Education for Sustainability

This week AJ Footprint featured a series of views, including mine, on how architectural education should address sustainability. Unfortunately this feature does not appear on the AJ website so I cannot link to it. So here instead is the original text from before the editor’s scalpel was applied to fit it into a reduced space:

Clients often consider sustainability to be an optional feature. It isn’t. Government seems to think that BIM will drive sustainability. It won’t. I believe that teaching sustainability as separate subject matter in universities is nonsense and reinforces these “technological fix” fallacies.

For a sustainable future, I believe that we simply need to teach thinking. INTEGRATED, SUSTAINABLE, DESIGN, THINKING. This is the core of successful buildings: remember Vitruvius. Unfortunately, the complexity of modern buildings exceeds the expertise of any single profession to think through.

We must recognise that all components and systems of construction have a wide range of attributes, which must be managed simultaneously. For simple components cost and embodied carbon are clearly important, but so are attributes such as strength, insulation value, durability and manufacturing toxicity.

No single professional can manage all the attributes of even a simple component, such as a façade panel. Some will be expert in weathering, some in energy and some in deflection. Formulating designs based on a limited range of attributes, such as cost and appearance, is obsolete. We must instead collaborate across professions in order to optimise designs over the gamut of attributes.

In complex systems, including buildings, many other factors come into play, such as spatial organisation and human performance. Whilst concentrating on the environmental impacts of construction, to be sustainable we must focus equally on cost, operational efficiency and social benefits. We need a method to manage all these diverse issues in synchronicity.

If I could redesign education for sustainable construction I would teach all professions an awareness of the gamut of attributes that need to be managed and proficiency in DESIGN. Properly executed, design is the most powerful tool that we have for solving complex, multi-dimensional problems.

I would, however, teach these skills in an interdisciplinary context. I’d challenge professionals to apply their creativity to jointly solving real-life problems. Then they will evolve their own sustainable solutions rather than simply aping received wisdom. They’d also develop a healthy respect for the contribution of their peers.


Building Physics takes flight

I am really excited this month to have finally reached the point of establishing the Royal Academy of Engineering Centres of Excellence in Sustainable Building Design.

UK Construction is changing rapidly as the industry assimilates new requirements for sustainability and new working practices. The education of construction professionals is also under scrutiny for its relevance to this new paradigm. The Centres of Excellence in Sustainable Building Design will develop new research-led teaching for engineers. They will prepare engineering graduates to deliver the sustainable buildings the UK needs at substantially lower cost than is presently achieved.

This initiative stems from two reports that I wrote for the Royal Academy of Engineering: Engineering a Low Carbon Built Environment and The Case for Centres of Excellence in Sustainable Building Design.

The first of these set out the field of building physics as one of scientific investigation into building energy performance, distinct from the activities of thermal analysis and building services engineering. It argued that an understanding of building physics was essential to the creation of low cost, low carbon buildings that save energy through good design rather than ecobling. The second report set out the first ever econometric analysis of the benefits of engineering education. The proposition was that by changing construction engineering education we could influence change in the construction industry from the grassroots. Graduates trained in building physics, energy performance and systems engineering would be equipped to innovate and solve future problems through design rather than ecobling. We developed a model for Centres of Excellence in Sustainable Building Design and evaluated the impact of the potential graduates on UK construction. This showed that graduates from just four such centres could benefit the UK economy to the tune of billions of pounds.

Experimental Building Physics at the University of Bath

Practical experiments in Building Physics being conducted at the University of Bath

We have now completed the selection of the four universities to pilot the Centres of Excellence concept. Loughborough University, University College London, Sheffield University and Heriot Watt University are going to try out this model for us. The four universities will collaborate on delivering a common approach to interdisciplinary education for engineers while maintaining their own individual characters and interests. Our common aim is, as Prof. Chris Wise from UCL puts it so nicely, “to work together to grow the world’s best technological thinkers and practitioners in sustainable building design”.

With the level of enthusiasm for this change being shown by these universities I am feeling really optimistic for the future of sustainable construction in the UK for the first time in a while. Just imagine what could happen when the benefits in student recruitment and outcomes are demonstrated and the rest of the UK universities follow suit.

Fashion Not Function

The ridiculous fashion for urban wind turbines is still showing no sign of abating with the erection of BSkyB’s new turbine at its West London studio complex. Perhaps the continuing political insistence for ineffective on-site renewable generation is to blame. It is not just successive national governments and fashion-following local planning regulations, but all too often we find that corporates are now playing to the populism of green. This collective disregard for engineering reality forces building owners and developers to pay for sub-optimal solutions and forces architects and engineers to try and justify the essentially unjustifiable in defence of what has been forced on them. AJ Footprint 25th April

If you ask a primary school class where we should build wind turbines, the answers usually range from “on top of hills” to “out at sea”, anywhere it is windy. By the time those children arrive at the final year of their architectural degrees the answer has often become “attached to my building as an icon”.

Unfortunately the very nature of buildings is to disrupt the smooth flow of wind which is essential for efficient energy generation. The increased friction due to surface roughness in urban areas reduces the potential power in the wind dramatically. At the height of BSkyB’s turbine, it is only half that of rural areas. In city centres the power available may be just 15% of the open country equivalent (full explanation here).

This location effect is generally accounted for by applying a capacity factor to the theoretical maximum generation of a turbine. The rule of thumb for UK wind power is to assume a capacity factor of 30%-35% for good onshore installations. The generation figures quoted for BSkyB indicate a capacity factor of just less than 15%. Thus the same turbine, at the same cost, could generate more than twice as much electricity if it was not shackled to a building. This doubling in output would more than offset the grid distribution losses (around 6%) to deliver the electricity back to BSkyB in West London.

Two identical Enercon E70 Turbines. The one on the left produces 3.5GWh whilst the one on the right produces 5.7GWh.

Two identical Enercon E70 Turbines. The one on the left produces 3.5GWh pa whilst the one on the right produces 5.7GWh pa. The difference is due to surface friction.

Apart from the very obvious branding potential, urban wind turbines have little going for them. It is time that politicians, national, local and corporate, stopped interfering and let engineers and architects make the best technical systems decisions for genuinely sustainable development.

Imagine the Solutions

I’ve been thinking a lot about the benefit of design & imagination in construction education recently.

In my opinion the role of an engineering education is not only to teach graduates to think, but to inspire them with the endless possibilities of design. There are many sources of inspiration and whilst students usually reference cultural precedent in their design, resource efficiency is a key issue that can also inspire the imagination. If we equip students with knowledge of the issues and some basic techniques for resource efficient design we can leave it to their imagination to come up with designs that will enable society to solve the problems it faces.

We must however, teach sustainable design in an interdisciplinary manner as no single construction discipline has all the skills necessary to solve all the problems. Designing the buildings of the future will involve all the disciplines from the outset and we need to reflect this in education. I believe that it will become essential for architectural schools to build close relationships with engineering departments. Interdisciplinary teaching with experiential and peer promoted learning will raise the performance of architectural and engineering students alike.

Sustainable design is a philosophy, not a set of rules to stifle individual expression. Sustainability has to be integrated at every level of society from simple changes in individual behaviour to the large scale re-planning of our urban centres to cope with fuel depletion. I am confident that if we inspire future generations of students to think creatively about the problems that confront society, the solutions that they come up with will surprise us all.