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Is green design a priority in a post lockdown world?

Words:
Matthew Barnett Howland

Business survival is all consuming at the moment, but green legislation is more urgent than ever says architect of the Cork House, Matthew Barnett Howland

The stone ruins (on the right) are re-used as the fourth wing of the new house to create a sunken courtyard garden, which also preserves something of the existing ‘forgotten’ character of the site.
The stone ruins (on the right) are re-used as the fourth wing of the new house to create a sunken courtyard garden, which also preserves something of the existing ‘forgotten’ character of the site. Credit: CSK Architects

The standard commercial impulse is to report that our sustainability drive is just fine and dandy, and to trust that a focus on regenerative design will be an essential advantage as we emerge from the significant social and economic impacts of this pandemic. 

It is true that we have continued pushing our ‘form follows lifecycle’ approach very hard on specific projects, and in particular on a Paragraph 79 house targeting net zero carbon and involving extensive reuse of on-site ruins and materials (pictured). This scheme has provided the opportunity to work with two leading consultants on broadly distinct sections of the building lifecycle, one for structure and embodied carbon (stages A1-A5) and one for environmental design and operational carbon (stages B6-B7). Though not intended at the outset, it has generated a very productive dynamic. Given the re-use nature of the project, we are also looking forward to developing the detailed design of the project with lifecycle stages C and D in mind.

However, it would be unhelpful to deny that in the last few months it has been difficult to prioritise environmental sustainability across the whole office, and that to some extent our intended transformative process has been trumped in the short term by economic survival. In the context of an uncertain future and temporary dip in productivity, for us, like many businesses, the basics of getting work in and out again are where it’s at right now. To update a metaphor from the first article in this series, changing the wheels while the car is moving isn’t the immediate goal anymore – it’s how to keep the car moving at all!

But rather than focus on the possible (and often false) tensions between ‘the economic’ and ‘the environmental’ from the narrow perspective of managing a business, there is a much broader and more profound way in which this crisis provides a parallel view on the climate emergency – we were warned, we didn’t act, disaster struck and now the fragility of our economic system has been exposed, largely at the expense of some of the most vulnerable in society. 

Whatever one thinks are the underlying reasons for these crises that face us, above all the pandemic has shown that inaction is not a good bet – the political, social, economic, and ecological are all interconnected, and indeed so are we. In the pragmatic here and now we need political leadership that is prepared to develop a robust and proactive strategy to address the climate emergency.

Stone and brick strewn around the site will be re-used to build large sections of the new house.
Stone and brick strewn around the site will be re-used to build large sections of the new house. Credit: CSK Architects

What does this mean for the architects’ office on the high street? We are used to doing our best to fulfil the architect’s responsibility to make beautiful, generous environments that will be seen and used by many people for years to come; now we are adapting to doing so in different working circumstances, against a background of anxiety about the future. So it is much easier to attempt to practice ‘architecture as usual’, to retreat into our existing knowledge base and specify familiar materials and construction methods. But it is surely an unacceptable risk to delay the necessary shift towards the development of new knowledge and new ways of thinking and designing. 

So although it might sound counter-intuitive, what we really need at this challenging time is immediate and mandatory legislation on embodied carbon and other environmental performance issues. This kind of ‘in at the deep end’ approach to regulation is obviously not without its risks, and significant government support would probably be required, especially under current circumstances. But as we have seen, what are the likely environmental and social costs in the future of a lack of political leadership now? Anything non-mandatory is a non-starter, and very difficult to make a priority when backs are to the wall – not to mention the core issue of approaching clients for the extra work – and fees – involved in meeting voluntary targets.

  • As these tables show, more space-efficient materials tend to have higher embodied carbon in order to achieve the same U-value.
    As these tables show, more space-efficient materials tend to have higher embodied carbon in order to achieve the same U-value.
  • As these tables show, more space-efficient materials tend to have higher embodied carbon in order to achieve the same U-value.
    As these tables show, more space-efficient materials tend to have higher embodied carbon in order to achieve the same U-value.
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Beyond this hard line case for more legislation across all industries, better regulation would also create the oft-repeated notion of the ‘level playing field’ within the architectural profession. For example, we often work on projects where space is restricted on tight urban sites, or where external dimensions are limited in relation to existing buildings, or where planning areas are calculated on gross external footprint. In these cases, there are obvious benefits to a client to minimise wall thickness, which in turn places a strong emphasis on using materials that save space. In this context, it is difficult to explain to the client why for example one has chosen a type of insulation that isn’t the most space efficient on the market – ‘by the way, you’re not getting as much space as you could, but isn’t it great that we’ve used an insulation that is very low in embodied energy and high in recycled content? Or better still, we could offer you a range of even less space efficient types of insulation that are also more expensive – but don’t worry, they do sequester carbon and are made from biorenewable resources.’

Even if one believes there should be a choice, surely it’s time to incentivise architects (and clients) to choose environmentally-friendly building products, rather than relying on their good nature and willingness to be ‘seen as the crusties in the room’?

These issues are too important to be left to market forces (which might get there in the end via a slow shift in consumer consciousness and behaviour), or to voluntary codes, or to the impact of what must be a minority of practices that are already exemplary in this respect. As has often been noted, the pandemic has shown we can all radically change how we do things at short notice, and how government can provide huge levels of support during periods of rapid transition. No doubt politicians and civil servants are having to prioritise the most urgent issues at the top of the pile – the current pandemic, social injustice, unfinished political projects etc. But down on the high street, we wonder when the climate emergency will be considered urgent – though perhaps ‘Get Embodied Carbon Done’ is not quite such an appealing mantra?


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

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