What should the built environment do about climate change? Insights into an in-house debate

By Franzisca Moeller

14 August 2020

Every week - or at least that's what we aim for! - we host an internal, informal 'Lunch Meet'. Previously they were cherished as whole-practice get togethers across the conference rooms in our five offices, but we're now watching and listening from the comforts of our homes, while enjoying our lunches in front of a screen. 

One of our most recent virtual Lunch Meets was held in the style of a climate debate. Four senior members of the practice - Bill Watts, Hareth Pochee, Hero Bennett and Joel Gustafsson - shared their views on a range of challenging questions posed by fellow colleagues. Below are some of the most interesting questions, answers and insights...

"What do you think our strengths are at Max Fordham and how can we best use these to mitigate the climate and biodivesity emergency?"

Hareth answered that, to him, our main strength is the ability to influence the energy demands and emissions from a large number of buildings, much larger than we could as an individual. He also added, in terms of our reputation and people trusting our opinion on what's good and what's bad, "If we do something amazing, it's a precedent to influence others, which is why we should continue to deliver as many net zero buildings as possible."

Hero added that she thinks we're really good at challenging the established way of working and showing how things can be done differently to get a better outcome. "We're also being very clear and honest on some of the assumptions and pitfalls", Joel added. "This whole area, like any major policy area, is filled with noise. And trying to cut through it to get to the heart of what the client cares about and perceives as valuable is a big strength." This was reinforced by Bill, who stressed that our reputation is that we care and that we are truly passionate.

"Do we really need new buildings?"

"We're still in a position where we have a housing crisis", Joel said. "Changing social demographics have meant the mix of housing that's appropriate has changed, and the free economy in which we're operating disadvantages others, so one of the answers is new buildings. If we don't have them, some of the quality concessions that are being made, for instance turning old, abandoned city centers into homes, are disastrous for other aspects of broader agendas, such as health and wellbeing. New buildings make sure that all of the broader sustainability goals, such as social, economic, and environmental sustainability, can be met as one".

Bill argued that there seems to be an underlying assumption that new buildings are 'bad' because of the carbon they use, however we should be careful not to be anti-humanist about life."We can't be down on everything that uses energy. New buildings are required to meet the social needs of society and we need to follow this line in the most sustainable way". Building on Bill's point, Hero argued that "it's really important to sell a positive future, that's how we'll get pople to come with us. However, I do not think that we need as many new buildings as we've got, particularly in terms of their carbon budget. Instead, we should focus more on retrofit, which is why the AJ's RetroFirst Campaign is really good. Proposing, among other things, a cut on tax for retrofits to comparable levels as new buildings".

"Should designers still be designing airports and why or why not?"

This was one of the most controversial questions and where the spirits parted a little. In Bill's opinion, this related Hero's point on selling a positive future. Bill: "You can't make people stop travelling, because you need to bring people along with you and air travel is part of that. So I think we should still be designing airports". Hareth, on the other hand, argued that it depends on people's aim. "If someone wanted to reduce carbon emissions now, air travel isn't the best place to start as it's only a small fraction from the global total. However, if your aim is an active protest to highlight the emergency and scale of action, certain designers might be interested in boycotting airports for this reason". In Hero's opinion, airports are not much worse than building many other unsustainable things, but they're "incredibly symbolic". Even though she would personally refrain from building airports, she also acknowledges that "it needs a large number of architects turning down such projects in order for it to have a significant impact". Joel's straightforward opinion was that we can't and shouldn't stop people travelling - "Globalisation is a good thing!". Not only do we share ideas more easily through globalisation, we have also stopped fighting global wars. Refraining from air travel would not only seperate families but also lead to a reverse reality - increased nationalism. "If you start to argue that travel isn't a neccessity, art and sports aren't a necessity either, and all of a sudden, life becomes vey simple and less enjoyable." However, Hero pointed out, "we already have quite a number of airports, so there's not really a need to design new ones".

"Do new tall buildings have a place in a zero-carbon future?" 

