Climate emergency: We spoke, now we must act

Words:
Matthew Barnett Howland

At the start of one small practice’s journey to carbon zero Matthew Barnett Howland looks at how to start the transition and what’s next on the plan

This project for a small house above a steep hillside will include a whole life carbon assessment that will provide quantitative feedback on its whole life design approach – low embodied carbon timber structure, prefabricated dry-jointed construction, breathable building envelope using plant-based materials, and design for disassembly.
This project for a small house above a steep hillside will include a whole life carbon assessment that will provide quantitative feedback on its whole life design approach – low embodied carbon timber structure, prefabricated dry-jointed construction, breathable building envelope using plant-based materials, and design for disassembly. Credit: CSK Architects

History is likely to show that 2019 was the year in which the world at large finally woke up to the extent to which our ways of life are damaging almost every ecosystem on earth. Climate and ecological emergency was declared, pink boats blocked the streets, and school children went on strike.

But with the advent of 2020 and all the clarity of vision this implies, more than a shift in consciousness is required. Apparently this is the decade with a deadline – from the targets set out in the IPCC 2018 report on global warming to our own RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge. In view of these high-level targets set by respected international and national institutions, it is increasingly hard to avoid the feeling that it is time for deep-rooted professional as well as personal action – my environment is your environment, so sustainability is inescapably a social issue.

What does this mean for a small business on the high street and the kind of architecture it produces? Does it simply follow the growing range of design guidance and methods of quantitative assessment that are available to meet regulatory targets? Or should it attempt a fundamental transformation of how it thinks and works – should ‘not business as usual’ become ‘not architecture as usual’?

So how do we change the wheels – or even the whole engine – without stopping the car?

What must we do?

The development of a specific approach tailored to suit the size and nature of a practice depends first on how the problem is formulated. On one hand, CSK is a group of up to a dozen architects whose core activity is the creation of physical structures, material environments and sensory experiences. We tend to think about architecture in tangible, qualitative terms – spatial character created by structure, linings and finishes, quality of light and materials, methods of fixing and tectonic language, building form as a product of plan and section etc.

On the other hand, the environmental impacts of the design and construction industry are time-based processes that unfold across every stage of a building’s lifecycle, and are often imperceptible. For example, significant embodied carbon emissions are generated by the manufacture and transport of products before they constitute the fabric of a building, and even emissions created by operational energy during the life of the building are not readily perceptible. Destruction of habitat and pollution are usually caused by industrial processes remote to where we live, work and create buildings, often in other parts of the world. Destructive demolition and the associated downcycling of materials happens long after the design process, and usually after our own lifespan.

The idea of making direct and legible connections between the immediate and visible character of the architectural object and the less visible processes that comprise its overall lifecycle is an approach that I first started to explore in earnest with Cork House, together with its co-designers Dido Milne, director at CSK, and Oliver Wilton of the Bartlett. Building form and spatial character were the result of decisions on metrics such as landscape biodiversity, embodied carbon and circular economy, across key stages of the building’s lifecycle including resource, fabrication, assembly, and the building’s end of life. This general principle of a whole life approach to sustainable architecture has an existing lineage, but to emphasise the focus on the connection between building as both process and product, we coined the phrase ‘Form Follows Lifecycle’.

Broadly speaking, the aim is to apply this kind of approach within CSK Architects, and so develop a design methodology in relation to environmental sustainability that is as simple and holistic as possible. Oliver and I continue to develop this approach together outside the practice, and as an architect with a background in environmental design and sustainability at large, he will provide consultancy to the office.

How should we do it?

The idea of developing a concerted and highly structured response to the climate crisis was first raised with CSK directors and associates in October last year, with formal monthly meetings since November. Preliminary discussions explored what notions of ‘sustainability’ we share, and which issues are most important to us. The results were diverse, but more importantly we felt our collective understanding of the subject as a whole was relatively superficial.

Four part plan

We agreed a loose four-part working process that would enable us to make a more informed decision about what we commit to, and how we do so in a way that suits our specific business: literacy and education, commitment, operational change, and monitoring.

  • Windsor Road, this mainly residential scheme of 21 town centre flats with contextual brick façade has recently received planning permission, and is currently under review with the developer and consultants regarding options for a low embodied carbon primary structure.
    Windsor Road, this mainly residential scheme of 21 town centre flats with contextual brick façade has recently received planning permission, and is currently under review with the developer and consultants regarding options for a low embodied carbon primary structure. Credit: CSK Architects
  • The environmental sustainability of the design approach for this outdoor activity centre in Marlow  is a key aspect of fundraising for the project, which includes on site renewables and a bolted timber construction.
    The environmental sustainability of the design approach for this outdoor activity centre in Marlow is a key aspect of fundraising for the project, which includes on site renewables and a bolted timber construction. Credit: CSK Architects
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We launched the literacy and education process in December, giving each member of the working party a copy of Simon Sturgis’ ‘Targeting Zero’, a (rather unfestive) Christmas present. Other CPD activities include site visits to projects based on plant-based materials that are unfamiliar to the office including hemp insulation and cladding, and forthcoming in-house sessions on the circular economy and Passivhaus, and Green Register training on low carbon technologies and life cycle assessment of building materials.

We have also used Cork House site visits to generate discussion and debate between the office and other interested parties, including architects and engineers; local planning departments; developers and contractors with a record in sustainable construction technologies; trade organisations; architecture students and lecturers; design students from local schools; a sustainable awards charity; and existing clients with a growing interest in how they might respond to emerging environmental issues.

In terms of general commitments, we reviewed our practices in relation to the 11 points set out by Architects Declare, and decided it was both legitimate to sign the declaration and useful to show support. We will review progress on these points every six months. We signed London Energy Transformation Initiative’s ‘Key messaging document’ that responded to the Part L Building Regs consultation, as well as Architects Climate Action Network’s open letter to the secretary of state, Robert Jenrick. We also completed a government survey in response to this consultation process, based on LETI/ACAN’s recommended responses.

However, our primary long-term commitment is to the development of a tailored design approach and related in-house ‘design manual’ that will result in operational change across all our work.

To implement practical change, we want to achieve a balance between the depth, breadth and speed of change – both in regard to maintaining a viable business and the risk of diluting the principles we wish to embed. So we have agreed that in the first instance we will trial the principles of an emerging ‘Form Follows Lifecycle’ design manual on small projects with willing clients. We aim to start reporting on these with the next article.

Voice on the ground

When it comes to monitoring and assessment, the outcomes of this whole exercise are of course unknown. At worst, targets won’t be met and our very best efforts to design buildings that are genuinely environmentally sustainable across their whole lifecycle could result in a less sustainable business. Even then, this exercise will at least contribute to an understanding of some of the trade-offs between different metrics at different stages of the building lifecycle.

At best this column will provide a useful and successful case study for other practices attempting a comparable transformation within similar constraints. If nothing else, this postcard from an office on the high street will record some of the realities of attempting deep operational change within everyday constraints, and toss a grain of real-world feedback into the loop of international agreements and overarching predictions that swirl above our day-to-day existence.

Matthew Barnett Howland is director of research and development at CSK Architects

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