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Lessons from history can help decarbonise buildings

Barnabas Calder’s new book adds the weight of architectural history to the climate emergency debate. Catherine Croft welcomes its urgency, while Nick Newman seizes its call to arms

Drawings in the book give a sense of the relative scale of buildings. New Century Global Center, Chengdu is one of the biggest.
Drawings in the book give a sense of the relative scale of buildings. New Century Global Center, Chengdu is one of the biggest. Credit: Gingerhead
Architecture: From Prehistory to Climate Emergency is a highly readable world history of architecture, from the tusk and bone huts of mammoth hunters to 21st century mega structures, and to one highly crafted experimental house (Cork House, Eton, 2019). Its USP is that ‘form follows energy’, in other words ‘the architecture of every era, from prehistory to the present day, has been determined by the amount of energy available to a society after basic survival needs have been met’. Calder looks at examples of buildings produced under the three ‘energy systems’ man has experienced so far: worlds determined by reliance sequentially on foraging, farming and fossil fuels. But it’s far from just a history. Noting that today ‘construction and operating buildings are responsible for 39% of all greenhouse gas emissions’, the analysis leads to an urgent polemic for climate action in the built environment. It is this, which sits at the heart of the book A Future Fourth Age where renewable energy sources dominate, that is tantalisingly just out of reach: Calder wants to make sure we get there. 
Calder first tempts cosy complicity by reminding us that ‘fossil fuels make the world a much better place for humans’, but immediately cautions readers that ‘unless we can get away from our all-embracing dependence on fossil fuel by 2050, we will make the planet apoplectically horrible’. There is no space for complacency, and his final sentence is an explicit, grave warning: ‘The consequences of failure [to immediately address climate change] would be catastrophic’. This is not another encyclopaedic overview, it’s a book with a mission.
Calder is an architectural historian (senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool and author in 2016 of Raw Concrete: the Beauty of Brutalism) and has a clearly expressed sense of personal and professional responsibility to help change the course of history. His reason for writing this refocused global survey is that ‘as architects and technicians come to consider the great energy change that faces us all – decarbonising our built environment – architectural history needs to lead the discussion’. I am not sure that I buy that premise entirely – but even if its role is not to lead, then Calder ably demonstrates how architectural history can enrich and inform the debate, and make wider audiences aware of the impact of the built environment on climate change. 
So what are the relevant lessons of architectural history? ‘Human conservatism and inertia’ are identified as barriers to necessary reformation today, and looking to the past we can see these are perennially present alongside the more celebrated innovation which is retrospectively easier to spot. Acknowledging this frees us from abdicating responsibility in the false expectation of a completely new built form and mindset swooping in to save us; it supports pragmatic action now. Direct examples, such as the Romans’ use of locally quarried natural stone, are perhaps less useful than this broader message.
Calder also aims to lead by example, and to guilt trip his readers. Although his narrative encompasses buildings all over the world (in Egypt, Mexico, Istanbul, Timbuktu and almost anywhere else), this is emphatically not a book designed to inspire any exploration which requires ‘the carbon burden of jet-fuelled travel’. Calder emphasises how he has ‘resisted the temptation to fly to many of the sites discussed’, and condemns in passing such flagrant examples of carbon squander as that ‘abhorrent innovation of recent years, outdoor hot tubs in sub-zero temperatures.’ Instead we are encouraged to stay put and ‘enjoy and understand’ the buildings around us afresh, by appreciating them as the product of their energy conditions. Less fun, more virtue.
Calder makes the most of staying put and understanding architecture with references from not only Egypt and Mexico but also those like Cains Brewery, in Liverpool, where he teaches (below).
Calder makes the most of staying put and understanding architecture with references from not only Egypt and Mexico but also those like Cains Brewery, in Liverpool, where he teaches (below). Credit: Gingerhead
It would be great to see a more accessible, shorter version of this book marketed to a much wider readership. Although Calder’s writing style is engaging, even gossipy at times, it is 450 pages long, with over 100 more of comprehensive footnotes and index. The illustrations are generally small black and white photos, and the drawings, although specially commissioned, really don’t improve the impact of the text. The conceit for the latter is that all the buildings are drawn to the same scale, so that the Lingotto factory on the outskirts of Turin (built 1916-23) and the New Century Global Center, Chengdu, China, are sliced up and run across the bottom of five concurrent pages, while a whole Georgian terrace is a minute splodge. A full colour populist synopsis with foldouts could make the comparisons of scale much more strongly, and infographics could reinforce some fantastically compelling statistics: for instance ‘a leaky UK house can use 30,000kWh of heating each year, the equivalent energy of 400,000 hours on manual labour’.
Would it also be over-optimistic to think that in a year or so’s time a new edition could include a wider range of inspirational new buildings? Calder is right to criticise the BREEAM assessment scheme, and the lack of weight given to the desirability of retaining the embodied energy in existing structures. Cork House, designed by Matthew Barnett Howland with Dido Milne and Oliver Wilton and with research conducted in collaboration with the Bartlett, the University of Bath and Arup (an attribution buried deep in footnotes) is a lonely example of a building that not only considers sustainability in its construction and day to day use, but also thinks ahead to ensure that its components can be reused at the end of its life. Calder notes that ‘the design team explicitly acknowledges that it is a one-off, not a scalable solution even for other houses, let alone office buildings, sports halls or factories’. We desperately need those scalable solutions, and this book will help to reinforce the crucial role of architecture in tackling the climate crisis. 
Catherine Croft is director of the Twentieth Century Society
Cains Brewery, Liverpool
Cains Brewery, Liverpool Credit: Gingerhead
Climate action is not a choice: History proves the imperative
Nick Newman
In this detailed and insightful volume, Barnabas Calder reopens the pages of our architectural heritage, and retells the story of our ancestors from the perspective of energy and climate. Many of the most notable human achievements – the Egyptian pyramids, the Chinese pagodas, the American skyscrapers and the English railways, are the functions of a stable climate and abundant supplies of energy. 
The inverse is shown to be true, with energy-poor societies plundering the architectural energy stores of their ancestors. We learn that the term ‘Vandal’ comes from a tribe of the same name, who raided the collapsing Roman empire. We hear that the great Persian mosques used ‘spolia’ or stone stripped from their energy-wealthy predecessors. 
Calder’s pragmatic yet unflinching analysis of our past also forces us to consider the environmental moral impacts of architectural expression. 
How far should we follow the teachings of the Bauhaus, when we learn that the signature workshop block was so susceptible to cold that the spaces were abandoned and left empty? 
How much can we applaud the beauty of Georgian architecture, when we learn that it was created by extracting the energy from enslaved global colonies, using foul and polluting coal powered machines?
This volume provides long awaited breadth and volume to our revetment-deep understanding of architectural history, and is no less than a harbinger of the appalling devastation and injustice that we are to suffer as a species if we do need heed the lessons of the past. 
Just as empires have waxed and waned according to shifting global climates and resources, Calder reminds us that we too are we poised on the edge of a global catastrophe that threatens our very existence. 
And so, if we are to survive the climate (and ecological) emergency, may we only hope that Calder has enough energy to document it.