Those in favour of new tall buildings (even though it was mutually agreed that there is no need for anywhere near as many new tall buildings as we've got today) stressed advantages such as increased walkability and density through height. Moreover, Joel made the argument that tall buildings help us to congregate in certain areas and stay out of nature's way and therefore protect biodiversity. However, Hero pointed out that new tall buildings do have a significant premium in terms of both their embodied and operational carbon, as well as bad evidence of health and wellbeing of residents living and working in tall buildings. Bill opined "the zero carbon aspect is dealable; I think it's a social question about what we want our cities to be, and how we want them to work. The carbon intensity of them can be neutralised, if not now, then in the near future, I'd say. But I think the social aspect, how we as humans want to live, is much more important."

"Is it appropriate to design a building with a 60-year-life?"

Response to this question were mixed. Bill suggested "the reason why buildings get torn down is because their usage changes. In some countries, when building a 20-storey building, they put down foundations for a 60-storey building so they don't have to demolish and build again. That's a good way of making use of the embodied carbon foundations". Joel stressed the importance of flexibility, saying: "I think it's really important to make sure that carbon investment is used well. The design life is a structural engineer's estimate and it's often conservative. But it's more about flexibility. We need to make sure that when city centres or offices aren't needed anymore, and we want to turn them into homes, they need to have a structural flexibility that allows for a change of use - that's what gives buildings their design life, to my mind."

Hareth, looking to a completely different and entirely sustainable way of design life that he had witnessed when working on a developing countries project in Sierra Leone, mentioned "In one of the villages we visited, their traditional way of making a house was out of sticks and mud, and the design lifetime of those houses was two years. What a family would do is they'd have one house they were living in and next door they'd have one that was under construction. After two years, they'd rotate from one to the other and repeat the process. And I guess the illustrated point is that they used resources from their immediate vicinity, in a seemingly completely sustainable way. That could be a model for a future method of construction. It could be one year, 10 years, 20 years - as long as it falls within that overall goal.". But Hareth did admit this was quite an idealistic (and unrealistic at this point in time) solution. 

"The Coronavirus gave us a glimpse of what the world might look like if stricter climate regulations were implemented. Could we emerge from this pandemic into a healthier, cleaner world faster than if the pandemic hadn't happened? Will Coronavirus be a catalyst for change in terms of the climate emergency?" 

For Hero, the big question is whether a lot of money will be diverted away from investments in low-carbon strategies. "What we're hoping is that the government ties the investments they make for the economy to green activities. This has also really challenged our thoughts around how people work etc. Now is the time to really be thinking about slowcations and not flying places, but having working holidays maybe, and really challenging whether we need to go to meetings or need to be in the office".

Bill felt that "at the moment, right now, the governments are in completele control of their economies and they can decide who does what. This is unique and a great opportunity for them to divert funding into things if they're really serious about it. Right now would be a great time for activists to say: 'I like it the way it is! A clear and unpolluted sky', and sort of force the governments to pick this up and run with it". Moreover, "we need to get a vaccine within a certain period of time and the scientific community is working really hard to sort this problem out. If that sort of effort was put in globally towards clean energy, we would make real progress in double the time." As Joel mentioned earlier, epproximately three percent of the global GDP will be used for tackling Coronavirus, while roughly two percent will be used towards the climate crisis. "These two and three percent could be spent on the same issue", Bill argued.

"What is the biggest thing an individual can do to make a difference?"

Most panelists pointed towards practicing what one preaches and understanding ones impact as an individual and then minimising it. Hero: "I think people should measure their own carbon footprint and then tell me what the biggest thing is they can do. In the role of a designer, you have more opportunities for creating carbon emissions in the work that you do. However it makes it more difficult if you're not also thinking about your own lifestyle and trying to make a change through what you personally do as well."

"If you could only give one bit of advice to clients, what would it be and why?" 

The question was straight away answered with two bits of advices from Hero, who suggested "follow Passivhaus and implement Soft Landings." Hareth opted for "brief designers and builders to meet the RIBA 2030 climate challenge criteria", while Bill suggested: "Keep it simple." Joel said he would advise his clients to "get off gas, and do it now."

Rounding up the discussion, Joel opined that "I guess the fact that all our answers to that question are different shows what a multi-headed beast this is! There isn't a silver bullet. That's why we're having this debate, that's why this discussion has been around for decades, and that's why we need to be steering our projects in the right direction."


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