Re-using building elements as ‘spolia’ and maximising plant-based material use can take sustainable design beyond targets to desirability
From COP26 to our practice on the high street, we are all having to contend with the collision between a model of limitless fossil-fuelled growth and the immutable limits of our planetary ecosystems. At every scale of human activity (governments, institutions, businesses and individuals) it is proving difficult to implement change. There are obvious political and economic reasons for this intransigence, and the persistent tendency to dissociate immediate action from future impact.
But can we learn anything from the way in which the process of change itself is conceived and implemented? And if we can, how might it relate to an approach to environmental sustainability within an architect’s office?
Setting quantitative targets that can be measured and tracked is of course a common way to try and improve performance and drive change; it is what COP26 is all about. Indeed, this is the kind of data-driven approach to delivering low impact buildings that design and engineering professions (including my practice) are implementing. It is certainly a useful tactic in the here and now, when we need to reduce impacts and minimise the risk of catastrophe by any means.
However, this kind of approach favours narrow forms of measurement, which can limit our understanding of what is actually a complex range of interdependent issues. With targets that are largely restrictive in nature, there is also a risk of generating a negative and diminished vision of the future. So it is critical that both the goals and methods of change are framed in more holistic and qualitative terms.
And this is where the dynamics of global change coincide with everyday architectural practice. Yes we have to meet quantitative targets in order to reduce environmental impact, but we are not going to win over all our clients and other stakeholders in the built environment without making a convincing case that a future of limits – and quite often simply less – is a desirable alternative to the present. So it is up to us to demonstrate that the architecture of limits is in fact a qualitative idea, and will result in more compelling buildings and more rewarding forms of inhabitation.
We need to develop methods of designing building life-cycles that respond to finite resource systems; and to evolve a visual and tectonic language based on re-use, repair and retrofit, fewer finishes, less construction overall, more recycled and plant-based materials, demountable design and so on. Architects are well placed to tackle this, because at its best architecture is always about more than just problem-solving, it is a discipline that is deeply familiar with the demand to reimagine the world and rethink how we live, work and build.
There are a few projects in the office at the moment where we are explicitly exploring this idea of the architecture of limits. In collaboration with UCL we are close to completing a re-use feasibility study (related to a live building project, Phoenix House), to develop a methodology for making primary structure out of existing building stones found on site, including the use of digital scanning as an essential part of the process. We have investigated two kinds of re-use – a fairly straightforward ‘slice and dice’ approach for regular columns and beams, and a fruitier configuration using stones more as they are found. In both cases, there will be some quantitative evaluation – material efficiency, cost in money and in carbon etc – but we are particularly interested in the architectural qualities that can be extracted from the principle of deep re-use. The character of the regular elements is generated by the varying grain direction and uneven spacing of bed joints, both of which reflect the re-use of existing stones of various sizes and orientation. The assembly of ‘as-found’ elements creates a more intense experience, and will be used in selective locations to establish an architectural hierarchy – sort of a modern take on the ancient tradition of ‘spolia’.
We are also continuing to work with solid cork construction (developing from our Cork House) on a couple of projects, in collaboration with Oliver Wilton at UCL. The distinctive form and character of our Memorial to the Industrial Revolution, for the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism 2021, is the direct result of an approach driven by an ‘economy of means’. So in addition to the environmental benefits of the original construction system used for Cork House, we have sought to reduce and simplify while maintaining an intense material and spatial experience. For example, we are working with the rough and ready character of untrimmed blocks straight from the manufacturing process; the rhythm of solid and void is the result of using a limited range of modules based on a minimum number of cuts to whole blocks so that there are no offcuts at all; and the timber connection detail between blocks has been designed to reduce machining and material waste, and allow for easy reconfiguration and re-use.
Lastly, we have been approached by a medium-sized German developer to design a pilot project for a cork and timber light industrial unit – imagine a plant-based version of Slough Trading Estate. The existing model for this kind of building is inherently a highly efficient and stripped back form of construction, so it will be fascinating to work through the possibilities – and challenges – of bringing low carbon principles to what is currently a largely steel-and-concrete affair. At first glance this might look like a slightly improbable proposition, but maybe it’s exactly the kind of reimagining that we need. And that’s what architects are good at.
As Picasso observed: ‘Forcing yourself to use restricted means is the sort of restraint that liberates invention. It obliges you to make the kind of progress you can’t even imagine in advance.’
Matthew Barnett Howland is director of research and development at CSK Architects
For more on CSK’s route to carbon zero see how it started on its path and where it all fitted in as the pandemic hit. And read more on lean and low tech design from Feilden Fowles