img(height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="")

Leader: Let nothing be set in stone

Eleanor Young

As architects refine designs for sustainability and low carbon, we must be sure these and creativity are our legacy, says Eleanor Young

All those clever layers of our building – on the scrap heap.
All those clever layers of our building – on the scrap heap. Credit: iStock / Bill Oxford

Why is it that most buildings look increasingly monolithic, yet design answers to the perennial questions of how to keep warm, dry, and with a roof over our heads are the most complex in history? Large-scale panels of clip-on cladding tell you that efficiency is valued over human scale, and yet hidden behind them we still resort to layers of damp proof membranes, insulation and plasterboard, not to mention spacer battens, wall ties and airtightness tape.

A recent guesstimate I came across was that a building contains a million components. It seems a wild figure. But just take a window and count all the panels of glass, framing elements, hinges and screws, handles and perhaps stays and stops. Perhaps a million is not so outlandish. And each of those items has to deal with interfaces and adjacencies. Ad-hoc build-ups often defy the generalised testing that manufacturers subject products to. Yet in these invisible interstices lie dormant the possibilities for failure; think of the hidden dangers that led to the Grenfell Tower fire, Scottish school wall collapses and the RAAC crisis. They are like ultra-processed food – industrial products but not reliably nourishing.

So it is hardly surprising that some architects long for a simpler recipe. Not quite as simple as that foundational lecture in architectural history and Marc-Antoine Laugier’s primitive hut. But this low-tech approach, as Feilden Fowles has dubbed it, has a lot to offer. In this issue we look at Cairn’s tiny extension in Hackney, east London, where a low-impact approach was reductive, removing linings to leave the natural insulation exposed. This shift to life without linings has expanded from inexpensive sports halls (all those breeze block walls) and the backstage of theatres to encompass homes and even as the default look for high-end offices, with light rails and ducts trailing along below exposed soffits.

We are more likely than ever to repeat the mistakes of the past in what is also the Information Age

At least one architect (Amin Taha of Groupwork) has pointed out how choosing the right layers to strip out can make the unaffordable look reasonable as the cost model has lines, even sections, deleted from it; and the embodied carbon count follows the same trajectory. He of course, works with stone as structure and final finish. As the cork pavilions of CSK’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show for the National Autistic Society are disassembled for reuse in Scotland it is a good reminder of the pioneering work of the practice’s principals in investigating another material that promises structure, final finish (and insulation) together in its giant cork blocks.

Our many-component buildings are enabled by the Oil Age. But we are more likely than ever to repeat the mistakes of the past in what is also the Information Age, as the designs of today are coded into the shortcuts of tomorrow via artificial intelligence’s unseen hand. Let’s not eternally serve up what has gone, but set out with rethought architectural designs, technologies and ideas. And let’s make them human scale and simple.