By Duncan Baker-Brown RIBA FRSA
Twenty years ago this month my partner Ian McKay and I completed and opened the RIBA’s House of the Future, a late 20th Century attempts to prove that a 4 bedroomed contemporary dwelling could be “a sustainable design” which in the mid 1990’s meant extremely energy efficient in use. ‘FutureHouse’ as we called it employed ‘passive’ devices such as a two story south facing conservatory and a earth plenum below the ground floor to pre-cool or pre-warm air entering the building; hot water from solar thermal panels was dumped in a super insulated basement. These devices, together with lots of insulation and exposed thermal mass, ensured that FutureHouse satisfied the RIBA brief for a very low energy building. At the time it scored an implausible 11 out of 10 on the NHER (National Home Energy Rating) energy-rating checklist.
However despite all of the above a number of informed individuals noted that it was the incorporation of a home office (situated under the same roof as the domestic home but crucially accessed via a bridge to allow one to disconnect from home life in order to work) that would have the biggest positive effect on Planet Earth as it implied that the people living in FutureHouse would commute to work far less than most. Then as now energy consumption at home and in the work place was stable, while energy consumption on our roads and in our skies was increasing almost exponentially. So despite our careful selection of materials married with building fabric airtightness (in 1992 whilst working for Rick Mather Architects I worked on student accommodation at UEA that was the first UK building to be air tested and virtually air tight) and passive solar technology, it was human behavior that really made the difference as far as the reduction of energy and resource consumption was concerned.
LACATON & VASSAL – PARIS
Fast forward 20 years via my own new build home SparrowHouse in 2004 (designed to prove eco architecture can be cost-effective to build as well as to run and maintain), ‘The House That Kevin Built’ built in 2008 for Kevin McCloud’s ‘Grand Design Live’ (UK’s first EPC A* rated dwelling and the first prefabricated house made from organic compostable material) and the just-opened ‘Brighton Waste House’ (first UK permanent building made from in excess of 85% waste material), issues relating to how to develop human settlements whilst existing in harmony with Planet Earth are still largely unanswered by UK and the rest of society.
Of course there are lots of exciting ideas and positive built precedents out there, and the conversation within the design and construction industries around issues of sustainable development has in my opinion never been so interesting or well delivered and understood. I count the current coalition government and most others around the world out of that discussion by the way, the newly elected Australian Prime Minister being even more misguided around these issues than most.
I do believe that there are a couple of main drivers that will inform current and future construction projects, and that is the issues of resource and land scarcity/ security. Whether you want to build in Pimlico, Porto or Mumbai, today materials are scarce (and expensive) and land prices are pretty much universally sky high. If we focus on the UK construction industry I believe that the clever money is investing in realising the real value in material and products that we throw away everyday. Apple has just started to appreciate this. Their latest must-have-today-obsolete-tomorrow gadgets will be collected backs by Apple themselves at the end of their useful lives. This has involved a huge investment in gadget reclamation infrastructure on Apple’s part because they at last realise, as many other large companies do, that they are wasting a huge amount of money and potential profit by allowing their products to be thrown away by others. So it’s not only poor communities around the world that are re-using and re-appropriating stuff, it’s big business.
This issue is affecting the UK construction industry as I write this article. The cost of buying block work or timber or whatever you need (if you can get hold of it in the first place) has never been more difficult. Now that may be partially because our building suppliers have been virtually dormant for 5 years and need time to start up production again. However it is also because the cost of the raw materials required to manufacture stuff (including food of course) is rising rapidly. I believe that it is affecting UK particularly badly. If we look back in time a couple of hundred years you will see that the wonderful Georgian and Victorian infrastructure (buildings, roads, sewers etc.) that we still rely on and admire, and even the later 20th Century stuff, was built with materials that cost virtually nothing as we plundered our empire for natural resources. Today we have to go to the market for new material like everybody else and pay proper money for stuff.
At the other end of this ‘old skool’ linear process is the reality that we all get penalised hugely for throwing stuff away. The cost of skips has risen about threefold over the last 18 months or so. So we live in a world where raw materials are scarce, which in turn affects the cost of new stuff, much of which is wasted (20% on building sites), which in turn raises the cost of new buildings. So if you can avoid buying raw material and avoid throwing stuff away so much then today you will make more money; and this will become more prevalent in the future as populations rise further and arguments over how to best manage land become more intense.
The other issue of course is the rising cost, financial and environmental, of acquiring land for development. As we are all aware the expansion of most cities around the world is not managed by architects or urban planners; it’s managed by whoever needs a quick, cheap shelter to live in, in the hope of getting some paid work in the ‘planned’ developing city nearby. However many cities of course are planned, and it here in the UK that we can speculate on how best we can best develop our cities to satisfy environmental concerns, while creating beautiful places for us all to live in.
For me there are a number of strategies that we need to spend further time investing in. We need to recognise the stuff that currently fills our amazing cities and towns for what it is (among other things); valuable infrastructure to build literally and metaphorically upon. The RETROFITTING or the design “tweaking” of our existing buildings, amenities, landscapes and services could, in my opinion, allow our cities to develop sustainably; allowing them to support a growing population while providing green energy, low energy buildings, water reclamation, clean air etc. We as a society must realise that we cannot go on demolishing our previous generations ‘heroic’ but perhaps failing developments. We have to be cleverer than that and learn how to adapt them without flattening them and the communities they support. Our future Eco Cities are already around us. It is up to the design and construction industries to respond to the real challenge of realising that “ there is no such thing as waste, just stuff in the wrong place!”.
There are enormous challenges that present themselves to us today. The good news is that our designers and contractors are already working on ways to deal with issues of material and land scarcity. They have to do this now, as we cannot afford the cost, financially and environmentally, of continuing with the old linear “slash and burn” mentality that still prevails in many national governments. However as a society we do need to invest in this approach just as Apple has done. Online groups such as FREEGLE (http://www.ilovefreegle.org) with over 1.7 million subscribers describe themselves as “an online dating agency for unwanted stuff”. They supplied unwanted but valuable material to build the Brighton Waste House. Jonathan Essex, formally of Bioregional, has invented a new building type the RE-IY CENTRE that would work with an oranisation such as FREEGLE to sort and store unwanted material until it was needed. They would sit next to DIY centres and one day they would be one and the same. As Neil B. Chambers states in his book Urban Green “If your design team are telling you that the green version of the design will cost more then tell them to try harder, if they can’t then get a team who can”.
Make do and mend? It’s where the money is to be made and it will help us live in harmony with Planet Earth. Good news then. Not a new idea, but a good one.
FUTURE OF CONSTRUCTION