo-carer that brings centennial me my simulated family meal because the smart clingfilm sealed up my house 20 years ago to protect me from toxic air, fuel poverty, and the stress of social interaction.
Well the joke’s on you HM Treasury, because hundreds – maybe even thousands – of architects will enter this competition, spending tens of thousands of hours on unproductive labour, contributing to the economy not a penny. Unless we don’t. What say we boycott this atrocity and instead just tweet @mhclg all the low operational and embodied carbon buildings we’ve already designed with technology that already exists and see whether they lift a finger to see them implemented.
Maria Smith is an architect and engineer